Queer as folk

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 18, 2011 11:10 hrs

The fragile existence of the transgender community, Hijras or Kinnars, stigmatized as the "other" sex, scrambling, for the longest time for an identity as a recognized member of community, is undergoing a slow transformation at last if events like participation of transgender social activist Laxmi in the Bigg Boss is any indication. TWF correspondent Vatsal Varma reports

Most of us, at some point or the other, have encountered eunuchs, or Hijras or Kinnars as they are called, in trains, crowded streets or subways clapping loudly, singing, dancing and taking baksheesh in exchange for blessings. Unfortunately, that is only how far our knowledge goes about them. What is even more deplorable is that we refuse to see beyond those ridiculed faces and notice that there is more to them than this stereotyped image.

Despite the fact that the transgender community in India consists more than one million people, including both those who are biologically of neutral sexes as well as those born as either of the 'recognized sexes' but with intense opposite souls (called transvestites, majority of whom are males who identify themselves with women), it still scrambles to fend for an identity of its own as a recognized member of the society.

They not only struggle to find acceptance by common people but are also subject to prejudice, disgust, and derogatory remarks more than any other marginalized group of the society.

Devika Rani, a transgender, a cross dresser to be more specific, says, "Being a cross dresser in India is no less than a nightmare. If you come out of the closet, you need to fight against the whole world and even then you don't get what is due to you."

"The most painful part is being detested by your dear and near ones. The worst part comes when even your mother doesn't accept you. This is the prime reason why people do not want to come out and accept their orientation," Devika says.

Interestingly, the Hijras trace back their origin from some 4000 years. Even both, Hinduism and Islam, talk about characters that were eunuchs.

In Mahabharata, when Aravan keeps the condition of spending the last night of his life in matrimony, Krinshna assumes the form of a beautiful woman called Mohini and fulfills his last wish. The Hijras in Tamil Nadu believe themselves to be reincarnations of this form of Krishna and thus call themselves Aravanis.

In Islam as well, since the grave of Prophet Muhammad prohibited entry to any man or woman, eunuchs were employed to guard the tomb of Prophet Muhammad in Medina for over six centuries.

Even the practice of calling Hijras to seek blessings on occasions of marriage and childbirth has its root seeped in the legend of Ramayana. Lord Rama, overwhelmed by the devotion of these Hijras (who decided to stay back when Lord Rama commanded all 'men and women to return') conferred upon them the special power to bless people on all auspicious occasions.

Today, on one hand they are endowed with such a sacred responsibility and the rest of the time they are stigmatized. It seems so ironical that people who were so revered in ancient times and given duties that no ordinary man or woman could perform face such a paradigm shift in their condition in modern age.

Prerna Kumari (name changed on request), a transgender from Uttar Pradesh wearing a low-cut blouse, says, "People, very well, see the violence, repugnance and hostility in our community but they never understand the circumstances that instill in us such maligned behavior."

The life for most Hijras begins with an enigma stemming from the contradiction that they find in their physical and inner self. Subsequently, they are banished by their own families and thrown out of their houses only to find more scorn in the society.

Majority of transgender people live in slums (commonly known as chawls) and due to limited education and in some cases absolute illiteracy, are unable to find any job opportunities due to which an estimated 80% of them resort to begging and prostitution as a mode to earn their livelihood. Even if they are capable of doing a respectable job, no one is willing to employ them because of their identity.

One such case is of Katni in Madhya Pradesh where a eunuch, Kamla Jaan, was dismissed from the post of mayor because she contested for a seat reserved for a female and the court refused to recognize her as a woman.

For the simple fact that that they are neither male nor female and they refuse to declare themselves as one of them, does it boil down to the point that they can't have the right to contest elections ? Human rights day comes and goes every year but the issue of empowering them remains unspoken and their life, replete with exclusion and deprivation, remains the same.

Not only this but even as commercial sex workers, they are placed at the lower rungs of the pecking order thereby taking away from them the power to negotiate for safe sex and in turn, making them more vulnerable to HIV. Once, HIV positive, they again go through the plight of not being properly medicated due to their gender crisis.

May be their behaviour is a reflection of the affliction that they face in their life, of the low self-esteem they are forced to have and the guilt they carry in their hearts for something they never had the option to do away with. May be they use it as maneuver to guard their insecurities in life. We surely need to think about this from a broad perspective.

Prerna adds in her manly voice, "People need to come to the terms of our being a little different from them in terms of sexuality and then accept us. We breathe, eat and sleep in the same way as any normal man or woman. We are no different species or creatures that people need to fear from us."

Ask her if she has any regret about not being a male or a female and she smilingly answers, "Absolutely no regrets. I am happy that God has not made me ordinary. He might have seen in me a special strength to endure such hardships that he gave me birth as a eunuch."

As the adage goes 'There's always light at the end of the tunnel', even for this community signs of changing times have begun to appear. Up until recently, transgender community had no legal rights, no ration cards and no voter identity. Although gradually, but their status in the society is undergoing an improvement.

The best example in recent times is of the participation of noted social activist and transgender Laxmi Narayan Tripathi in the Bigg Boss show. Even after she was eliminated, Laxmi says she managed to send across the message nationwide that they can live a normal and harmonious life as well.

In 2006, owing to their skill of persuasion, the Bihar government employed Hijras for collecting taxes -singing and dancing loudly at the defaulter's doorsteps until he/she feel ashamed into paying up- an effective technique to deal with tax evasion.

Recently, the government of Tamil Nadu issued ration cards to the community with the column for 'sex' marked with 'T', or Third gender, giving them a certain degree of acceptance in the fabric of Indian society.

Though transsexuals were allowed to vote from 1994, they had to mark their 'sex' as 'M' or 'F' but now the Election Commission has allowed them to declare their 'sex' as 'O', indicating 'Others'. This step is again a metaphor that the community that has always remained on the periphery is finding its way inside.

Bangalore University, going a step forward, has reserved quota of one seat in each of the 52 post-graduate courses that it offers. Similar to the above two examples, the application form, apart from male and female, will have a ´TG´ (transgender) option too

But what is of utmost importance is the need for Indian people to shun their belief that being a transgender is all about begging and prostitution. We need to break free from our narrowed mindsets and realize that all a transgender desires is a life of dignity- just like you and me.

(Image: Transgender social activist Laxmi who participated in Bigg Boss)

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