Kalki Subramaniam decided five years ago it was time for transgender people to speak out against climate change.
At a visit to the Aliyar Reservoir in Tamil Nadu, she saw garbage and plastic being dumped at a place that had been a green, peaceful haven for the transgender woman in her youth. It felt like a warning of what could happen to the transgender community in a world increasingly stressed by climate change.
Today, Subramaniam is at the forefront of climate-resilient action by the trans community in India. She’s just completed a series of talks at universities in the U.S. about the trans community in India, their stigmatization, and the role they can play in fighting climate change. At home, Subramaniam founded the Sahodari Foundation in 2008 to empower the trans community through art, writing, films and other projects. She’s now including a series of workshops on environmental justice.
“So far, we’ve been dealing with problems tied to our very existence,” said the effervescent Subramaniam, who pushes for all genders and sexual orientations to be represented in the climate fight. “I feel climate change will disrupt our lives further if we don’t step up now.”
Trans activists like Subramamiam across South Asia are becoming leaders in the intersectional fight against climate change, even as transgender communities around the world are suffering amid political crackdowns, religious backlashes and major climate disasters that push these already marginalized communities to the brink.
In India and Pakistan, transgender persons—a highly stigmatized group—are not only activating their communities against climate change but are also joining rallies and campaigns to spread awareness despite discrimination, censuring and arrests. They are bringing into sharper focus the plight of the most vulnerable in environmental catastrophes, and raising questions about climate justice.
Trans climate activists are also on the rise in neighbouring Pakistan, which recently suffered devastating floods. Bindiya Rana, an activist based in Karachi, said: “Despite the threats to our existence, we will raise our voices wherever we can–including climate change and its disproportionate impact on sexual minorities.”
Climate change pushing trans community to the margins
In both these countries, the transgender community is denied access to health and welfare benefits, social security and jobs. They are also subjected to physical, emotional and verbal violence.
The lack of opportunities leads to a cyclical form of exclusion from benefits and acceptance. When pushed to the margins, some resort to begging and sex work to stay afloat.
“When you add the burden of climate change on an already cornered people, the results are disastrous,” says Dr. Vivek Dixit, an orthopaedic scientist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi who led the community on a Yamuna River clean-up drive last year.
Natural calamities disproportionately affect transgender people who live in slum and remote areas with poor sanitary conditions, lack of proper housing and access to resources.
In the wake of floods, droughts and epidemics. their meagre opportunities shrink even more.
Subramaniam’s friend R. Karthika 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 and with that her dreams.
“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.”
Karthika said besides climate vulnerabilities, the community has to fight environmental pollution caused by industries and big businesses in remote and congested areas.
But the challenges faced by the community are even more daunting in Pakistan.
Reports of violence against transgender people have risen after the historic Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was passed in Pakistan 2018. Since then, a major religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been using this law to spread misinformation about the community.
“There has been an alarming increase in attacks against them in Pakistan in the last few years,” said Zehrish Khan, a volunteer with Gender Interactive Alliance in Karachi (GIA). “The number of transgenders killed has been highest in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.”
In interior Sindh and Balochistan, where sexual violence against the community is very high, activist Rana has helped set up free medical camps for women and children.
Sana Ahmed, a monitoring and evaluation officer at GIA, said climate change affects the doubly marginalized transgender community that lives on the margins.
Shahzadi Rai, a transgender activist, collaborated with left political and religious parties to organize a major climate march in Karachi last December against the destruction of agricultural land for mega housing projects. However, as things turned out, Shahzadi didn’t attend.
“We were getting a lot of threats on phones and messages and warned not to attend,” said Shahzadi. “And then one day before the march, one of my friends was abducted and raped. So we didn’t attend.”
Media reports documented how a transgender activist was picked up by law enforcement and allegedly tortured and raped in the guise of interrogation about the funding of the march.
Despite the threats, Shahzadi held a press conference at Karachi Press Club. After the march, she said threats have only increased.
“We lost a lot of allies after this, as people are afraid,” Shahzadi said. “We are being questioned why we are working with left parties on climate change and other issues like this.”
Speaking up, especially if one is from a marginalized and vulnerable community, is dangerous in itself. Shahzadi and the others have felt it close up.
Shahzadi said she had to leave Karachi because things were becoming quite bad. People have come to her house and staked out a park that she used to frequent. Some contacted her conservative, Muslim family. “Most of my family has broken ties with me, except for my mother and sister. My mother told me to leave as these people have talked to my brother, and now he is angry as he thinks it has become a matter of honour – thereby dangerous for me.”
