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K. Gowtham Subramaniyam v. Controller of Examination Anna University W.P. No. 7536/2017

On the 1st of June, 2017, a single judge bench of the Madras High Court directed Anna University to change the name and sex in the records of the petitioner, a transgender man. In this post, I will summarize the case with a focus on the different medical processes “on account of” which the court passed this direction. Additionally, I will seek to demonstrate that:

  1. In the reported cases post NALSA which require a determination of gender identity for the allocation of rights, courts have usually relied on sex re-assignment surgery (SRS)[1] and anatomical approximation post SRS, but not on psychological tests.
  2. Government departments in different states do not follow any uniform procedure though it is not unlikely that the department may ask for a SRS certificate.
  3. The Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 [“2016 Bill”] has the potential to turn the NALSA self- determination principle on its head by empowering a District Magistrate and a screening committee to certify whether a person is transgender.
  1. MEDICAL PROCEDURES UNDERTAKEN IN THE PRESENT CASE

The petitioner, assigned gender female at birth, “always felt and lived like a man”, as the High Court put it. He underwent the following gender affirmative procedures:

  1. A gender identity disorder diagnosis
  2. Hormone replacement therapy
  3. Psychological testing and certification declaring petitioner fit for surgery
  4. SRS

He received a certificate from the doctors after the surgery attesting to the fact that the petitioner was transgender and had undergone SRS. After these procedures, the petitioner changed his name to K. Gowtham and issued a public notice to the effect by a publication in the in the Tamil Nadu Gazette. He also obtained an Aadhar card in his male name. Thereafter, he made a written representation to Anna University to change his name. The University, citing lack of provision or precedent to effect the change, required that the petitioner present a transgender certificate from the District Magistrate, per the proposed 2016 Bill.

The High Court found that “on account” of the SRS and the subsequent doctor certificates, the petitioner, “has become a complete male.” [para 2]. Accordingly, the High Court directed the university to change the name and sex on the records and certificates of the petitioner.

  1. THE COURT’S RELIANCE ON MEDICAL PROCEDURES IS IN VIOLATION OF THE LAW

Not only does the High Court rely on the SRS and medical certificates, it also presumably relies on the anatomical correctness of the post-surgery sex organs when it declares that, “the petitioner has become a complete male.” This judgment doubly violates NALSA by: 1. Granting the prayer arguably only on terms ruled illegal by NALSA (the SRS); and 2. Going a step further to presumably see how successful the surgeries had been in replicating the male anatomy.

  1. THE COURT’S RELIANCE ON THE ANATOMICAL SUCCESS OF THE OPERATION IS INCORRECT IN LAW

Arguably, the court’s declaration that the petitioner had become a “complete man” per medical certificates weighed on its decision to declare that the petitioner’s records be changed. I have argued above that such reliance is illegal as per NALSA.

However, this decision needs to be seen in the light of another development as well. The procedure laid down by the 2016 Bill for the recognition of a person as transgender has the potential to become heavily medicalized, in contravention of the NALSA ruling. Whereas the thrust of the NALSA judgment was on self- determination, the proposed Bill empowers the District Magistrate (DM) to certify whether a person is transgender (Ss.4-8). Though the full procedure of how this shall be done has not been laid out in the Bill, the composition of the District Screening Committee on whose recommendations the DM will certify, may give us some indications. The committee shall comprise:

  1. A Chief Medical Officer;
  2. Social welfare officer;
  3. Psychologist or psychiatrist;
  4. Representative of transgender community;
  5. A government officer.

The requirement of doctors, both medical and psychological, is without any 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. Justice Radhakrishnan’s mention of a psychological test must be read in light of his explicit statement that, “Determination of gender to which a person belongs is to be decided by the person concerned.” [Page 84]. 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 SRS 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. The reported judgments post NALSA seem to have understood this requirement correctly. Either deliberately or inadvertently, they have not required the results of a psychological exam before upholding the rights of a petitioner to self identity as transgender, even as they have required proof of SRS, and a “successful” SRS to grant these rights [See table 1].

TABLE 1

POST NALSA CASES IN WHICH THE DETERMINATION OF GENDER IDENTITY IS IN ISSUE

In this table, I have excluded cases in which the court incorrectly equated intersex with transgender and intersex claimants did not seek to identify in a gender different from that assigned at birth.  Additionally, I have excluded cases in which the determination of the transgender identity of the parties is not a legal issue.

 

Case Reliance on SRS Reliance on Anatomical Resemblance Reliance on Psychological Exam
Shivani Bhat

 

(Delhi HC)

No No No
Shivam Santosh Dewagan

 

(Chhattisgarh HC)

Yes Yes No
K. Gowtham

 

(Mad. HC)

Yes Yes No
Prithika Yashini

(Mad. HC)

Yes Arguably No but details of medical certificates examined are not reproduced in judgment. No
S. Swapna

(Mad. HC)

Yes Id. No

Additionally, it is not uncommon for government departments to ask for SRS, as reported online or shared on listservs. See table in this Doc. This table also demonstrates that it is unclear what additional documents transgender applicants need to produce in addition to the published procedure.

In the present case, the court did not pay heed to the university’s demand for a DM certificate because the 2016 Bill has not yet become law. However, the section, if passed, may cause the right of a transgender person to self identify to change hands and become the right of the DM to identify a transgender person. This section has faced stiff opposition from activists, lawyers and scholars working in the field. See, for example, this collection of critiques of the 2016 Bill. If the 2016 Bill passes in its current form, it is very likely that the principle of self-determination of gender identity will have little or no meaning; doctors of the body and mind will make these decisions in scenes that will remind us of Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic.

 

[1] A recent study has suggested that the term Gender Affirmative Surgery better signifies how transgender persons experience this surgery. However, for the present blog, I use the term SRS for reading consistency between court rulings and my critiques because the courts have been using SRS.

I am grateful to Dr. L. Ramakrishnan (Ramki) for extensive discussions around this blog and for pointing me to the collection of critiques of the 2016 Bill. Ramki is the Vice-President at SAATHII, a public health non- profit, and volunteers at Orinam, a volunteer collective with extensive internet resources on the queer movement in India.