NEW DELHI — India's top court on Tuesday issued a landmark verdict recognizing transgender rights as human rights, saying people can identify themselves as a third gender on official documents.
The Supreme Court directed the federal and state governments to include transgendered people in all welfare programs for the poor, including education, health care and jobs to help them overcome social and economic challenges. Previously, transgendered Indians could only identify themselves as male or female in all official documents.
The decision was praised as giving relief to the estimated 3 million Indians who are transgender.
The court noted that it was the right of every human being to choose their gender while granting rights to those who identify themselves as neither male nor female.
"All documents will now have a third category marked 'transgender.' This verdict has come as a great relief for all of us. Today I am proud to be an Indian," said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender activist who, along with a legal agency, had petitioned the court.
The court's decision would apply to individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
"The spirit of the (Indian) Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender," the court said in its order.
The Supreme Court specified its ruling would only apply to transgender people but not to gays, lesbians or bisexuals. India's LGBT communities have been protesting the court's recent decision to reinstate a colonial-era law banning gay sex, which they say will make them vulnerable to police harassment.
The court also ordered the government to put in place public awareness campaigns to lessen the social stigma against transgender people.
Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan told the court that the "recognition of transgender (people) as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue."
"Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights," he said.
The court ruled that transgender people would have the same right to adopt children as other Indians.
The court said any person who underwent surgery to change his or her sex would be entitled to be legally recognized as belonging to the gender of their choice.
The apex court also ordered state governments to construct separate public toilets for transgender people and create health departments to take care of their medical problems.
Recently, India's Election Commission for the first time allowed a third gender choice — "other" — on voter registration forms. The change was made in time for the national elections being held in phases through May 12.
Some 28,000 voters registered themselves in that category.
Many transgendered men in India earn a living by singing and dancing at weddings and births, but others must resort to begging or prostitution.