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'Third sex' finds a place on Indian passport forms

Gender-sensitivity within the Indian bureaucracy has taken a small step, with eunuchs being given the option to enter their sex as 'E' instead of either 'M' or 'F' in passport application forms on the Net

Eunuchs as a social grouping have for the first time found a place in official Indian government forms, with the provision of a 'third sex' category on Indian passport applications, say gender rights activists. However, while the activists welcome the move, they say that the use of the word 'eunuch' ignores the existence of other transgenders.

On www.passport.nic.in -- the passport office website run by the Indian ministry of external affairs -- the prospective applicant encounters an option, under the category 'sex', not included in any other government form. Under 'rules', the applicant is invited to click either 'M' (for male) or 'F' (for female) as his/her gender. Following this comes the instruction: "For eunuch, please write 'E' in the box."

Ambivalence about this gender category remains, however. The new third option appears to have been furtively slipped into the instructions on the website; it is not available on the application form itself. In column 3 of the form, against which the instruction is issued, a person can choose only between 'M' and 'F'.

Still the inclusion of the 'E' category, even if only on the website's form, is being seen as a huge victory by activists working for the rights of transgender people.

Ashok Row Kavi, whose Mumbai-based non-government organisation Humsafar works with the country's largely marginalised and stigmatised transgender population, including eunuchs, stresses that the 'E' on the passport form is a significant step for the 25 to 30 million transgender people in the country. "This is the first time that any official document has recognised them as a sex. They are a huge minority and this means that they are being taken into account."

Kavi adds: "Eunuchs are extremely uncomfortable when asked to put their gender down as male or female." But, he says, instead of 'eunuch' the new category should have been 'transgender', as eunuchs represent only one part of the transgender population that includes transsexuals and hermaphrodites.

Kavi is critical of the fact that the actual form made no mention of the 'E' category, saying it was symptomatic of the way government institutions function, especially when dealing with sensitive issues. "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."

The government's decision, Kavi says, is the result of long years of hard work on "sensitising" officials and organisations. "Our organisation, along with Lawyers' Collective, another NGO, met officials from the National Human Rights Commission and representatives from the health ministry two years ago," he says. "We stressed the importance of having a provision outside the male and female categories, as it is important for their recognition."

Campaigners say they don't know how the decision came about in the ministry. "We were not intimated about anything by any official. It's the transgender people we work with who came across the provision on the website," said Vivek Diwan from Lawyers' Collective. Diwan echoed Kavi's stand on the name given to the category, saying he would have been happier if the word chosen was not 'eunuch': "Eunuch as a category is not particularly satisfying," Diwan observed.

Source: The Telegraph, March 10, 2005