JAY PULITANO is a under graduate student of Sara Lawrence College, New York, She also volunteers GLAAD
This study is part of
South India Term Abroad Fall 2013
Independent Study Project
April 11, 2014, Madurai
Though I naively considered myself on guard against such biases, I definitely began this project with assumptions that the Indian hijra community was homogenous to a much larger extent than it actually is. For one thing, I assumed that “hijra” was the term commonly used by all in India to refer to what I as an American call “transgender.” I quickly learned that south India has its own regional term, thirunangai, but that even this was not unanimously preferred or even defined in the same way by all. For example, one of my participants defined the thirunangai community of Tamil Nadu as distinct from the hijra community of the north. Another one of my participants, on the other hand, defined hijra as a “community identity” for all transgender people in India, including the south, while thirunangai referred to a word used as a “gender identity” for transgender southerners.
I began my research with the question, “What is the Indian context for how South Indian trans* people imagine themselves, their community, and gender in general?” Region was not the only factor that seemed to affect how this community was conceptualized. Throughout my research, I found that various factors and forces such as class, education level, religious conservatism, Western influences, and nationalism seemed to largely affect how this community as well as gender and sexuality in general was imagined. Such observations helped to illuminate that gender and sexuality in general as a subjective experience are largely dependent on the social context. Moreover, I would also argue that such imaginings, like the social context on which they depend, are complex, dynamic, and fluid processes that are constantly being negotiated.
This paper’s layout in demonstrating these arguments will be as follows: First, I will position my language and my background; second, I will describe my methods of research as well as both their benefits and limitations; third, I will describe two (oversimplified) models of gender and sexuality according to a “modern” “Western” perspective and a “traditional” “Indian” perspective; fourth, I will problematize these models through an analysis incorporating interview data; and finally, I will reflect on the overall learning experiences of the project and summarize my conclusions.
A couple notes should be made before continuing to the rest of the paper. I argued above that certain social contextual factors affected how “this community as well as gender and sexuality in general was imagined.” A Western audience may question why I include sexuality in an analysis of an Indian transgender community because, as I will describe below, a modern, Western perspective tends to view gender and sexuality as separate, isolated qualities of a person. I do include sexuality as a point of interest, however, because not only are the politics and experiences of sexual minorities often (though certainly not always) intersect with those of gender minorities, but unlike in a modern, Western conception, sexuality is tied into a traditional hijra imagining of gender, which will also be described in more detail below.
My second note concerns my choice in my use of language for describing this Indian community of interest. The difficulty in attempting to use the most appropriate language to describe this community lies in the fact (a fact this paper attempts to explore in depth), as I began to describe in my opening, that different Indians of this community disagree over which language is most appropriate as well as the definitions of certain terms. One of the reasons the term “hijra” is because, as described above, it may have a specific regional connotation of the north. A more specifically southern term is Ali, but the community has largely abandoned the use of this term for a new term, Aravani, had been coined that was coined in the 1990s (April 5, 2014. Interview with Toya). Aravani, however, has strong Hindu religious connotations, so in an attempt to be more religiously inclusive, South Indian scholars coined year another term, thirunangai, literally translating to “Mr. Female” or “Male female,” within the past ten years (March 18, 2014. Interview with Gopi). Thirunangai has since been largely accepted by many within the community as well as by Tamil public as a whole, but aravani is still also in wide use, based on the mentioning of the term by my participants. As revealed by some of my participants, thirunangai is not a unanimously accepted ideal term. One of my participants, Gopi, criticized it for being invented by scholars as opposed to the community itself, and for not being a “traditional” term. Another one of my participants, Toya, expressed that she ideally prefers maatru paaliner, the direct Tamil translation of “transgender,” a preference that I gathered was related to her criticism of terms like “third gender” or “third sex” used by the Indian government and Indian mainstream society as well as her identity as a female (April 5 2014. Interview).
I am very open to criticism of my choice and to more reflection on the topic, but for the purposes of this essay I have chosen to use the terms “trans*” and “queer” as umbrella terms to describe the Indian community of interest. This choice is guided by Naisargi N. Dave’s own explanation for her choice in language in Queer Activism in India, one of this paper’s primary sources. Though one may criticize this language on the grounds of instilling Western notions on a formerly colonized people – and this critique certainly must be taken seriously as Dave crucially notes – such a criticism has significant limitations (Dave 2012:20). Throughout my participant observation and interviews, I observed the use of Western terms such as transgender, queer, gay, lesbian. It would thus simply be inaccurate to assume that Indians cannot or do not think of themselves with such Western terms and notions. Both the terms trans* and queer as umbrella terms were coined with an inclusive intent, purposely not having any specific meaning other than referring to gender and sexual minorities. Despite this inclusive intent, a limitation of these terms is that the people they refer to do not necessarily identify as them. Because of this limitation, I will also try to use the terms “gender and sexual minorities,” but this has limitations in that it does not necessarily describe a self-aware community of people. For most of my references, however, I will use terms as described specifically by an individual or group of people. I will tend to use “trans*” and “queer” as well as “gender and sexual minorities,” however, for instances in which a group is not self-described.
In terms of positioning myself, my analysis will inevitably be biased by my background. I am a middle-class, educated, white, 21 year old American. I am female assigned at birth and identify on the trans*masculine spectrum. My ideas of gender from a specific progressive Western context will likely influence my analysis, though hopefully it will also allow me to make comparisons and “other” my own culture and beliefs.
The methodology of this project included both scholarly research and ethnographic work. The primary text used for understanding the traditional hijra imagining of gender and sexuality is With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy. Based heavily on ethnographic work in Hyderabad, Reddy describes in detail what can be categorized as traditional hijra notions of gender, discusses the influences of Western notions of gender on this community, and also problematizes the construction of a simple dichotomy between the two. Additionally, throughout With Respect to Sex, Reddy constructs an argument of how “other axes of identity, including religion, gender, kinship, and class” intersect with “the axis of sexual difference through which hijras have traditionally been understood” (Reddy 2006:17). Reddy’s arguments have largely guided this paper’s themes. A book that largely compliments Reddy’s book is the autobiography The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi, the first published hijra autobiography to be translated into English. Revathi’s autobiography reflects much of Reddy’s descriptions of hijra rituals, kinship relations, and, often with heart-wrenching detail, the violence and persecution of Indian society that forces many hijras into sex work, giving a vivid perspective on the influence of class on this paper’s themes. Another crucial text utilized is Dave’s Queer Activism. While Dave’s text primarily focuses on the emergence and evolution of lesbian identity and activism in India, Dave’s arguments and observations are in large part extendable to trans* and queer Indian identity in general.
