October 03, 2007

Gender Denied: India’s Transgender Community

AS CHILDREN, we were scared of them. At traffic signals or on local trains, they would stroll up, their gait nonchalant, voices raised. Above all, different. (What is it about us that fears difference so much?) Last month, while on a project visit to slums in Chennai, I felt a twinge of discomfort when I stepped into Mallika’s house in Saidapet. It was not the old fear but something else. I was there to ask uncomfortable questions. I had nothing to give her in return. And I was burdened by the weight of belonging to societies that had rejected her. For Mallika is not quite accepted as a woman even though she considers herself one. In India, the gender gods can be very strict.

The ‘eunuch’ or transgender community is at such an extreme end of the rights spectrum in India, that they’re practically off it. In a society that recognizes only two genders, they are often rendered invisible, ridiculous, horrific or disgusting. They are laughed at, shunned, rejected by their families, denied jobs, ration cards and passports, and exploited by others in the professions they are allowed into (beggary and sex work) and by the police.

In 2004, PUCL released a report on the human rights violations against sexual minorities in India in which they have a section on the transgender community (full report available here). From American computer scientist and transsexual activist Lynn Conway’s reflections on it:

There are roughly one million Hijra in India, representing approximately one in every 400 postpurbertal persons born male there. This very large prevalence (~1:400) of the Hijra in India, most of whom have undergone ‘nirvan’ (a sex change by ancient surgical means), is strong evidence that the intense transgender condition is far more prevalent (by about two orders of magntitude) than traditional western psychiatrists and psychologists have ever been willing to admit. These large numbers also speak of the countless tragedies occurring in the current climate of oppression, degradation and violence against transgender women, not only in India but in many other traditional societies all around the world.

Lynn Conway’s story is quite remarkable as well and it’s available here.

One of the most interesting voices in transgender politics is writer and hijra activist A. Revathi. Because I Have a Voice, a compilation of essays on queer politics in India, has an autobiographical essay by her and she is currently working on her autobiography according to this interview with her on Sonia Faleiro’s blog.

In other, lesser-known and more hidden voices, there’s this blogger, also coincidentally called Malika, who captures the Indian transgender scenario on her blog. She is clearly aware of her gender and sexual identity but trapped into secrecy. From one of her early posts:

Here we in india were in Tabooland. None of them could talk about this to anybody around them. They would be banished from family and social life, forced to join the Hijras and ike out a living begging on the streets. So the internet had become the freedom space, it offered a vast library of information.

The USian and Western European transgender person had come out in the open or at least on the internet. There were thousands of sites offering information on this state of being. Some gave half baked information, others referred to ideas that had been thought up by old Foggies with beards called psychiatrists (they who had even preached that these ‘sexual deviations and aberrations’ could be cured through treatment like electric shocks, I had been offered this treatment long ago) T-girls offered their “piccies”, dressed up in various feminine costumes to delight and excite the voyeuristic and frustrated TGI. Some gave information that we so wanted to understand our state.

In India, we live with a level of gender denial that defies all sense of common decency and humanism — and don’t even notice it most of the time. Our society consistently rejects and violates an entire group of people on the basis of their gender. The horror of this never seems to strike people as they roll up car windows or carefully look away with a grimace when approached by a hijra. Discussions about this seldom find their way into the drawing rooms of ‘liberals’.

As for my conversation with Mallika, it lasted an hour and left me feeling many things. Unlike activists in the community, Mallika is just an ordinary woman trying to get by. She seemed more resigned than angry. She was less aware of the political implications of things she said. What she did know were the realities of her life — her bonds with her mother and daughter (in the hijra community, each hijra is adopted by a ‘mother’), her aching bones now that she’s growing old, her faith that she is God’s child if nobody else’s, the memory of her real parents beating her up, and the fact that people laugh at her. Everywhere.

