Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third-gender’ communities

Apr 25, 2016

By Max Bearak

Sexuality’s spectrum is littered with labels. One that is getting increased attention in the U.S. political discourse nowadays is “transgender.” Generally speaking, the label refers to those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. More broadly, it indicates a transgression — to be “trans” is to defy rigid, binary constructions of gender and to live partly, or fully, beyond gender roles expected by society.

But Indian society, if we can momentarily suppose such a monolithic entity, is far older than the post-Victorian, normative society that defines the modern cultures of the West. People we might consider transgender have existed across societies for as long as they themselves have existed, but in South Asia they have formed distinct communities with histories and mythologies that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Age-old texts such as the “Mahabharata” and the “Kama Sutra” refer to eunuchs, and there are tales of gods — even the most powerful of them — who change genders on a whim.

That is partly why the term “transgender” is seldom used in the Indian context. In Indian legalese, the term most commonly employed is “third gender” — as when, two Aprils ago, India’s “third gender” was acknowledged by the country’s Supreme Court, which stated that “it is the right of every human being to choose their gender.” Those wishing to can now indicate that status on government-issued identification and other formal documents, but, more importantly, Indian states were directed to afford special considerations through affirmative action and welfare programs.

In everyday usage, however, terms such as “hijra,” “kothi,” “kinnar,” “shiv-shakti” and “aravani” are more common, depending on which region of the country one is in. Of those, hijra is the most common and has a meaning similar to kinnar and aravani, the latter of which is used exclusively in Tamil Nadu, a southern state, and the former across the north of the country. The term is used by those assigned male gender at birth who do not identify as men. Many wear garish makeup and dress in clothing traditionally worn by women.

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