The ethnographic research for this paper included both formal interviews and participant observation. For the participant observation portion, this included visiting the home of who I was told was the head of the thirunangai movement in Madurai, Madhavi Palvannan, which also acted as a shelter for thirunangai and koti individuals; attending a National Seminar on Transgender Social Exclusion in Trichy; and informal interactions with my primary participant, Gopi Shankar.
In the beginning stages of my project when I was asking around for contacts, everybody I talked to thought of Madhavi and recommended I try to get in contact with her. It was my host father, chief editor of a major newspaper in Madurai, who was able to finally contact her for me, having already interviewed her multiple times for articles highlighting her achievements as an activist. Such achievements spreading awareness of HIV AIDS in the transgender community as a master trainer of Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society, as well changing attitudes towards the transgender community among the police force as a State-level police advocacy officer.
Meeting Madhavi was particularly memorable not only because she was my first participant but also because the meeting was very different from my expectations in a way that is telling of my background as a middle class American. When I first was given her address, I was told it was the address of her organization, Madhavi Palvannan Trust, in Madurai’s business district. This gave me the impression that I was visiting the office headquarters of an NGO; that when I arrived there, I would be led to Madhavi’s office to speak to her privately and would probably be given a semi-prepared talk typically told to reporters. Instead, the auto rickshaw driver brought us (us being myself and Laurah, the resident director of SITA who attended this meeting with me as a translator) to a small alleyway where there were many cloth and garment shops with bright signs in Tamil filling the upper periphery of vision. It was early evening, about five thirty on a Tuesday. Finally somebody pointed us to a narrow doorway. Looking in I could see a steep set of thirty stairs or so rising up a dark, cement passageway, making for an intimidating climb that mirrored my anxiety for the occasion.
At the top of the stairs was a very modest apartment crowded with a dozen or so both thirunangai women as well as people who appeared to me as “regular men.” Like any other “man” that could be seen in Madurai, they had short hair and wore button down shirts and jeans. The thirunangai women, contrastingly, were like “regular women” in Madurai, having long hair neatly pulled back and decked with colorful saris and bangles; the only features making them seem different from a “typical woman” were their broad shoulders and jawlines. We put our hands together in respect and greeted one another with “Vannakkam”s and “Hello”s while smiling shyly. Others seemed to ignore us and kept talking with each other. One woman gave each of us a one-armed, half hug, which made an impression on me since hugging was in my experience almost non-existent in Tamil culture. Was she hugging us because we were foreigners, assuming we had different expectations for greetings? Or did this queer space have a different culture from that of mainstream Tamil society? I wondered.
We were led through a small doorway with a pointed arch into a room even smaller than the first. In this room, a group of three or four women were sitting on a bed set against a wall, with a window shining in sunlight behind them, while talking with another group sitting on the floor. It struck me as odd to have a bedroom function as such a public space – the room seemed more of an extension of the living room area than someone’s bedroom. One thirunangai woman – who I initially thought was Madhavi – introduced one of the people appearing as a “man” to me on the floor as her daughter. This person later introduced herself as Rama and said she was a koti. A pink, plastic chair was pulled out for me to sit in; Laurah was offered a spot on the bed. We were both offered tea as well as cake from a mini fridge behind me against the wall. The room was hot and a bit overwhelming, filled with the voices of everyone chatting loudly with one another in Tamil. It was difficult and confusing to figure out who Madhavi was amongst the scattered “hello”s and introductions. I had the expectation that Madhavi would make a clear introduction of herself and give me individual attention, but instead everybody eventually talked amongst themselves, and I found it difficult jump into the conversations and to think of what to say. Now looking back, it does not surprise me that Madhavi had not made a bigger effort to introduce herself. When a translator of mine later attempted to make an appointment for me with Madhavi, he asked afterwards if Madhavi was an “older” person because she spoke with “much authority.” Laurah too had once commented that Madhavi spoke with short declarative statements on the phone and hung up before she could ask any more questions. This is only one sign among many that Madhavi is a figure of power.
Laurah asked some questions, and at one point asked if there were any transmen out in the area. Another person appearing as a “man” to me, sitting on the floor hugging her bent legs relaxingly, responded in English that there were only two transmen out. Both were in Chennai, a more cosmopolitan city. She explained that the queer community was very male-dominated, and somebody made a comment in Tamil with the word “lesbian,” which she then translated to say there are some lesbians. This interaction was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. It helped confirm an obvious fact that the transgender community is extremely dominated by male-assigned people. Throughout my research, it was obvious that this fact heavily influenced how gender and the rights of gender minorities were conceptualized by the Indian trans* and queer community as a whole as well as in mainstream Indian society. This theme will be discussed more extensively later in the essay. The second point worth noting is that Western terms such as “queer” and “lesbian” were being used. Admittedly, the term “queer” was used by Rama who was a very strong English speaker. Her strength in English as well as the fact that she shared she was doing research indicate a high level of education and perhaps more exposure to Western terminology. One must also remember Dave’s point, however, that one must not assume that less educated Indians cannot use Western terminology (Dave 2012:20). Nonetheless, assuming the weaker English speakers would be most comfortable using Tamil terms, it is interesting to note that they used the word “lesbian” over a Tamil equivalent. This indicates the visibility of female queerness is a recent one in this society. Reddy’s ethnography was only undergone a couple of decades ago, yet whenever Reddy brought up lesbianism, her participants responded with incredulousness at the idea of two women being able to be sexually involved (Reddy 2006:52).