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30 comments to Gender Denied: India’s Transgender Community

  • […] Ultra Violet on the denial of gender when it comes to the transgender community (eunuchs). The ‘eunuch’ or transgender community is at such an extreme end of the rights spectrum in India, that they’re practically off it. In a society that recognizes only two genders, they are often rendered invisible, ridiculous, horrific or disgusting. They are laughed at, shunned, rejected by their families, denied jobs, ration cards and passports, and exploited by others in the professions they are allowed into (beggary and sex work) and by the police. […]

  • Great post. However, I have reservation about Lynn’s extrapolation from Hijra population and her conclusion. “Intense transgender condition” is usually associated with “primary transsexuals”. I do not think all Hijras exhibit that. Transgender has become more of an umbrella term which is usually inclusive of secondary transsexuals, transvestites and autogynephiles — fetishistic or otherwise — who do not necessarily have “intense” gender identity issues, but present themselves in a gender non-normative manner for various reasons.

    To complicate it further, I think there is a non-trivial number of Hijras who are intersexed and feminine gay men, but not transgendered. They end up in the community as intolerance and rejection do not restrict themselves to transgendered individuals only.

  • sonia

    i have worked extensively with hijras across india.. and i can say that your post here is biased. people chose to become hijras very few of them are forced into it. they also engage in extortion as well as the sex trade. its a conscious choice to be a part of the community and not something forced on it..

  • Max

    Pardon my ignorance on this matter but how did the people become eunuchs to begin with?

    It sounds like it is a decision they make themselves instead of some physical condition.

    If this is the case then they indeed deserve the contempt placed upon them. But it’s not my culture so perhaps there’s some cultural detail i am missing here to justify why they are how they are.

  • Dr. R.

    About the abnormally high incidence of eunuchs in India — I doubt its because Indian genes are more prone to have eunuch babies. This is a physiological condition right ? (as opposed to homosexuality being a choice — ok, im setting myself up from flaming)

    Aren’t most babies about to be born this way aborted in western countries? Isn’t the high rate in India just a consequence of most parents not being able to afford any pre-natal medical care there ?

  • @Dipanjan
    Thanks for the insights. It is complex and this is a danger — that one may oversimplify things because of lack of knowledge or understanding than any wilful malice.

    I’m not sure why you think I’m biased. People choose to become hijras because they face issues with their gender identity or sexuality. What gives society the right to treat them badly for that choice? They practice extortion and sex work (I have said this in the article, in fact) because they have very few choices. Am curious to know about your work with hijras…would add to the discussion.

    I have to disagree with you. They choose to join the hijra community because either they are rejected by their families or because it is the only place they feel they belong. Please read some of the links I have provided as well as this one: http://www.countercurrents.org/gen-narrain141003.htm

    Why this should “deserve contempt” is, quite frankly, beyond me.

    @Dr R
    I don’t think Lynn Conway is saying it is higher here than in the West, but higher than Western psychiatrists are willing to admit. That was how I understood her statement. No, it is not always a physiological condition. As far as I know, many subgroups come under the hijra umbrella in India — transgendered, transvestites, MTF transsexuals and hermaphrodites. Sometimes it is psychological — the person is not a homosexual but someone who feels they were born in the wrong gender.

  • smallsquirrel

    a few things…

    I too have reservations about Lynn’s conclusions. I do not think there are more transexuals in India. What there is, is less of a choice about how to live life as a gay man in India. In villages, any boy who is at all effeminate is ridiculed and eventually runs off to any place where he can find acceptance. For many boys, this is the hijra community.

    It could be that the boy is in fact, transsexual and feels that he has been born into the wrong gendered body. But another fact might be that the boy wants to be an openly gay man but still have relations with men as a man, and not as a eunuch or a woman.

    What I am saying is that because openly gay men who want to have relationships with men as men are not yet accepted in mainstream society in India. While hijras are sidelined, they are at least somewhat accepted and face somewhat less ridicule.

    As for Dr. R… I think you are confused. These men are not born eunuchs… they have an operations and BECOME eunuchs.

  • Alyssa

    Anyone who uses the word “autogynephiles” allies himself with junk science. The word comes from a pervert who picks up transwomen in bars and extorts interviews and sex from them.

    Let’s lose the confusion between gay men and women, K?
    They are NOT equivalent. Gay men would NEVER allow themselves to be castrated, that’s why they’re gay MEN, not trans women.

    The OP’s article was great, thank you. The rest of the comments left a LOT to be desired in terms of accuracy and sensitivity.

    Too much opinion, too little fact?

  • @Alyssa:
    “Let’s lose the confusion between gay men and women, K?
    They are NOT equivalent. Gay men would NEVER allow themselves to be castrated, that’s why they’re gay MEN, not trans women.”

