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Transgender Identities


This is in response to the editorial “Where the Transgender Bill Fails” (EPW, 1 September 2018). The present understanding of the third gender in India consists of an overlapping of identities. This includes people identifying as intersex, hijra, and/or transgender. For instance, the Census of India, in its first attempt to count the “third gender” population in 2011, estimated 4,90,000 persons. However, it was found that 55,000 “transgender” persons of that population were in the age group of 0–6 years, thereby indicating the number of declared intersex births in 2011. This evidence highlights how, in popular discourse, hijras are not differentiated from intersex and transgender persons, and thus the current count of the third gender population in India is not an accurate representation of the hijra population.

One explanation for this confusion over the differences between the third gender, transgender, and intersex identities could be that the Hindi word “hijra” has been used as a general term to label all these identities. Moreover, the interchangeability of the term, hijra, with terms such as transgender and/or intersex, neglects the historicity of all these three terms, which came about in different sociopolitical contexts, and their invisible synchronisation in the process of an elided identity formation is problematic.

With such inherent confusion persisting in understanding who are hijras and who are not, there are classifications made by the hijra communities themselves on who “real” hijras are, and how they are differentiated from those who are “fake.” One such way to demarcate the difference between the two, as Aniruddha Dutta notes in “An Epistemology of Collusion: Hijras, Kothis and the Historical (Dis)continuity of Gender/Sexual Identities in Eastern India” (Gender & History, Vol 24, No 3, pp 825–49), is that “real” hijras areaffiliated to a hijra gharana—house or clan—which are like “hierarchised lineages” that are highly organised, whereas “fake” hijras do not have a gharana affiliation. “Fake” hijras are men who are “cross-dressed beggars” and not “legitimate hijras,” but are often mistaken as having a hijra identity by the “mainstream public.”

The gharana then becomes a boundary marker required as a norm for legitimising the hijra identity. Due to its mechanism of boundary maintenance, the difference between hijra “insiders” and “outsiders” is maintained within various local distinctions of non-conforming minority gender identities in India, through the social organisation of the hijra communities within the gharana system.

Hence, percolating from the historical context is an understanding about the beginning of socially constituted kinship patterns between hijras of various ranks— such as gurus and “chelas”—which are maintained through systematic discipleship lineages. In the contemporary context too, affiliation to the hijra gharana system is mandatory for claiming a legitimate hijra gender identity.

Concerning the aforementioned EPW editorial, there is, indeed, a need to extend sexual citizenship to the hijra communities. How can this be achieved? There needs to be a space for the mobilisation of language in sexual politics. Only then can any change happen that can alter the way in which sexual citizenship may contribute towards a different nation-making, where all citizens, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, have equal rights.

First, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill (henceforth, the transgender bill) should redefine the social institution of the family. If the National Human Rights Commission survey conveys that only 2% of transgender persons in India are living with their biological families, then there is a need to understand the alternative kinship communities of the remaining 98%. In December 2017, Bhavitha, a hijra person was found dead in Warangal, Telangana. Her sisters and other hijra “family” were not allowed to lay claims on her dead body by the Telangana police, because non-biological kinship networks are not “blood relations” and, therefore, are not recognised by Indian law. Bhavitha’s body was, therefore, denied dignity and respect due to state neglect.

Second, the transgender bill should provide the right to have chosen families. The hijra gharana system embodies an institutionalised lifestyle based on various forms of resistance to the heteronormative idea of a family and, therefore, becomes a natural system of social existence based on non-biological kinship networks that need to be accorded formal recognition.

Regarding economic exclusion of persons identifying as transgender, the editorial states that affirmative action in educational institutions and for jobs can ensure that this problem is addressed. Unfortunately, there have been multiple instances that prove that this is not the case. For instance, soon after Manobi Bandyopadhyay became India’s first transgender principal at Krishnagar Women’s College in Nadia district in West Bengal, she suffered tremendous mental pressure, and was forced to resign. Bandyopadhyay stated in an interview,

Neither do I belong to the mainstream society of academicians, nor can I dance and clap in front of newborns or go begging on crossroads. When I did my PhD, I thought it was education that would help me assimilate into the mainstream. Today, I feel, even the educated lot have deep prejudices.

Another example of similar exclusionary experiences has been of nine transgender persons who were employed by the Kochi Metro Rail Ltd, but had to quit almost within a week because they could not find affordable housing in the area. These examples go on to prove that social stigma and discrimination are the core problems that need to be addressed immediately by the transgender bill through the implementation of strict anti-discrimination laws, and guarantee affirmative action for transgender persons in providing access to housing facilities and other social welfare schemes.

In conclusion, given the present circumstances, for any version of the transgender bill to succeed in India, there first needs to be guaranteed fundamental human rights for transgender persons in India, which could then become a catalyst for moving towards an integrated and interdisciplinary amalgamation of the transgender population with the mainstream population in India. Furthermore, the hijra community needs to be understood on their terms and in their systems of social existence. If the transgender bill has to provide an inclusive space for everyone, then the bill has also to make efforts towards erasing the prospective opportunities for creating further inequalities between different transgender communities, by addressing multilayered issues of class, caste and religion within these communities. For now, the transgender bill in its current form raises more questions than it answers.

Ina Goel

Hong Kong

Updated On : 7th Sep, 2018


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