Our discussion at Madhavi’s went on for a little while longer, but seemed to quickly fizzle back into everyone else’s own conversations in Tamil. Laurah kept gesturing at me to say something. I searched for someone to make eye contact with, but everyone seemed occupied in conversation. Eventually I gave up and awkwardly said to no one in particular, “I was curious to hear if there were any transmen because I personally identify on the trans male spectrum,” and I tried explaining about my independent study and how I was interested in interviewing people. Some attention seemed to shift back to me, and a couple people asked Laurah what I had said. After a few moments of Laurah translating, somebody said, “Ohh, he’s one of us?” Laurah told me later that when I shared my own identity, she felt the guard go down in the room, and I definitely felt it then too. Such an impression is indicative that though there are many social differences between us, our shared identity as gender minorities does allow us to understand one another on one level.
By no means, however, is that basic point meant to deemphasize the social differences that do exist between this group at Madhavi’s apartment and myself. If Madhavi was not somewhat brusque, she certainly lacked an excessively “flowery” personality. Though this again may have at least in part been reflective of her position of power, it also was probably indicative of a rough past that rendered such a personality necessary for survival. As Laurah said later, “She was tough. She seemed like she’d seen a lot.” One can be fairly confident with such a conjecture based on the extreme rates of prostitution and violence reported among thirunangai women, as will be described below. When Laurah was sitting on the bed, one of the women sitting next to her began to rub Laurah’s back uncomfortably low. Laurah later described that such behavior is very common among thirunangai women, and that the behavior “is about power.” This account may be related to Reddy’s descriptions of hijras using obscene language in public and even lifting their saris to expose their operative status in order to shame their audience into giving the demanded amount of money (Reddy 2006:140). One of my participants, Toya, also describes how
generally Indian transwomen behave very differently as exaggerated behavior which is stimulated and encouraged by group living (Community)… The community influence one to have a extra hip shake, using abusive language and clap hands in public. It is mere threatening way to collect easy free money from the public and attract clients in sex work. (April 5 2014. Interviews)
Such observations are indicative of the class differences Madhavi and these women come from.
Other suggestions of differences from American trans* culture include the references to adopted kinship relations – such as the woman introducing the koti as her “daughter” – as well as the use of terminology such as koti at all. These uniquely “traditional” Indian notions will be described later in more detail.
Unfortunately, I was never able schedule a follow-up meeting with Madhavi and formally interview her. However, the observations made at this first meeting as well as the comments made about Madhavi from another one of my participants provides interesting material for this paper’s analysis.
My second major participant observation event was at a National Seminar on Transgender Social Exclusion at Bharatridasan University in Trichy. I was able to attend the second day of the conference, arriving around noon on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. I learned about the conference from the Facebook page of Srishti Madurai, a group my friend ran across online. Srishti Madurai was founded in September 2011 as a Genderqueer & LGBTQIA student volunteer group. The group educated the public on these issues, giving talks at schools and conducting Asia’s first Genderqueer Pride Parade in Madurai. Later, Srishti Madurai evolved to give members free courses on studies not available in mainstream Indian academics, including not only Queer & Genderqueer studies but also expanding to a wide variety of disciplines ranging from psychoanalysis, biology, theology, and Marxism. Srishti Madurai’s founder, Gopi Shankar, is a 22-year-old undergraduate student at American College, the primary participant of this project, and a new friend of mine. Gopi self-identifies as androgynous or agender.
I met Gopi in person for the first time at the conference. She was waiting outside the campus’ social policy center for my translator and me on the early, hot and sunny afternoon. Tall and lanky, Gopi was fashionably attired with skinny jeans and a short, white and black kurta, where a metal amulet on a black leather string stuck out of her v-neck, smartly matching her black-rimmed glasses. Her bushy head of curly hair stood out compared to the typical short-cropped “male” haircuts seen in Tamil Nadu. In other words, she would blend in relatively well with a group of South Indian “males,” but her appearance definitely had a subtle feminine flair as well; she mixed masculinity and femininity into her androgynous gender expression. Our introductions were relatively awkward. I greeted her inappropriately formally with folded hands; and she made a comment on my appearance while giving my shoulder a squeeze, which caught me on guard as an American with a culturally larger space bubble. The difference in expectations wasn’t only cultural, though; I tend to be socially reserved, while Gopi – as I soon learned that day – has an open, affectionate personality.
Throughout my experience with this project, in fact, I received several unexpected signs of affection from the trans* people I met. Both at the conference and at Madhavi’s apartment, transwomen put their arms around me and took pictures with me. When I first met Sachi, for example, a prominent transgender activist and actress, she told me to “come with me, darling,” and walked with me with her arm wrapped around my shoulder. When I met Sachi again for an interview, she had greeted me with three kisses on the cheek. Throughout these interactions, it was difficult to tell to what extent my impressions were resultant of our cultural socializations and to what extent I was being treated in such a manner because I shared that I am trans* or because I am a foreigner. Compared to my interactions with general Indians, however, I suspected at least to some extent there was a culture among the Indian trans* community of displaying more affection among others within the community as compared to general society.
Sachi made an impression on my in other respects as well. She is a beautiful, young woman – perhaps in her early thirties – with an elegant voice and poised presence. She stood out to me from the other transwomen I had met so far because of her more Western style dress; rather than wearing a sari, she wore fitted jeans and a simple, stylish blouse, accessorized with the usual make-up and array of jewelry – bangles, a necklace, and earrings. She alternated between wearing her long silky hair down and in a loose ponytail. All of the other transwomen I met wore traditional, colorful saris and wore their hair back.
One such woman, 23-year-old Jaya, I had only met briefly at the conference. When I had the opportunity to interview her a few weeks later, however, I got a better taste of her personality. She had an unembarrassed brusque manner, a having guarded “tough” shell similar to Madhavi’s. She was also very passionate; Jaya was not afraid to challenge my questions and take control of the conversation, and she went on long fervent tangents about transgender rights and issues, whether or not they were directly related to my questions. Despite her young age, Jaya has been influential in expanding transgender rights. She gained considerable media attention when she protested her denied access to take a civil examination, eventually forcing the government to change its decision and opening up opportunities previously denied to the transgender population, according to Gopi.
Also impressionable to me was Toya, another prominent transgender activist I met at the conference. Toya is 39 years old, from Chennai, and was exceedingly friendly and personable. In our brief initial conversation, she critiqued mainstream Indian society’s use of the term “third gender,” saying she was not a third gender but a woman. Such mainstream language referring to the transgender population as the “third gender” or “third sex” was prevalent at the conference.