    Precisely. And guess what, not all hijras are castrated and not all of them have taken hormones either. That’s why Lynn’s conclusions about the number of hijras exhibiting “intense transgender condition” are to be taken with a grain of salt. Lynn contends that most hijras have undergone nirwaan, but according to Mumbai health organization, only 8% of hijras visiting health clinics have undergone surgical operations. [ link]. Yes, it is possible that non-castrated hijras visit health clinics more frequently, but from 8% to “most” is a big leap.

    Indian mainstream society is not very tolerant of homosexual behavior, so it can be , in a more accepting and tolerant society, some of the feminine Indian boys who are shunned by family and friends and who consequently join the hijra community at a young age would have grown up to become gay men, and not transgendered. Also intersexed Indian kids especially ones from underprivilieged socio-economic background often end up in the community, and they are not considered transgendered in the west. So it is quite possible — and I would say likely — that the numerical prevalence of “intense transgender condition” would match traditional western estimates and not contradict it.

    Generally speaking, the mapping of western gender terminology into a very different mainstream society and a ritualisitc fringe hijra community is a complex process and needs to be handled carefully.

    Finally, the use of the word “autogynephilia” is not “junk science”. This behavior is widely reported in clinicial literature and some transgenders definitely exhibit this behavior. “BBL controversy” — and I know it’s a heated topic in trans community, but it would be best if you desist from using simplistic labels such as “junk science” and ad hominem attacks on Bailey — is not about the existence of this behavior. The arguments are about its role in transsexual etiology since correlation does not imply causality.

  • Alyssa

    Autogynephilia is NOT science. Period. It is simplistic and incinedary, like your poorly thought out defense of it.
    To be a scientific theory, it must be falsifiable. That is, one must have clear criteria that, if met, will disprove it. Bailey has called trans women who don’t meet the criteria of his slur “liars.” Thus, his slur (what you mistakenly call “theory”) cannot ever be disproven by any hypothetical set of circumstances. Thus it is nor science.
    If I said that “Indians are especially suited to being convenience store clerks,” and proposed a “theory” to explain this, and called all who disagree with me “liars,” you would be right to call me on it. Likewise, if you stand behind a “theory” which says that black and Latina transwomen (who he calls “homosexual men”) are “especially suited to prostitution” I will call you on it. Also, My critique of Bailey was not an ad hominem. I described his data collection method that he himself described in his book. Thus. it is a legitimate point of criticism. Bailey’s data collection methods are not in accordance with accepted scientific practices in any fashion.

    Your point about some transgender women (please do not objectify us as “transgenders” People who write as you do need to be reminded that we are still human). is another problem. Bailey purports to describe ALL transwomen, and his slur fails at this badly.
    You cannot describe a population accurately from a series of bar visits. You cannot be objective about women that you are trying to fuck.

    I defer to your expertise on hijra. If what you say is true, then she got her suppositions about the hijra wrong. This should sensitize you the the issues of outsiders writing about populations to advance their own agendas. Like Bailey.

  • Christine Johnson

    Thank you for writing the OP. I was touched by your description of how you felt about your meeting.

    I have to agree with Alyssa on this one. A hypothesis must be falsifiable or it should be discarded, and the Bailey thesis rests upon the fact that all exceptions to this rule are liars.

    Here, in the States, there is this same sense that differently-gendered people are somehow less than human, and it leads to all sorts of behavior that is distinctly uncivilized. But no matter, we are cannon-fodder for the fascists that have taken over this country.

    But I say this: go ahead, make your jokes and have your laughs, but in the end, if you fuck-around with the hormonal environment of the planet, and you create all sorts of chemicals and pesticides that act like estrogen, you end up with a whole bunch of people who are feminized, period. Yes, people are saved from malaria. Instead the children are feminized, but the adults never want to face the fact these chemicals are *hormones*, not toxins. And then, to add insult to injury, these same people are blamed for their condition, set apart, made to suffer.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant, but I feel like the struggle of the hijra in India is the same as the struggle of transpeople in the U.S.


