Tessy James v. The Director General of Police, Thiruvananthapuram and Ors. W.P. Crl. No. 215/2018

On the 12th of June, 2018, a division bench of the Kerala High Court upheld the fundamental right of a transgender person to speech and expression, and free movement.[1] However, arguably, it did so after psychologically evaluating whether the transgender person was really transgender. In this blog, I will argue that: 1. The NALSA[2] judgment provided for the self-identification of gender identity regardless of sex-reassignment surgery and psychological evaluation, and 2. This judgment’s reliance on psychological tests for the accepting the gender identity of the transgender person violated NALSA, and consequently, the law of the land on this subject.

FACTS OF THE CASE

The writ was filed by the mother of Abby James (who now identified as Arundhati) alleging that Arundhati was being held by some transgender persons. The writ prayed that she be set at liberty. According to her mother, Arundhati had previously been diagnosed with mood disorder and psychotic features and had received treatment at a hospital. The present fact situation that brought her before the court was that Arundhati had left the parental home on the 9th of May, 2018 and had not returned. She also showed no indication of returning. She had begun to dress as a woman and kept company with some transgender persons. Her mother was concerned about her physical safety as she feared Arundhati was exposing herself to the risk of “physical abuse and organ transplant.” Additionally, she also could not bear the sight of her son dressed “in the robes of a woman.” Arundhati appeared before the High Court and asserted her gender identity as transgender and also stated that she was not mentally unfit. However, given her past psychiatric history, her mother prayed that the court order a medical evaluation of her mental condition. The court so ordered and the medical report found that Arundhati was mentally competent and had no mood disorder or hallucinations etc. Accordingly, the court ordered that Arundhati was free to identify as transgender and keep what company she wanted. The pleas of the mother to have her returned to the parental home away from the transgender community were trumped by Arundhati’s fundamental right[3] to “live as a transgender.” [para 6].

  1. THE NALSA CASE AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EXAM

The NALSA case found that all fundamental rights guaranteed under the Indian constitution extend to transgender persons as well. It was clear from the directions passed by the Supreme Court in this case that sex re-assignment surgery cannot be made a pre-requisite for identifying as transgender. The court stated, “any insistence for SRS for declaring one’s gender is immoral and illegal.” [Direction 5, NALSA].

However, the scope of psychological exam for declaring one’s gender identity is purportedly uncertain in this judgment. I have argued before that NALSA does not require such an exam. The whole thrust of the judgment is on self-identification and any mention of psychology in it is in reference to the psyche of the person, or the internal, deeply felt gender identity which does not require a doctor’s agreement. In the interest of fullness, I produce that argument below. It first featured in the K. Gowtham Subramaniyam blogpost in December, 2017.

The requirement of doctors, both medical and psychological, is without basis in the NALSA judgment. NALSA relies on self- determination rendering a medical or psychological opinion on whether a person really is transgender, unnecessary. While NALSA’s reliance on the phrase “psychological test” may lead some to believe that transgender persons can be made to undergo a psychological exam to corroborate the fact of their gender identity, the judgment, if read in full, arguably uses the phrase “psychological test” to refer to the internal self- belief of a person, a belief in the realm of the psyche, and not an actual psychological test understood in clinical terms. See especially, Justice Radhakrishnan’s explicit statement that, “[d]etermination of gender to which a person belongs is to be decided by the person concerned.” [Page 84]. His mention of the psychological test must be read in light of this statement. Moreover, the judgment never identifies the role of a psychologist or psychiatrist while upholding the right to self- determined gender. The only instance of the usage of the word psychiatrist in the judgment is by Justice Sikri when he is describing what sex re-assignment surgery entails. He also arguably does not identify the role of a psychiatrist or a psychologist in gender identity because he bases his judgment on the fundamental principle of an individual’s “right to choose” [page 91]. Finally, the Supreme Court’s direction 2 clearly states that a transgender person’s right to self identified gender is upheld, placing the obligation on the government to provide legal recognition in accordance. A psychological or psychiatrist exam would militate against very spirit of a self identified gender identity.

Before proceeding to the next segment, we might remind ourselves that as per Article 141 of the Indian constitution, “the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India.” This means that the Kerala High Court was bound to follow the Supreme Court’s finding that a psychological exam was not a pre-requisite to identifying with a particular gender.

  1. THE PRESENT CASE AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATION

In the present case, the High Court ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Arundhati. However, the circumstances in which this evaluation was ordered are vital here. Arundhati had previously been treated for mental illness. The court ruminated on the prayer by the mother to order a psychiatric evaluation. It considered whether it would be overreach for it to do so and whether its Parens Patriae jurisdiction [loosely, “in the place of a parent”] empowered it to do so. Relying on a recent exposition of this jurisdiction by the Supreme Court, the court found that Parens Patriae can be invoked in cases where a person suffers from mental incompetency. Finding that Arundhati had had a history of mental illness for which she had also received treatment, it felt empowered to order a psychiatric and psychological medical examination of her mental health. The court was cognizant of the fact that ordering such an exam may violate Arundhati’s right to live with dignity but went ahead and did that “only because it was alleged that he is a psychiatric patient.” [para 4].

Now, one may take a pause here. Up to this point, arguably, the court has not violated NALSA. It has ordered a mental health exam but for reasons different from assessing the truth of Arundhati’s claim. However, what follows next arguably reverses this course. It appears that the court had ordered a medical exam not only regarding the mental fitness of Arundhati but regarding her claim that she is transgender. This can be gathered from the fact that the medical exam not only finds that Arundhati suffers from no mental infirmity; it also concludes that she, in the words of the court, “fits the label ‘transgender’ as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (2013).”[4] Moreover, the medical report diagnoses her for gender dysphoria and the court places reliance on this medical finding. Any doubt in this matter is dispelled by the following statement of the High Court”

“The self identification of the detenu as a transgender is clearly expressed by speech, mannerism, clothing etc. which we noticed during our interaction and [is] fortified by the medical report.” [para 6].

This statement strongly suggests that the court was relying not on the self-identification of Arundhati as transgender alone but also on medical report which found that she “fit” the criteria of transgender. In ordering that the scope of the mental evaluation exceed a finding of fitness and encapsulate a test as to whether Arundhati is actually transgender, the Kerala High Court violated NALSA which is the law of the land. It also reversed the trend of cases on self-identification of transgender persons by ordering a psychiatric evaluation. In the cases on gender identification which have come up after NALSA, courts have hitherto never ordered such a psychiatric evaluation. See the K. Gowtham Subramaniyam blogpost for a table of cases in which gender identity of transgender persons was the main issue, post NALSA. It could very well be that the reasons for not ordering such a test were circumstantial rather than conscious in those cases as in all but one[5] instance, the claimant had undergone sex re-assignment surgery and had a certificate from the doctor declaring transgender status. Notwithstanding, this judgment may have made some illegal and undesirable inroads into the hard won rights of the transgender population.

[1] The Constitution of India, 1950. See, specifically, Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(d).

[2] National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and Ors. W.P. (Civil) No. 400/2012.

[3] This fundamental right was recognized under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution.

[4] Para 5.

[5] Shivani Bhat v. NCT of Delhi and Ors. W.P. (Crl.) No. 2133/2015. In this case, the judgment does not mention a sex re-assignment surgery or any transgender certificate.

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