The conference as a whole appeared to appeal to a mainstream Indian audience. The speeches involved a basic level of education, explaining that thirunangai was the respectful term (although as just noted, the conference apparently did not use language that was respectful for all), describing male-assigned sex reassignment surgery (I was confused why this was necessary), highlighting the abysmal level of abuse and discrimination that thirunangai women face, and describing the lack of legal protection. Though many of these issues are vitally important to raise awareness for, the level of inclusion was extremely limited. The conference was on “transgender social” exclusion, yet virtually all of the speeches in reference to “transgender” people assumed the population was male-assigned and had undergone or aspired to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Indeed, all of the featured transgender attendees of the conference entirely consisted of such a population. They all were clearly living as female in society, wearing saris, having long hair and smooth skin. This group of consisted of maybe six or seven women and took up a corner of the room seated up front. The conference room itself was relatively small with perhaps sixty or so people in attendance.
One portion of the brochure to the conference was also revealing of the assumptions inherent this mainstream conceptualization of “transgender.” In the brochure was a section listing the costs of attending the seminar if you were a student, a researcher, from an NGO, etc., all requiring varying fees. One category was merely listed as “Transgender” and listed as “0 Rupees” for attendance. While the intention to help a generally extremely marginalized population is admirable, the listing problematically assumed that who was “transgender” would be an obvious fact. What about somebody who was questioning their gender identity? Or somebody who was in the closet? Or somebody who prefers not to describe themselves as transgender but as a non-binary identity, for example? How is the conference determining who is “transgender”? What evidence are they basing these decisions on? No such questions are considered in the brochure, which merely lists the lack of a fee and no added comments. This suggests that to mainstream Indian society, one is not considered a “real” “transgender” unless one physically appears to be so.
Gopi’s speech was a notable exception to the male-assigned-at-birth bias. She strongly critiqued the exclusion of female-assigned transgender people and non-binary genders. As she later said to me in an interview, “They only talk about male to female, they never even open up their mouth about female to male people. That’s why I say, if you’re only going to talk about transwomen, don’t call them transgender, call them a transwoman” (March 18 2014. Interview).
Besides these people I have described at the conference, I also interviewed a 22-year-old man, Sam, who I was introduced to by another participant and who is a microbiology graduate student at a college in Madurai. Sam was very articulate and thoughtful throughout the interview, had a gentle personality and warm smile, as well as a kind laugh. He is of a slightly heavy build and sports a well-groomed beard, but like Gopi also deliberately incorporates some androgyny into his attire. He wore jeans and a tasteful men’s style long kurta, a choice that stood out compared to the other young men on campus who all wore button-down shirts. In describing a more feminine period of his life, Sam told me,
Sam: After I came out as gay, after some two months, I found some kind of change in me, in some kind of tendency to be like, to be more feminine, to wear women’s clothes or something like.
Jay Pulitano: Wear women’s clothes, like on campus?
S: Ahh, kind of, kind of, that I will tell [laughs] … Actually [indistinguishable] in my very, very small age, like before ten or something, I had few experience of cross-dressing. I would just wear my mom’s sari, and I would just dance [laughs] That is very funny, very small kid thing, many kids they will do it. But uh, at this time, I am kind of rational creature [laughs] I am 19 or 20, and I was just thinking, “What’s this thing?” And one day, one fine day, I took eyeliner, I put some lip-gloss, but everything else will be in male attire, and I went to class. And everyone was seeing me, “What happened?” Already they were not talking to me because they knew I was gay or something like that [indistinguishable]. As time passed, I had changed a lot, I had adapted to this kurta like this, being more kind of androgynous I guess, because females they will also have this kind of top, but they will have a kind of different thing in India. So I had adopted this. [indistinguishable] eyeliner, I did that too, and I put a lot of lip-gloss. Only one thing I didn’t do was my hair. [laughs] And I put a lot of make-up [nail polish] in my hands. One my friends, close friends in my college, he used to comment, ‘Even the girls of this college, they are not having this nail polish! But you are having it. How come you are doing like this?’ [laughs] Like I will be having this kind of thing. [indistinguishable] At that time I came to know as a genderqueer person (April 1, 2014. Interview)
Even though Sam now identifies as male and no longer wears make-up and nail polish, he continues to wear his self-described androgynous kurtas. Like Sam, several of my participants also described the importance they held in clothes and make-up in expressing their genders. Sam was an interesting person to interview because of the dramatic shifts in viewpoints he described evolving through his life in the recent past. Only “three or four months back,” Sam was “completely anti-church…a strict atheist” and believed nothing was wrong with his attraction towards men as a homosexual (April 1, 2014. Interview). Since then, however, he “found [himself] identifying more and more with the morals of the [Catholic] church,” and now currently believes that though he is unable to control his sexual attraction towards men, it is against the “Order of Nature” and thus sinful to act on those attractions (April 1, 2014. Interview). Sam’s articulate, personal narrative of this dramatic shift in moral understanding was helps demonstate the potential of mixing liberal and conservative views in forming conceptions of gender and sexuality.
These five people – Gopi, Sachi, Jaya, Toya, and Sam – constituted the small sample of participants I interviewed for this study. They all are given pseudonyms except for Gopi who insisted her real name be used. All of the participants grew up at least in part in Tamil Nadu, rendering their perspective primarily specific to South India. My ethnographic data is also very limited in perspective due to the fact that all of my participants have received higher forms of education and none of my participants are female assigned at birth. I am thus lacking the perspective of people from lower socio-economic classes and lower levels of education as well as a female-assigned perspective. The class bias is partially removed from reading Revathi’s and Reddy’s texts as well as from my participant observation at Madhavi’s home. While my participants’ socio-economic background has limitations, it does provide for an interesting perspective. My participants’ level of education arguably renders them more likely to be exposed to Western notions of gender and sexuality as well as to the critiques of being exposed to such notions. This can provide an interesting angle in an era of globalization in examining how participants negotiate “Western” and “Indian” notions of gender and sexual minorities and their rights.
