- The transgender community faces unique challenges in the face of climate change and growing environmental issues.
- Following natural disasters, trans people, like many other marginalised communities, lose their livelihoods. But access to resources, food and jobs thereafter is more challenging for trans people.
- Air and water pollution impacts trans people, many of whom have undergone gender-specific surgeries and hormonal treatments.
Five years ago, Kalki Subramaniam, a Coimbatore-based climate activist, began raising awareness about the impacts of climate change and environmental pollution on transgender people.
Subramaniam is part of the growing number of South Asian trans activists leading intersectional climate change action, amidst political crackdowns, religious backlashes and major climate disasters that are deeply impacting the already marginalised community.
“So far, we’ve been dealing with problems tied to our very existence,” said Subramaniam, who pushes for all genders and sexual orientations to be represented in climate action. “I feel climate change will disrupt our lives further if we don’t step up now.”
The 2011 census estimated that 488,000 people identified as transgender. A significant number of this lives in slums and remote areas with limited access to resources and infrastructure. These areas are among the worst affected in the wake of floods, droughts or other environmental catastrophes. Talking to Mongabay-India, members of the trans community narrate that when extreme weather events hit, their homes and shops are often washed away. With their livelihoods impacted, many from the community resort to begging and sex work to make ends meet.
Their marginalisation also reflects in the challenges they face in recovery post an extreme weather event. Shelters often turn them away or they are denied access to food and resources that most others get access to, they say.
R. Karthika, also a trans person, used to run a tea shop in Chennai to make ends meet until the floods struck the city in 2015. It swept away Karthika’s shop. “Everything in my house was washed away,” she remembers. “I wanted to be a food entrepreneur but after the floods, I turned to begging and ritual blessings.”
Impacts of environmental pollution
Karthika stresses that aside from climate vulnerabilities, the community experiences the adverse impacts of environmental pollution caused by industries in remote and congested areas.
When you add the burden of climate change and environmental pollution, on an already marginalised community, the results are disastrous, says Dr. Vivek Dixit, an orthopaedic scientist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, who is a public health worker and environmental activist. Dixit led the trans community on a Yamuna river cleanliness drive two years ago.
Princey, who was also part of the drive, said the environment is closely tied to the health of the community since they spend a lot of time in the open and on the streets. “Air and water pollution affect us directly,” she said. Some of those involved in sex work are exposed to air and water pollution, while others face major problems post surgeries and hormonal treatments due to the pollution, said Princey. Those living in congested areas are susceptible to respiratory tract infection, and post-surgery repeated coughing causes herniation of the gut, haemorrhage or stitches giving way. Drinking polluted water leads to post-operative infections or water sometimes getting into the surgical site.
Many from the community spend time outdoors or out on the streets and don’t have structured workspaces. They are susceptible to heat strokes and other weather-related ailments, added Dr. Subhrojyoti Bhowmick, clinical director at the Peerless Hospital, Kolkata.
Trans climate activists spearheading solutions in India
Faced with unique challenges as extreme weather events and their impacts increase, trans people are now moving the narrative away from the focus on their social and economic marginalisation to the impact of climate change and the environment on their lives and livelihoods.
Subramaniam recently delivered a series of talks at universities in the U.S., including Harvard, Cornell and Yale, last October about the trans community in India, their stigmatization, and their potential role in climate activism. At home, Subramaniam founded the Sahodari Foundation in 2008 to empower the trans community through art, writing, films and other creative projects. She is now planning a series of workshops on environmental justice.
Activist Ranjita Sinha, who runs a shelter for abandoned trans persons in Kolkata, spearheads campaigns rallying around water. “At our shelter, it’s not just about providing a conducive environment,” said Sinha. “I also speak to them about saving groundwater and working for a greener planet.” Sinha has been joining hands with private organizations to spread awareness about environmental sustainability.
Transwoman Sowndharya Gopi has been partnering with grassroots-level groups in Chennai, where members of the trans community are getting involved in environment-related jobs. “Some of us are working as volunteers in cleaning lakes in Pollachi,” she says. “Others have been hired as civic workers in the Greater Chennai Corporation.”
Subramaniam, who works closely with Gopi, says they want to gather more testimonials from the community about their experiences of battling climate change. Through these testimonials they hope to get the attention of climate experts as well as the government who in turn will be encourage to create policies that are trans-sensitive. She also wants these testimonials to speak for other marginalized sections of society in South Asia that are affected by climate change and environmental issues.
Subramaniam emphasises that policymakers must include transgender welfare in their climate change policies, which includes protection of transgender people in the wake of environmental disasters, livelihood sustainability post famines, droughts and other natural calamities and have these policies discussed on a global platform.
She also hopes to discuss cross-border initiatives to spotlight the experiences of trans people in slums, streets and relief camps during climate disasters. “I have a larger responsibility as an activist and human being,” she says. “I want to galvanize our communities and play a much stronger role in saving our planet.”
Climate impacts trans people across the border
In Pakistan, impacts of climate change, such as the floods in late 2022, have spurred the transgender community to come together to push for climate action as well as support the community members affected by these weather events.
During the floods, many trans people were shunned by their families and left to fend for themselves, Sana Ahmed, a monitoring and evaluation officer at Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), said. “Transgenders in flood-affected areas were refused aid by some organisations,” said Ahmed. They resorted to begging as they don’t get jobs easily and are turned away from work,” Ahmed added.
“We know women are the worst hit during natural disasters, but they are not deprived of basics like food and shelter,” Ahmed said. “Transgenders are entirely ignored, as we saw in these floods.”
“When we were contacted by transgenders from Sukkur and Larkana in Sindh (who were affected by the floods) we had to quickly arrange funds,” said Ahmed. “One member of the trans community set up an app to collect funds and attract people’s attention.”
This story was part of a cross-border reporting workshop organised by the U.S.-based East-West Center.
Banner image: Transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam (middle) with activists Sowndharya Gopi (left) and R Karthika (right) at a gender and climate meet in Coimbatore, last September. Photo by Ezhil.