Soniya Pandey was struck by surprise as she saw a WhatsApp forward one afternoon in June 2019. Someone had leaked her application asking her employer, the Indian Railways, to change her name and gender in official records, along with two photos from before and after her sex-change operation. “I pulled up a few of them who were forwarding the message,” she told me. “But how many people could I stop? It was going viral across the country, in the social-media circles of railway groups. So I let it be.”
Formerly known as Rajesh Kumar Pandey, Soniya is a 35-year-old transwoman from the Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. She underwent a sex-change operation in December 2017, after years of struggling with gender dysphoria and feeling like an outsider in her own body. Pandey submitted the application a couple of months later. The northeastern branch of the Indian Railways was not prepared for her request—there was no official procedure to deal with an employee wishing to change their gender. She was instead questioned for not taking permission prior to the sex-change operation. “They told me they didn’t know what to do next,” she said.
After not receiving any response on her first application, she submitted another one in April 2018, with which she attached a copy of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 judgment in National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India, which gave legal recognition to persons who identified themselves outside of the male–female binary. “As a fortiori we have to recognize the right of a human being to choose his sex/gender identity which … is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination dignity and freedom,” the judgment stated. Pandey also attached a copy of Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination in public institutions on the basis of sex, among other criteria. However, it would be long before her application received official attention.