In a limbo

“We are trained to see male or female and to plot people into those categories when they don’t actually fit neatly at all. But if we pause, watch and listen closely, we’ll see the multiplicity of ways in which people are sexed or gendered. There exists a range of personal identification around woman, man, in-between ~ we don’t even have names or pronouns that reflect that in between place but people certainly live in it.” ~ Minnie Bruce Pratt

In our culture, a hijra (also known by a number of different names) is usually considered a member of “the third sex” ~ neither man nor woman. Most are physically male or intersex, but some are female. But hijras usually refer to themselves as female and usually dress like women. Census data does not exist, but estimates put their population to be between 50,000 and 5,000,000 in India (according to 2004 estimates). An older name for hijras is kinnar, which is used by some hijra groups as a more respectable and formal term. They are also called by other names. In Tamil Nadu, the equivalent term is aravanni, aravani, or aruvani. In Urdu and Punjabi, both in Pakistan and India, the term used is khusra. Other terms include jankha.In South India, the goddess Yellamma is believed to have the power to change one’s sex. Male devotees in women’s attire are known as jogappa. They perform similar roles as hijra, such as dancing and singing at birth ceremonies and weddings. These identities don’t have an exact match in contemporary Western taxonomy of gender and sexual orientation. Most are born male (apparently), but some could be intersex (with ambiguous genitalia). They are often perceived as members of the third sex and most see themselves as neither men nor women. Some, however, may see themselves (or be seen as) female, ‘feminine’ males or androgynes. Then there are those who are influenced by discourses around sexual minorities and may identify as transgender or trans-sexual women. Unlike Western transsexual women, hijras generally do not attempt to pass as women. According to some reports, few have genital modifications and some consider nirwaan (“castrated”) hijras to be the “true” hijras. According to the two key diagnostic systems used in Indian medical establishments, trans-sexualism is defined as a “gender identity disorder”. Doctors usually prescribe a sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), which resorts to hormone therapy and surgical reconstruction and may include electrolysis, speech therapy and counselling. Surgical construction could include removal of male sex organs and ‘construction’ of those belonging to women. Since government hospitals and qualified private practitioners do not usually perform sexual reassignment surgery, many hijras go to quacks, thus placing themselves at serious risk. Neither the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) nor the Medical Council of India (MCI) formulated any guidelines to be followed in sexual reassignment surgery. LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer), MSM (men who have sex with men) and kothis are a few other terms that tumble out when we talk of transexuality. It is, however, different from what we were talking of so far. While ‘eunuch’ could be a possible gender classification, terms such as LBGTQ, MSM and kothis have more to do with sexual preference. Transgender is a broad term used for eunuchs, and transvestites and hermaphrodites open up a gamut of possibilities in terms of sexuality and psychology. A New Delhi based collective, Sakhi, once declared: “Lesbian practices and lifestyle are Western phenomena. The word lesbian has no meaning in an Indian context. There is no vocabulary for for lesbianism and therefore it does not exist.” (Quoted in Galada, 2001: 11-12)If that is indeed so then what exactly is Yogini-mela (a version of yogic lesbian relations) in Khajuraho? Or what is sex of Tritiya Prakriti in Kama Sutra? There are indeed innumerable terms we do not know of. So, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”, even if it is voluntary, and eventually criminalise LBGTQ, is actually against a particular preference. And if we have a set of codes that censors our preference, can we call our thinking process liberal?


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