NEW DELHI - India's highest court ruled Tuesday that a person can be legally recognised as gender-neutral, a landmark judgement that raises hopes of an end to discrimination against several million transgenders and eunuchs.
The Supreme Court also said transgenders should be included in government welfare schemes offered to other minority groups in a bid to pull them out of the impoverished margins of Indian society.
"Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights," Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan told the court while handing down the ruling.
"Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," said Radhakrishnan, who headed a two-judge bench on the case.
The case was filed in 2012 by a group of petitioners including prominent eunuch and activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi seeking recognition for the transgender population and equal rights under the law.
Transgenders and eunuchs or hijras - a term for cross-dressers and men who have been castrated - often live on the extreme fringes of India's culturally conservative society.
Transgenders are often seen as inauspicious and even cursed in traditional Hindu culture. Many resort to prostitution, begging or menial jobs that leave them mired in poverty.
The ruling, hailed as landmark by activists, comes just months after the same court reinstated a ban on gay sex and sparked accusations it was dragging the country back to the 19th century.
- 'Proud to be Indian' -
"Today, for the first time I feel very proud to be an Indian," activist Tripathi told reporters outside the court.
"Today my sisters and I feel like real Indians and we feel so proud because of the rights granted to us by the Supreme Court."