So-called “honour killings” of transgender people is a serious crime which puts many lives in danger. Honour killing is mostly the murder of a female of any age by her male family members – fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins – who justify this act by claiming that the victim had brought dishonour to the family name or prestige.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) more than 470 cases of honour killings were reported in Pakistan in 2021. However, human rights defenders estimate the number of murders in the name of honour to be more than 1000 women every year.
Even during the recent floods in Pakistan where over 33 million people were affected, Ahmed said trans people were shunned by their families and left to fend for themselves.
“Transgenders in flood-affected areas have been refused aid by some organizations. They are extremely marginalized and vulnerable. They resort to begging as they are not considered or encouraged to work to earn a living,” said Ahmed.
Transgender people are persona non-grata, and some families don’t consider helping or supporting them in the worst of disasters.
“We know women are marginalized and vulnerable in many ways and are the worst hit during natural disasters. But being part of a family unit, they are not deprived of basics like food and shelter,” Sana added. “But transgenders are ignored, as we have seen in these floods. Most of them have been shunned by family, and nothing changes for them during such extraordinary times.”
“During floods or droughts the depressed areas are the worst affected,” said Subramaniam. “Even relief is hard to come because of mass-scale displacement of the community.”
The Coimbatore-based activist raised some of these issues last September at a gender and climate meet organized by the Sahodari Foundation to empower the transgender community. In a city where trans activists are slowly banding together on climate change, the conference attracted activists, journalists and students.
“Do we have any representation from sexual minorities in global climate summits like COP26?” Subramaniam asked a 50-member audience curious about the role of the transgender community in climate activism. “In the face of natural calamities we’ll go 20 steps down if we don’t act now.”
Fighting climate injustice and working for change
The devastating floods in Pakistan that swept away hundreds of homes and submerged swathes of the South Asian nation, spurred the transgender community to rally together.
“When we were contacted by transgenders from Sukkur and Larkana in Sindh we had to quickly arrange funds,” said Ahmed. “One member of the trans community set up an app to collect funds and bring people’s attention to their plight.”
In Eastern India, too, water has been the rallying point. Activist Ranjita Sinha, who runs a shelter home for abandoned trans persons in Kolkata, spearheads many of these campaigns.
“At our shelter home, 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.”
With support from the government meagre, Sinha has been joining hands with some private organizations to spread awareness about environmental sustainability.
Shyamal Ghosh, a corporate communications officer at Suez India Private Limited in Kolkata, has been working with the trans community over the last three years on water conservation.
“We want more transgenders to power our campaigns,” Ghosh says, “The fore-fronting of the community will not only break society’s stereotypes about sexual minorities but also help in our common fight against climate change.”
Dixit, who led the Yamuna River clean-up last year, said over 50 activists joined him to clean out dumped waste using brooms, shovels and other cleaning accessories.
“We inspired ordinary people to join our cause,” says Alina, a trans program manager at the Delhi-based civil rights group Aarohan, which took part in the Yamuna campaign.
Activist Princey who was also part of the clean-up, 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. “Those involved in sex work have to look for clients in dingy neighbourhoods, and others have to be careful after their hormonal treatments when bodies become more vulnerable.”
Transwoman Sowndharya Gopi has been partnering with private organizations in Chennai where the climate crisis has generated new jobs.
“Some of us are working as volunteers in cleaning lakes in Pollachi,” she says. “Still others have been hired as civic workers in the Greater Chennai Corporation.”
Subramaniam, who works closely with Sowndharya, says they want to gather more testimonials from the community about their experiences of battling climate change. They also want to initiate disaster management training for their vulnerable community.
“People are curious about what the trans people think and speak about,” they said. “This will help us not only sensitize the public but also deliver positive messages.”
The curiosity about the community helped the trans activists amplify their message of climate resilient practices during their village walks in Pollachi over the last three years.
During these walks, they helped raise the pitch for water conservation, saving electricity and use of public transportation. They also distributed cloth bags and saplings among people.
Subramaniam has been persistently vocal even during her global travels.
On her trip to the United States last October, she spoke at various leading universities such as Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Rutgers about how more marginalized people such as transgenders, refugees and indigenous people can lend their voices to climate reform.
She not only wants to sensitize the community but also wants policymakers to include transgender welfare in their climate change policies. At conferences and meetings, she says she wants to discuss cross-border initiatives to spotlight their common struggles in slums, streets and relief camps in the wake of climate disasters.
To get it all started, Subramaniam held an online meet on December 17 to gather testimonials from the community about the effects of climate change on their lives.
“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.”
This report was part of a cross-border reporting workshop organised by the U.S.-based East-West Center.