Celebrated, Neglected and Still Fighting: The rise, fall and rise of India’s third gender

The history of transgenders in India stretches beyond antiquity. That’s what makes it special. The transgender community, a.k.a the Hijra community, have had a well recorded history of being an integral part of the Indian society along with numerous religious recognition in Hindu mythology. Whether it be the ‘Ardhanari‘ avatar of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, or Arjun living in disguise as a eunuch during exile in Mahabharat, or even the Kamasutra, which recognized them as the ‘tritiya prakriti‘ or the third gender.

The modern day Hijra identity is a unique blend of gender recognition, sexual freedom and social structure, which is also prone to discrimination, exploitation, poverty and ridicule. Even with a population of approximately half a million across the Indian sub continent, their integration and acceptance, has faced its own problems. In 2014, the Supreme court of India passed the landmark judgement that created the “Third Gender Status”. The Supreme Court also mentioned in its ruling that ‘the absence of a law recognizing hijras as a third gender could not be continued as a ground to discriminate them in availing equal opportunities in education and employment.’

On paper it seemed like a major victory but the ground realities are far from it. For most transgenders, there are only a handful opportunities to chose from. Extortion, which is based on the mythological belief that they have the power to bring extremely good or bad fortunes your way, ranks on top. It is closely followed by performing at ceremonies, begging and sex work, the latter of which, leaves them vulnerable to brutal violence in public spaces, police stations, prisons and even their own homes. The Indian penal system’s ever so shifting stance on criminalization of homosexual sex has worsened matters.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no bright sparks to their gloomy existence. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist and Bharatanatyam dancer, became the country’s first transgender to represent Asia Pacific at the UN. Another name in the Arts Industry is the 6 Pack Band, India’s first transgender musical band, who won the Cannes Grand Prix Glass lion in 2016.

Their involvement on the big stage has started to go way beyond art, including Joyita Mondal (India’s first transgender judge), Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay(India’s first transgender College Professor) and K Prithika Yashini(India’s first transgender to hold office in Indian Police Force).

There are still huge hurdles to cross, most of which revolve around participation of India’s other two recognized genders. While the Indian youth has been more actively vocal about LGBTQ+ rights in the past decade, there are still some ground level practices that hinders their movement in gaining equality, of which a few are mentioned below-

  • The use of words ‘Hijra’ or ‘Chakka’ as a derogatory term.
  • Mockery and verbal abuse in public.
  • Lack of sensitivity training at a grass root level.
  • Prevalence of bias when it comes to workplaces, renting homes, receiving medical treatment and taking part in social activities.
  • Social acceptance and political recognition.

We have a long long road ahead for gender equality and justice, and the transgender community needs a mixture of concrete legal reform and social de-stigmatization, so that they too can feel free and empowered in their public and private lives and have an identity that is perceived beyond the ‘way that they dress’.

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