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Understanding India's Third Sex

Understanding India's Third Sex

The word transgender is a very modern term, a global word. In India, Hijra is the national terminology.

"Do transgenders really have genitals? Are they different from a penis or a vagina?"
"If you sit next to a transgender, there will be bad luck upon you."
"If [transgenders] curse you, you are cursed for life."
"The transgender has neither a vagina or a penis, but something in between."
"All Hijras and transgenders only want sex, the only medium through which they earn a living is sex work." 
"There is something wrong with a transgender person." 

These are all misconceptions.

The Hijra community in Mumbai, India, is a minority. We see them and yet we choose to ignore. We do not try to understand them. This minority suffers from marginalisation, harassment, and misunderstanding. We find them begging and opting for sex-work on the streets of Mumbai. This puts them at a greater risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But even though they live in constant fear of the IPC 377, they are still a vibrant community. 

"If anyone asks me what the definition of transgender is, I will say, what is your opinion about gender?" says Saumya Gupta, a transgender woman working at Humsafar Trust. She, unlike many others, has found a stable job in a professional environment and she helps her community through the organisation. 

"It is very difficult to make someone understand what a transgender is because it is such a big umbrella," says Urmi Jadhav, transgender woman and activist from Humsafar Trust. Urmi is President of support group Kinnari – Kastoori and a prominent figure in the hijra community. She goes on to say, "It also depends on the mindset of the society from which that person comes. In India, transgenders usually come from a very low socio-economic strata, so to only understand that they are a transgender despite their society and its influence is difficult. For anybody, the only line I would say, to explain transgender, is: We are human beings, we are just like you." 

"When I became aware of myself, self-awareness, that is when I knew [that I was transgender]," says Saumya. 

Transgender, by definition, is "of, relating to, or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth" says the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which differs from inter-sex who are born a certain way. Yet, that is not a complete definition. Urmi explains, "What is most important, firstly, is that the person needs to be self-aware, to know who he/she is." Urmi continues, "As and when you grow, this is when you come to know whether you are trapped in male/female body." 

Coming out 

Worldwide, there are routines and norms that specific cultures follow, ones that we follow and automatically accept, almost blindly, even if they are wrong. "There is a particular routine in the way our Indian society functions where a boy cannot play with a Barbie doll and must play cricket while a girl has to play house," Urmi says. "This is set as the norm which each gender has to follow. The parents fail to understand how that is wrong." 

"Sometimes, they go to the extent of taking them to a witch doctor, thinking that something is technically, or mentally, or chemically wrong with their child, to cure them. Some go to churches, some go to other such religious places to try to solve the "problem." They don't want to come to terms with reality. There is also shock treatment, ECT treatment to cure in case there is a "chemical imbalance" and which is making their child feel this way," Urmi explains. 

On the other hand, Saumya's experiences were different. She recounts, "In my personal experience, at first my family did not support me and I had to explain again and again. Only then did they accept me." The translator, Jarvis, continued to explain, "There can be parents who are very accepting, and then there are parents who will just disown you. In an Indian scenario, it is very difficult because they can't accept it." In the end, confronting family members and conveying one's self to society is incredibly difficult for this minority. 

Indian culture vs. transgender 

The word transgender is a very modern term, a global word. In India, Hijra is the national terminology. Unlike transgenders, "Hijras are an actual community, they have their own rituals, traditions, culture. Like a family," Urmi describes. The Hijra community has a particular hierarchy as well, for example a Nayak is the leader which is the "top position", then the guru, who a sub-leader, who has many chelas, who are disciples of the guru who then go on to become other gurus who have their own chelas and the system continues. This is the clear difference between transgenders and Hijras, because to be a Hijra means that you are part of a family, a community, in India. 

In Indian culture, the transgender population is a huge umbrella under which there are many subgroups. MTF, FTM, transexuals, inter-sex, cross-dressers are all other identities but they are not the same, and they are all international terminologies. Each sub-group has a different level of acceptance, although marginally the same in Indian culture. 

Another sub-group is the Jogta's culture, where the first child is given to the temple to become married to the god of a family. The temple brings up the child as a girl even in cases when the first born in a boy. Because they are raised like that, they are always seen as girls (god-wives) and so the transgenders from that culture get acceptance more easily because of religious reasons. Saumya points out, "The family is ready to give the child and accept who they are, there is no pressure to be something else."

The work force

Sanjeevani Chavan, another transgender worker at Humsafar Trust told of her experiences trying to get a job. Sanjeevani recounts, "When I enter an interview room, the interviewer just looks at me from top to bottom, his eyes pop out as he tries to figure out if I am male or female. Then he or she asks, are you comfortable in this organisation? Even if I say that I am comfortable, he or she would say that the organisation would be uncomfortable because only straight people work there." She is neither understood nor appreciated and even though she has the skills and capability, she is rejected because of what she is, not who she is. 