I interviewed all of my participants in Madurai, except for Toya who I corresponded with via e-mail. I interviewed Sam on his college campus for an hour and forty five minutes. Sachi was in Madurai for the day giving a talk at a local college, so I interviewed her for a half hour afterwards at the college. I also interviewed Jaya for about a half hour outside the Ghandi Museum, a public area in the city. Unlike my other participants, Jaya wished to not have the interview recorded, so her quotes are recounted only from written notes and memory. Jaya was also my only participant who I interviewed with a translator in Tamil. The rest of my participants, also being native Tamil speakers, had strong enough levels of English to communicate, but efforts were clearly made at expressing ideas in a second language, suggesting a communication barrier may have been present. Using a translator for Jaya as well as in my participant observation also inevitably involved a loss of meaning.
Although I am grateful for all of my participants, I am especially indebted to Gopi for all of her time and aid in contributing to this project. Gopi was my primary participant, formally interviewing with me for a total of two and a half hours, informally interacting with me through participant observation for countless hours, and introducing me to all of my participants. As a result of Gopi’s greater proportion in participation as well as her large contribution of rich and thought-provoking comments, much of this paper’s analysis will focus on her.
III. “Traditional” vs. “Western” Models of Gender and Sexuality
Guided by Reddy’s chapter, “Crossing ‘Lines’ of Subjectivity: Transnational Movements and Gay Identifications” in With Respect to Sex, this analysis will begin by outlining simplified models of the “traditional,” “Indian” conceptions of gender and sexuality versus the “modern,” “Western” conceptions. Though I will argue that constructing such an oversimplified dichotomy is problematic, beginning the analysis in this way will be helpful for demonstrating such an argument.
Reddy describes in great detail the notions of gender and sexuality as imagined by the participants of her ethnography. I will primarily use her work to construct the oversimplified “traditional,” “Indian” model of gender and sexuality. According to Reddy, her participants conceptualize three categories of genders: naran, panti, and koti (Reddy 2006:214). Narans are an undifferentiated category of “women” and are defined as such primarily by their anatomy, “the ability to bear children being the single and most potent marker of difference” (Reddy 2006:51), as well as by their “gendered practice” (Reddy 2006:214). Kotis and pantis, on the other hand, refer to people who are male assigned at birth. Koti is an umbrella category containing within it a range of subcategories, one of which includes hijras (cite?). Considered “not narans” but only “like narans” (Reddy 2006:50), kotis are broadly defined by their receptive sexual role as well as other gendered behavior beyond the sexual realm (Reddy 2006:46). Such gendered behavior includes, “As one hijra said, echoing many others, ‘From birth, I always like to put moggus [rice-flour designs drawn on the ground, typically by women], play with girls, and help with the cooking and cleaning’” (Reddy 2006:46).
Out of all the types of kotis, hijras are the most visible category (Reddy 2006:58). They wear saris full-time (Reddy 2006:131), have long hair (Reddy 2006:128-9), and beautify their bodies with make-up and jewelry (Reddy 2006:127-8). Besides additive methods for feminization, hijras also engage in methods to erase the more masculine aspects of their bodies (Reddy 2006:124). This includes hair-plucking (Reddy 2006:124-5); the use of hormones to feminize body shape, make skin smoother, and grow breasts (Reddy 2006:132-3); and, perhaps most importantly, the nirvanoperation, or removal of the penis and testes (Reddy 2006:56). According to Reddy, nearly all hijras have undergone or desire to undergo the nirvan operation (Reddy 2006:93). In addition to these physical adjustments in appearance, hijras also emphasize particular gendered behavior such cooking and dancing, which can also be characteristic of kotis in general (Reddy 2006:122). In line with this gendered component of the hijra ideal, hijras take great pleasure out of “passing” for women (Reddy 2006:123). The ability to “pass” is highly valued by hijras and those with greater “passing” abilities are looked upon with higher respect (Reddy 2006:123).
Hijra behavior cannot only be categorized as “imitating” women as perfectly as possible, fitting perfectly into gender norms; hijra behavior also involves components that are subversive to gender norms (Reddy 2006:136). Probably the most distinctive of such behavior is the loud clapping of hands, which marks association with the hijra community (Reddy 2006:136-7). Reddy describes other examples of such behavior, including exaggerated hip swinging; aggression, such as extensive verbal abuse; and “demonstrations of ‘shamelessness’ signified by the potential exposure of (mutilated) genitalia” (Reddy 2006:55). Reddy’s examples strongly reflect Toya’s description of the community’s “exaggerated behavior” above.
A couple of weeks ago I was riding back to Madurai on a public bus with Gopi, having just accompanied her to a talk she gave at Gandhi Gram Rural University on non-binary identities. When we found two empty seats, Gopi stood back to let me sit down first. I assumed this was because a woman was sitting in the third seat by the window, and it would be inappropriate in Tamil Nadu for a “man” to sit next to a female stranger when a “woman” could instead. After we took our seats, I immediately found my sandwiched spot uncomfortable. The tall, young woman sitting next to me had her legs spread out wide and did not make any attempts to give me space. Though I sat with my legs squeezed together, Gopi was forced to sit with almost half her body off the seat with her left leg hanging out in the aisle. The stranger’s posture struck me as very unusual for a Tamil woman, or even for a Tamil man for that matter; in my experience courteous behavior was typical among South Indians. Women especially, however, are expected to be reserved and not draw attention to themselves. I thus found myself even more surprised when the woman chatted loudly in Tamil, smiled, and giggled with two young men in the row in front of us. Forcing me to squeeze back and contain the space my body took up even more, the woman reached in front of me to playfully whack the back of the head of the man closest to the aisle. At this point I started to consciously examine her voice, which indeed seemed deep to me. However, I was cautious to make assumptions: “Surely this would be too good a coincidence,” I thought. “Listening to Gopi talk about gender minorities for an hour and a half is just making my brain look for signs,” I told myself. I continued quietly observing her in my uncomfortable seating position. She indeed was tall and broad shouldered, but at the same time her smooth skin and sari made her look like “any other” Tamil woman.
“She’s a transwoman,” Gopi said to me.
“I thought maybe…”
The chance encounter left a vivid impression on me. I expected Indian transwomen to try to “blend in,” but instead this woman completely subverted my gender expectations for her. This unembarrassed “exaggerated behavior” certainly complicates the notion that Indian transwomen are trying “imitate” the appearance and behavior of ciswomen as much as possible.