    To the Community members,
    To begin with I have found this article to close to my heart. I have gone through the same fears just like the author. I have seen docu. features on CNN,Nat Geo- the topic being transexual,hijras,castrated men, in which ever diction they are called and have enjoyed it everytime.I have come to know much through watching and reading different articles from the net. In future I hope to write one on this community by drawing inspiration from you.

    Rima Namhata

  • kaajal

    after read this artical,i feel apositivity,a posibility in me,i want sex chage,want to b male..i want to know more about transgender surgury,is it too long,or pain full or expansive…????

  • Riya Basu


    Female to male transofrmation is gaining visibility in India. The Mafatlal industries heir Aparna alias Ajay Mafatlal has been a high profile case in this regard. Born as Aparna Mafatlal, he underwent sex change and got rechristened as Ajay mafatlal.

    Although modern medical science offers more options to a male to female transsexual as to a large extent the surgery has been perfected, the same doesnt necessarily hold good for female to male transsexuals. If you are serious about this, you need to start by visiting a psychiatrist who will identify your case and rule out other conditions such as schizophrenica and autogenophlylia.

  • Dear Anindita,
    Thanks for quoting me. I stopped writing because no one responds to what I say. I still try and collect Indian Transgender related articles from the press.
    I stumbled upon your blog by accident and am very happy to read it.

    Best Wishes

  • Nice Blog – powerful insight – Keep it up..
    The Hijras need positvity to live life of their choice..its not necessary that boys will be boys forever..

    firoze shakir

  • Atleast in Tamilnadu, we Transgenders have a voice of our own now. The government has recently set up a Welfare board for us. The government colleges will now have a separate Third gender choice in their gender (sex) column to be filled by the applicants. Transsexuals have a much better situation in Tamilnadu.

    Other states should take Tamilnadu as a model and recognize transgenders and treat them equality and dignity.

  • i like to know more about the problem s which is facing by transexual form india pls reply me

  • girija v.t

    do transgenders have voting rights in india?if the answer is no ,reasons for the denial of transgenders voting rights .kindly mail your reply as soon as possible to v.tgiri@yahoo.in thankyou

    • khushboo anand

      the transgenders in india got the right of taking part in election according to the annoncement of election comisssion of india on 13th of novemebr 2009,according to which now they will be provided with a diffrent space othe than male and female to show there identity.

  • Shreya reddy

    The Family means Guru Chala System All over the world in india this culther is there for those who are the part of the coummunity they should have to be proud of this and they should have respect elder person. love come with various reason only hijra can feel it (we can’t purchase everthing in life with money)

  • nisha

    hi kaajal here a solution for your thought catch me @ nirams_16b@rediffmail.com

  • Pratap


    I thought to work on a project giving basic education to the Hijra community (on a small scale to begin with, with the help of my friends)in Bangalore.

    Would be a great help if i can get an input on the kind of syllabus to cover and what is at most needed as education to the Hijra Community.

    I can even aim at vocational training like tailoring / weaving (need some more input here) that can be a way to help them being self reliant.

  • Felix

    i would like to work with you…..seriously
    contact me 09726315255

  • p

    Enjoyable eyeopening article please could you publish some more on the transgendered community…and the taboos of india..spread the word the world might just change

  • This is a Great Post Very Nice

  • Uday

    dears people,

    Well i just want to know where i can complain about trangender in chennai. Thou we feel bad about the rights given to them by the community or the society itself. some take advantage of their being and harrest people perticularly Males. Well i just got harrasted by a group of Transgender in Annanagar Chennai. Was having a tea and suddenly a group of transgender having a bill book kind in their hand kept the hand on my head and asked for money. when i refused to give they dropped the saree and even spoke foul language in tamil. Every one were laughing at me and i like in that place for 30 years. Got angry a bit and thought of doing something but calmed down because they are transgender. I am not going against them atleast they should not welcome problems on their own. Who ever read this please caution the trangender that there are some who cause bitterness in people like me about them. And many transgender will say that they dont get a job and thats why trangenders roaming around the streets to get some money for their living. Well the point is they dont even try for a job. I myself an HR for US IT consulting. Dont make people to hate you transgenders.


  • sonu gulati

    i want to be a male to female transgender and want to enter in the community of transgender my age is 30, what should i do.

  • Do you folks have a facebook fan web page? I regarded for one on twitter however couldn’t discover one, I would really like to develop into a fan!

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