The transgenders that work in a professional setting are very few. They only find employment in CBOs (community based organisations) and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) because in such places people have a better understanding of who they are and how they should be treated. There are other options for transgenders, begging, sex-work, dancing and blessing weddings, etc. 

There are many transgenders who have gone for higher education. Some of them are even working on their PhDs abroad. But in India, they don't have many opportunities. Sanjeevani continues, "These people should get better jobs, because they have taken the effort to get higher education and they want to do something for the society. They do not want to end up doing sex work or begging, they should get the jobs they really want." 

But sex work is their main choice. If sex work pays them Rs. 15,000 or Rs. 20,000, which is more than what one would earn working at a CBO or NGO, then why would they bother about professional jobs? The profession corporate job setting "is not where they belong", and so they opt for sex work. 

STIs in the community

More than 20,000 Hijras work as prostitutes to earn a living. This is why 18% of Hijras have HIV and at least 58% of the Hijra population has a STI, while the rate among the wider population is only 0.3%, reports the Guardian

But those are just the facts. There are many sides to sex work, especially in the context of transgenders. Addressing the misconception, Sanjeevani explains, "Sex workers do know that it would be dangerous to have unprotected sex. But if their partner offers more money, some would opt to not use the condom." 

Yet, this is not just about the money. Urmi continues to explain with the conviction of personal experience, "The family has not accepted me, the society has not accepted me, no one has accepted me. So who will? My [Hijra] community. My community has accepted me as a I am. I want to wear a sari, I want to dress like a woman and my community encourages me. So what ever my community or guru asks of me, I will do. If my guru says to go do sex work and get money, I will. If my guru says to go begging on the streets, I will do it. The acceptance from the community is the most important because they give me safety and security. I am safer on the roads, because my whole community is like my family and will protect me. This is the difference between Hijras and transgenders." 

All three, Saumya, Sanjeevani and Urmi, agree that 10 years ago, if somebody were to ask them not to wear a condom for more money, transgenders would agree to do because money was more important and they did not understand the risk. But now, things have changed. There are a lot of prevention and, sensitistion programmes in the community to educate them about the importance of using a condom. Now many transgenders insist on using a condom.  

Legislation concerning the transgender community

December 12, 2013 marked the end of freedom for the LGBTI community as the Supreme Court of India overturned the Delhi High Court judgment and reinstated the Indian Penal Code 377. This criminalised sexual activity between those of the same sex, which also included the Hijra (transgender) population. The Supreme Court of India said "we hold that Section 377 IPC does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality and the declaration made by the Division Bench of the High Court is legally unsustainable." Under IPC 377, one can be charged with up to 10 years in prison, while undergoing police abuse and mistreatment.

The Hijra population has been abused, harassed, extorted, and blackmailed at the hands of IPC 377. Gangs and such find different ways to trick Hijras into sex, meanwhile filming them to then extort money under the threat of IPC 377. In some instances, trans people are "friended" on dating sites, invited to a hotel room and then are secretly filmed or have compromising pictures taken of them. More so, they are beaten and abused and are then forced to stay quiet in fear of being prosecuted by the law. It is more likely that the victim, in this situation, will become charged under 377 than the abusers being charged. 

Other Government actions

When asked about the changes that need to come about, Saumya replies, "[Change] has already started, with government action integrating the third sex into official documents and the NALSA Judgement to enhance and rebuild the community." To explain, the transgender, transexual and inter-sex community have been recognised as there is now an option of "third sex" on official documents. April 15, 2014, marked a step in the right direction, as transgenders from across India found a place in the "third sex" option, to vote, to apply for university, to apply for jobs and more. The NALSA Judgement, also passed April 15, 2014 was a step in the right direction towards granting rights towards the transgender people. 

This does not end here though. 

"Just because they passed a law that gives transgenders an opportunity to apply somewhere or do something, you cannot expect them to become a CEO of a company or something," Urmi insists. She goes on, "You need to become educated, you need to be socially accepted, you need to fill that gap. Only when that gap, between education and acceptance, is filled can change happen and transgenders can come into the mainstream." 

There are many universities, for example Mumbai University, who have third gender as an option. But it does not finish there. "The atmosphere of the university has to change," Saumya explains. Those who are coming to seek education must have the same experience as everyone else, without ten people sitting and staring at you, coming to ask you, "I really want to see what private parts you have." Saumya continues, "I mean, it is a form of harassment and people do not understand." " They way they look, their eye contact, their body language, their vibes, they all deter a transgender from studying," Urmi adds. "I didn't complete 10th standard because I was harassed at school."

There are many individual differences between the Hijra community. Some think, why should we go to university and follow rules of a society that does not even accept us. We can follow our own rules. One cannot only blame the society, when there are individual transgenders who are happy in the current situation. It is not just the government, it is not just the transgender community, it is not just society, it is not just the family. It is everyone. There needs to be a collective effort to change.


Shenali Perera is a student working with the transgender community in Mumbai.

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