Another major characteristic of the hijra community is its extensive network of ritualistic, adopted kinship relations. When I asked Sachi what relations were like within “[her] community,” she responded, “It’s sisters. It’s mostly, it’s mostly matriarchal relationships. Sisters, mothers, specifically… Daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter [indistinguishable] lot of beautiful relationships. Very beautiful”(March 14, 2014. Interview). Indeed, often rejected by their families of origin, these kinship relations provide emotional and material support (Reddy 2006:157). Revathi described feeling an “inexplicable love” between her and her first guru the day she had adopted her as her chela, or daughter (Revathi 2010:23). She wrote, “I could not bear being parted from her, she who had understood my feelings, respected me, sought to guide me” (Revathi 2010:26). These relations also, however, often involve many conflicts as well. The gurus and nayaks, or heads of houses, hold much authority over their chelas who are held under strict community rules, which can cause much tension as extensively described in Reddy’s text (Reddy 2006:158). I also got a small sense of this during our chance encounter on the bus: After enquiring where she was from and which “chief” she was under, Gopi told me confidently that the transwoman must have lied to her about which “chief” she belonged to in order to not “get in trouble” for traveling to another city. When I asked Gopi if everybody in the trans community was in these kinship networks, she said, “98%. The ones who don’t, don’t have respect.” This is reflective of Reddy’s description that without a kinship network, a hijra is illegitimate and not a “real” hijra in the eyes of other members of the community (Reddy 2006:154).
The final characteristics of a “traditional” hijra that I will discuss are the competing ideal of asexuality and sexuality with pantis. Among hijras, there are two hierarchical subgroups based upon occupation: kandra hijras, or sex workers; and badhai hijras, or ritual practitioners who are “believed to be endowed with the power to confer fertility on newly weds” (Reddy 2006:56), and are considered among all hijras to be the more respected occupation (Reddy 2006:81). The power of badhai hijras is legitimized through the Hindu belief in asceticism, associated in the human world as opposed to sexuality and fertility, paradoxically is associated in the mythical world with erotic and procreative power (Reddy 2006:85-6). Hindu myths recount gods who attain their creative and sexual powers through sustained chastity, only to have this power lost when their chastity is broken (Reddy 2006:85-6).
Reddy draws an interesting parallel between an ideal of the hijra life trajectory and evolution of Hindu philosophy. Historically, another path to liberation in Hindu philosophy – in contrast to the path of tapas where liberation is attained through asceticism – is the path of tantraor sexual eroticism. These mutually exclusive, opposing paths were eventually somewhat philosophically resolved through the development of the four asramas, or life stages: “Simply stated, the ideal life according to Vedic scripture, consists of four asramas, or stages of life, namely brahmacarya, the period of education and discipleship; grhastya, the life of the householder; vanaprasta, the life of a hermit, preparatory to the last stage; and sannyasa or the life of an ascetic” (Reddy 2006:88). Like the four asramas, many hijras understand their life cycle to begin as a kandra hijra in their youth and then later to claim asexuality and become a badhai hijra (Reddy 2006:91). This can explain the contradicting qualifications of being a “real” hijra – many hijras claim that all hijras desire pantis (men who are not kotis), while others claim that hijras are devoid of sexual desire at all (Reddy 2006:79).
With the characteristics of a “traditional” hijra now illustrated, I will briefly outline other categories of kotis. Reddy extensively describes a wide variety of koti categories, which interestingly include distinctions solely based on religion, I will contain my focus to zanana kotis, kada-catla kotis, and AC/DCs. Zanana kotis can be summed up as “those kada-catla kotis [non-sari-wearing kotis] who have rit [initiation into the adopted kinship networks]” (Reddy 2006:62). Unlike hijras, zenana kotis “pass” in public, appearing as “any other man.” When in a group of other kotis, however, their behavior transforms to more feminine gestures and speech patterns (Reddy 2006:60-1). Though they do not live in group housing as hijras do, they have their own network of adopted kinship relations which garners them much respect among hijras (Reddy 2006:63). Unlike hijras, though, zenana kotis do not undergo the nirvan operation (Reddy 2006:62). However, similar to badhai hijras, zenana kotis’ main occupation of singing and dancing is legitimized through historical tradition (Reddy 2006:62).
The primary difference between kada-catla kotis and zenana kotis is that kada-catla kotis do not have rit, garnering them far less respect from the view of the hijra community (Reddy 2006:64). Kada-catla kotis are also garnered less respect from hijras because of their high enjoyment of “homosex,” a characterization not only described by hijras but also kada-catla kotis themselves, who state that “they are in this line for the sex and excitement” (Reddy 2006:64). These qualities demonstrate the hijra ideal of asexuality and the importance of kinship relations in hijra identity. Reddy describes how while kada-catla kotis wear men’s clothes out in public, some dress more femininely or wear women’s clothes for certain parts of the day (Reddy 2006:66) – “kings by day, queens by night” (Reddy 2006:64).
AC/DCs, or “double-deckers,” are a highly disparaged by the hijra community. Such individuals, rather than solely being a “top” or a “bottom,” switched their sexual role to either be the penetrated or penetrating partner. Such activity was described as “disgusting” by hijras (Reddy 2006:72).
The last broad gender group in the “traditional” Indian conception of gender, distinct from narans and kotis, are pantis. Like kotis, pantis are male assigned at birth, but unlike them, pantis are seen as “real men” (Reddy 2006:48). Such men are characterized by their “[desire] and [engagement] in sex with women or with kotis” (Reddy 2006:48). While many kotis married women and fathered children, this viewed as mere social obligation and did not affect their view as themselves as kotis (Reddy 2006:48). For hijras specifically, however, any “insinuation of heterosexuality…prior to formal hijra membership was among the worst accusations in the community – one that occasioned…virtual ostracism by other hijras” (Reddy 2006:51-2).
