On Jan. 9, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled to include the lab “transgender” as an option in the national census. At the same time, United States then-President-elect Donald Trump was assembling a Cabinet largely composed of people — mostly straight, white men — opposed to LGBTQ rights.
Pakistan has earned a reputation for being socially regressive, systematically marginalizing women and minorities. It was ranked second-to-last in the World Economic Forum‘s 2016 gender gap index — worse than Syria. What’s more, Pakistan remains one of the 74 countries where being gay is punishable by death.
Yet, the Pakisani government chose to recognize transgender people in its census before the U.S. did. And it’s an omission that shines a light on American institutionalized biases when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We are glad that we will be counted as will be other people,” Almas Bobby, a transgender rights activist in Pakistan, told Reuters. “Hope we get equal citizenship and equal status.”
“In Pakistan, [the ruling] is especially wonderful because there is still so much stigma for the [the trans] population,” Kwatra said. “But it’s important to note: I dont think trans men can access trans recognition.”
Indeed, Pakistan’s trans community — certainly the visible branch of it — is comprised almost exclusively of trans women. Kwatra references the established social caste trans women have belonged to for hundreds of years, meaning the Supreme Court‘s decision is a de facto victory for trans women alone.
“Here people just don’t know [about trans men],” Mani, a trans man in Pakistan, told the Huffington Post while describing the enormous prejudices he faces. “And if people do know about transgender, all they know is that it means they’re khawaja siras.”
“Khawaja siras” is the historical term for the Indian subcontinent’s transgendr women, more commonly referred to now as khusra or hijra. Hijras can be castrated, intersex or transgender. They have been a publicly recognized stratum of South Asian society for centuries.
Historically, hijras occupied a high social standing. They were revered in aincient Hindu scripture, and they had access to the royal court during the Mughal empire, a Muslim dynasty from the 16th century to the 19th century. Hijras also functioned as guards to the monarch’s harem.
But British colonization of the Indian subcontinent in the mid-19th centurty brought with it repressive laws. As part of this new social order, the empire criminalized many aspects of hijras’ life and culture.
And so began the marginalization of hijras, who have since lived in the periphery. Even after British colonialism ended, the damage had been done: While hijras remained a fixture in South Asian culture, they have become second-class citizens with their own subculture. Today, they mostly make money by begging, performing — mostly dancing — and through sex work.
Bihar, a state in India, came up with a creative solution to the economic hardship many hijras face. The state government at one point hired hijras to embarrass tax evaders into paying up. Hijras would advance toward the targeted individual and dance and sing about paying taxes, a method that proved to be remarkably successful. Hijras received 4% of all paid taxes they persuaded people to pay.
Given how entrenched the hijra culture is in South Asian society, the decision of the Pakistani Supreme Court to count hijras in the census is perhaps not so surprising. While thy have generally been discriminated against, there is growing support for affording the community equal rights — the tide in Pakistan is slowly shifting.
“They should always have been included,” 56-year-old Pakistani Ansa Rehmatullah said in a phone interview. “They have a right to be included in society — they didn’t choose to be born this way and I dont believe it contradicts anything in Islam to give them human dignity.”
“There are so many little indignities endured by the minority community day in and day out,” Rehmatullah explained. “The [LGBTQ] community is getting organized and maybe they can finally get some change, and people can understand they are not a threat. They should not have to live in fear — no one should have to.”
There is great value to including a third gender to the census. The very act of recognizing an identity or group makes it that much harder to deny that group basic rights — a subject of increasing concern as countries develop.
“Issues related to the rights of persons belonging to minorities may be found in nearly every human rights instrument and forum,” the United Nations’ human rights agency states.
There is also quantifiable value to census data. It helps serve different communities by allowing the government to more fully understand their circumstances. If one demographic is being routinely denied economic opportunities, for example, or only has access to substandard education, the government can divert resources to address such problems.
“In any state or country, recognizing identities is a really positive step because having any kind of data collection leads to proper policy development and understanding what a population needs — like increasing health care,” Kwatra said.
Former director of the U.S. Census Bureau Kenneth Prewitt, who is currently the Carnegie professor of public affairs and the vice president for global centers at Columbia University, believes now is not an opportune time to include questions of sexual orientation and gender identity on the American Census.
Prewitt also served as director of the National Opinion Research Center and president of the Social Science Research Council, among a number of other roles.
“This is probably not the optimum time to experiment with new and innovative census questions on topics that will be viewed as ‘political’ more than immediately programatic,” Prewitt wrote in an email.
“The primary purpose of census statistics is to assist the government as it administers programs based on congressional responsibilities — starting with the fundamental principle of drawing election boundaries that guarantee one person, one vote, and representation proportionate to population size,” he added.
Furthermore, collecting data on minority populations might not be as useful as people think it could be, according to a Census Bureau presentation from September. Even a “low rate of random error in a large group” can completely throw off the numbers for smaller groups.
The Census Bureau uses collecting data on same-sex couples as one such example. With around 56 million heterosexual couples and 400,000 same-sex couples, even a small number of the former mismarking their forms could completely skew the data for the latter.
Still, the United States’ decision thus far to not include a third gender identity on its census — especially as it has moved to include same-sex couples — looks even more stark when compared to Pakistan’s change.
The decision in Pakistan is by no means an ideal — the failure to recognize transgender men remains a clear shortcoming of the development — but it’s a step in the right direction.
Mic reached out to the Census Bureau, which did not follow through with a request for comment. But, according to the September presentation, the bureau “has started cognitive testing of sexual orientation and gender identity with a focus on proxy response” for its population survey.