To summarize, in general, besides the paradoxical asexual ideal that is often present, a koti is defined as a person who was male assigned at birth but were “like narans” and desired pantis; while a panti is defined as a person who was male assigned at birth and was a “real man,” characterized by his desire for and sexual engagement with narans and kotis. This conceptualization of gender, then, is very much intertwined with sexuality. Narans, whose sexual anatomy is seen as only allowing them to be in the receptive sexual role, are thus inevitably characterized as desiring and engaging in sex with pantis; lesbians are unimaginable, rendering this a very phallocentric model of gender (Reddy 2006:52). Within the koti gender category itself, gendered roles and behavior are not the only components distinguishing gender subgroups. Non-gendered components such as adopted kinship relations and asexuality are important defining characteristics as well.
These key aspects of this “traditional” “Indian” model of gender and sexuality are in contrast to those of the “modern” “Western” model. Stanford’s health center website outlines a “Glossary of Transgender Terms” that well reflects the particular “modern” “Western” model of gender and sexuality being discussed (Vaden Health Center). Unlike in the “traditional” “Indian” model which strongly intertwines sexuality and gender, gender and sexual orientation are seen as separate, distinct qualities of an individual. Sexual orientation is defined as “A term that describes what people an individual is sexually and/or emotionally attracted to.” In other words, the determining characteristics of sexuality are solely the types of people one is attracted to independent of one’s sexual role as penetrator or penetrated. This creates space for the possibility of conceptualizing female-assigned people who desire and engage in sex other female-assigned people. Lesbianism is thus recognized as a legitimate sexuality under this model. Moreover, while there is certainly a pressure to be only either gay or straight, bisexuality is generally acknowledged as a legitimate sexual orientation as well, demonstrating more flexibility in sexual roles in this model’s conceptualization of sexuality. One’s sexuality is not seen as related to one’s gender; regardless of a person’s gender, a person can be attracted to any particular types of people. Moreover, this model generally conceptualizes people as less strictly confined to one sexual role.
Gender as a distinct quality from sexuality, like gender in the “traditional” “Indian” model, is related to preference for gendered clothes, appearance, and behavior; as well as the type of body one desires. Because gender is not strictly tied to one’s sexual role as penetrator or penetrated, people who are female-assigned are like male-assigned people seen as capable of having multiple genders. People whose gender matches the sex they are assigned at birth are referred to as cisgender. For people who identify as “the opposite sex” as their sex assigned at birth, the term is transgender. Out of frustration for the mainstream gender binary model of only allowing the two options “man” or “woman” whether cis or trans, the terms genderqueer was coined for people who feel they are in between, beyond, or a mixture of man and woman. Some genderqueer people choose to identify as transgender, while others do not. For those genderqueer people who do not identify transgender, the term “trans*” was coined by a progressive segment of the Internet community and is meant to be inclusive all non-cisgender identities (It’s pronounced METROsexual).
With these two basic models now outlined, I will problematize the notion that members of the modern-day Indian trans* and queer community conceptualize gender and sexuality through the lens of completely one model or another. Instead, both of these models often have a mixture of influences on an individual. Moreover, members of the modern-day Indian trans* and queer community imagine gender and sexuality in ways that are also influenced by aspects such as class, education, religious conservatism, and nationalism.
An analysis of the opinions Gopi expressed to me throughout our interviews and informal interactions helps demonstrate my argument. As mentioned above, Gopi is the first person in Tamil Nadu to publicly advocate recognition, understanding, and inclusion of non-binary identities. She typically uses modern Western terms to describe these identities; such as genderqueer, androgynous, and agender. However, though she often uses Western terms in referencing non-binary identities, her means of validating these identities are through references to ancient Indian history and mythology. When describing how she came to realize her gender identity as an agender person, Gopi said:
Gopi: Those people help me – Sachi sent me online link, [indistinguishable] and it will kind of say, it will kind of reveal one’s gender what we have.
Jay Pulitano: [laughs] like an online gender quiz?
G: Gender quiz or test…But I don’t believe, I just underwent. And it showed I am a genderqueer person. It showed me that I am an androgynous person. And I started looking back, when I read epics, when I read scriptures, all of the great people, even the gods which we worship, even when I am visiting the temples I used to see male statues – so-called “male” statues – wearing earrings, beautiful ornaments, a dhoti in a very kind of different style – which I prefer – low. It breaks the boundaries of that male-ness and female-ness… Indian culture is originally ridden with legends and mythologies where heroes and heroines have chosen various genders without guilt and their choices being respected and accepted. And ironically, today the Western nations are progressive in researching and educating about gender and sexuality expression. And we, despite our rich cultural heritage of respecting and accepting gender variations, are lagging behind, and even lagging the sensitivity. (March 18, 2014. Interview)
Gopi strongly criticizes the fact that modern Indian LGBT movements do not work with this “theoretical base” (March 18, 2014. Interview) but rather merely “imitate” Western LGBT movements, which are laden with over-emphasis on sex:
Gopi: When Western notions of addressing rights entered India, it was quite – they approached everything in the Western way…They want to imitate the gay rights, act like kissing on the public, and um, having sex in the parks, you know. Holding hands together. It’s not even possible for a heterosexual couples India.
Jay Pulitano: So, if um… If there are Indians who identify as gay, and want to kiss in public, is that a bad thing?
G: [compliments my shirt, sidetracked] Any means of hyper-perversive-ness should be prohibited in India. 52.24
JP: How do you define what perversive-ness is though?
G: Perversive-ness is um, uh, kissing two people in public, it’s not, it’s not up to our culture, we believe. Even though plenty of statues, nude statues, because, see, immediately people will go on saying that, “see, ancient temples had all those sculptures which is nude and having sex.” We got plenty of traditions in India. We have one tradition, left hand[?] tradition we call, tantra, attaining or worshipping god through sex-like pagans[?]. So, um, their tradition was there. But when it comes to, different cultures are here, right? Maybe, [indistinguishable] or Bengal or in Nepal it’s fine, kissing, a male and female kissing in the public. But it’s not okay in Tamil Nadu. It’s not okay in Karnataka…[etc.]…Even between male and female it’s not okay. (March 19, 2014. Interview)
Gopi is thus constructing an emphasis on sex to be a “Western” value as opposed to an “Indian” value. Indeed, sexual reservation can be said to have roots in traditional Indian thought through the philosophy of tapas that hijras use to legitimize their ideal of asexuality. However, as Gopi notes herself, the Indian tradition of tantra – the same philosophy that traditional hijras arguably use to validate their younger stage of life as prostitutes – can conceivably be used to validate the emphasis on sex in modern LGBT movements. Interestingly, Gopi is willing to legitimize certain aspects of the modern Western LGBT movement – its inclusion and acceptance of non-binary identities – as legitimized by Indian cultural heritage, but not others – specifically, the emphasis on sexual freedom. Gopi’s view that sexual liberalism is not “Indian” is likely influenced by her training in a yogic monastery where I know she was taught specific ascetic values such as abstaining from coffee and tea. She presumably may have been taught ascetic values related to sexual activity as well. Although this is only a conjecture, assuming it is true at least to some extent supports the argument that various cultural influences – such as those from religious conservatism and from Western liberalism – can creature mixtures of viewpoints in one’s conceptualization of ideal forms of gender and sexuality.
Dave’s Queer Activism helps give an interesting perspective on Gopi’s argument that LGBT movements in India should have a strong theoretical basis rooted in Indian cultural heritage. In one chapter of Queer Activism, Dave recounts how when the lesbian movement was first emerging in India, certain middle-class feminists were hesitant to use the word “lesbian” “in the name of cultural authenticity and political expediency” (Dave 2012:35). However, while Dave notes the necessity of criticizing Western hegemony, she also notes, “…women in India, outside of elite, urban activist networks, could and did consider themselves to be lesbian” (Dave 2012:41). One other way of putting this argument is, how can one say being a “lesbian” is not “Indian” if Indians are calling themselves lesbians? In the same vein, can one argue that sexual liberalism is not “Indian” if Indians are becoming sexually liberal? Dave also makes the important point that only those who are urban, middle-class, and educated tend to have access to this argument for cultural authenticity. Class is thus intertwined with this elitist language of cultural heritage.
While Gopi appears to have an “Indian” conservatism with sexual liberalization, other viewpoints of hers appear to be rooted in the “modern” “Western” model. For example, Gopi criticizes Madhavi for lumping gays and lesbians into the category of transgender. She said, “They don’t even know – I don’t know whether they are not aware that the terms gay and lesbian refer to sexual identity and have nothing to do with gender identity of a person, right?” (March 18, 2014. Interview). Madhavi’s conceptualization of gender and sexuality, however, may be influenced by the traditional hijra imagining of gender which places great importance on sexual roles in determining gender. Gopi’s conceptualization of gender and sexuality is clearly based on a mixture of influences from the “Western” and “traditional” models.
Related to this aspect of imagining gender, one of Sachi’s comments indicated there is diversity within the community as to whether or not sexuality is related to gender. When I asked Sachi if kotis – who were unanimously defined by my participants as “effeminate men” – were considered transgender, for example, she said they “could be.” She added, “Because every individual has his own – or her own – their own expression and identity. I don’t want to label.” (March 14, 2014. Interview). If kotis are primarily defined by their attraction to men – they are “effeminate” but still “men” – the fact that there is a diversity in considering them “transgender” or not implies there is a diversity in imagining the connection between gender and sexuality.
Gopi also critiques Madhavi for resisting protests made for educational rights for transwomen “because if transwomen get educated, there will be nobody left for her prostitution business,” she told me informally. I speculate if this second critique is related to comments my participants have made describing regional differences between the transgender communities of the north and south. According to Toya, because of northern religious myths, there is a higher prevalence in northern India that hijras have powers of auspiciousness (March 18, 2014. Interview). I speculate if this comment is connected to Sachi’s statement that the “the thirunangai community in Tamil Nadu is more open than the hijra community of the north in accepting social changes” (March 14, 2014. Interview). Gopi explained in one of our interviews that while the northern community had more respect from the public because of these beliefs in auspiciousness, in Tamil Nadu the community had more legal rights due to the fact that certain transwomen were able to get educated and fight for social change (March 18, 2014. Interview). With Gopi’s accusation of Madhavi in mind, perhaps the north’s greater demand for prostitution contributes to its lower level of legal rights. Class and regional differences thus may be related in the legal rights transwomen have access to. These differences may influence the level of attachment to the “traditional” hijra model in general if these prostitution businesses have an incentive to maintain strict kinship structures.
Jaya’s opinions are also interesting to observe. Gopi often commended her for including genderqueers and transmen in her politics. I was thus surprised that when I asked her who she was attracted to, she said, “You know.” I laughed and responded, “No I don’t. That’s why I’m asking!” She then asked whom I was attracted to, as if this fact was obvious. When I told her I was attracted to women, she said, “Just like you, I’m attracted to men. I’m a woman, so it’s natural,” implying because I told her I identify as a transman, it was “natural” for me to like women (March 26, 2014. Interview). It is also interesting to note that when I first asked her the question, I asked, “How do you identify in terms of sexual orientation?” but I had to reword the question because she was not familiar with the notion of “sexual orientation.” I thus found it interesting that simultaneous with a “Western” inclusion for transmen and non-binary people was an “Indian” notion that it was “natural” for women to like men, as opposed to a conceptualization of sexuality that is independent of gender.
V. Concluding Remarks
Overall, this project challenged my assumptions that one’s reality of gender and sexuality is merely based on gender and sexuality. Different social components; such as culture, class, religion, and national; can have drastic effects on these subjective realities. Moreover, as I hope I have demonstrated in this essay, different models of these realities influence and shape one another in fluid ways, rendering a simplified categorization of a gender and sexuality model to be problematic. Like the social forces that influence gender and sexuality, these experiences are fluid, complex, and ever shifting.
Dave, Naisargi N.
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It’s pronounced METROsexual.
“What does the asterisk in “trans*” stand for?” Accessed April 11, 2014. http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2012/05/what-does-the-asterisk-in-trans-stand-for/
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Vaden Health Center, Stanford.
“Glossary of Transgender Terms.” Accessed April 11, 2014. https://vaden.stanford.edu/health_library/transgendertermsglossary.html
2003. Essentialism, Cutlure, and Beliefs About Gender Among the Aravanis of Tamil Nadu, India. In Sex Roles. Vol. 49, No. 9-10, Pp. 489-96.
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