Imagine a woman — feminine, poised and attractive.
One fine day, she wakes up to an astonishing shock: she has a man’s body. All hell breaks loose when she realizes that she can no longer wear earrings and jewelry. She can’t grow, tie or bind her hair as she likes. She can’t polish nails, apply lipstick or don that new glittering sari that she adores. How would she feel?
Welcome to the World of Transgenders
This is how transgenders feel, every single day. Public humiliation, discrimination and discouragement are an everyday thing. They’re called “chakka” every time they appear. They’re humiliated and rebuked every time they speak about their desires and dreams. They’re ignored on every special occasion. They’re judged because of the way they look.
Not a happy place to be in right?
According to the Times of India, there are 490,000 people who live this reality on a daily basis. Compared to the rest of the population, clearly, the transgenders are in the minority. This is even more dismaying for them because being a minority in India is even worse than being an untouchable. For them, it’s like being invisible, non-existent and left out.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Plight Of Transgenders
The biggest cause of worry for transgenders is concerning their identification and acceptance. Because they’re transgenders as well as a minority, their needs are often never taken into account. Just consider the documentation process in our country, for instance. After filling in the name column, the next block to tick is gender.
And there comes the ultimate dilemma for transgenders: to choose between male and female.
Though the Supreme Court last year had ruled in favour of transgenders and granted them their rights, the question is: are they being implemented? No. The third gender is still not identified in our country.
The forms that are required to be filled to open bank accounts or apply for a driver’s licence still follow the old norms. Because of this, transgenders can’t buy a house, open a bank account or even vote. Not being able to fill forms means not having an identity in this country. And not having an identity means not being employable.
So how do they make a living then?
Forget about earning money, they are denied even the most basic educational and medical facilities. People turn their backs on them when they suffer from depression, hormone pill abuse, tobacco and alcohol addiction and STD diseases.
Fearing this plight, they often tend to hide their real identities and blend in. But for how long?
Once society comes to know about who they really are, they’re pushed to the periphery as social outcasts. Bad turns to worse when even their families disown them. So they either end up begging or become a part of the Hijra community.
The Hijra Community
Transgenders who are unable to tolerate the discrimination at home run away from their families and find solace in Hijra communities. And finally for the first time in their lives, they feel significant. In these communities, they meet transgenders who have suffered similar miseries in their lives and who intend to fight against them together.
These transgenders are then popularly referred to as Hijras. Dressed in glittering saris and bright makeup, Hijras gather around temples, arrive on special occasions and sometimes even on streets and trains to offer blessings. In return, they ask for money and make a living out of it.
Sounds like any other community? Delve a little deeper and there’s a system of strong hierarchy and control in there.
Inside the Hijra Community
Tucked away within these communities, is a firm social structure – organised around the hierarchy of the guru or mother, over her chela or daughter. Before one officially becomes a Hijra, the person has to make a pledge to hand over all their earnings to the guru, who in exchange supports and provides shelter to the person.
Then come in the traditional “pluckers” from the Hijra community who pluck all the body hair from the bodies of transgenders to transform the male appearance to female. They then start going out in public as females. These communities across South-East Asia date back more than 4000 years.
The experience of becoming a Hijra is psychologically and physically traumatic for transgenders. There’s body-altering hormone treatment following which they have to undergo several operations to reassign their sexual organs.
The process, known as “feminization”, is extremely costly.
A breast augmentation operation alone can cost about Rs. 66,000. Castration surgeries are equally expensive. To help finance their transformation, transgenders who don’t have not many options left, choose to become sex workers.
Other than the financial burden, the process takes a huge physical toll as well.
After the castration, a Hijra cannot work for almost 5 to 6 months because of the excruciating pain. It happens in a dingy, unhygienic room and immediately after the castration, the Hijra is asked to leave because the process is illegal. The operations are normally done by quacks, and a lot of Hijras die because of that.
Evidently, their life is a living hell and is often made worse with society’s insensitive attitudes.
Why aren’t they accepted for who they are?
The reason for non-acceptance is simple and stupid at the same time: they look different.
This is a mindset problem. Our society has always projected transgenders in a bad light. Kids grow up observing their parents, teachers and friends disrespecting and demeaning transgenders in public. Even the movies and songs openly humiliate the third gender. Naturally, a majority of people over time start to believe that there’s something ‘wrong’ with transgenders. Instead of trying to understand who they really are, society judges them inappropriately.
So who are transgenders really?
When people talk about transgenders, they assume that these are people who have incompatible sexual features and identities. For instance, people think those who look like males but have features of females are transgendered. This definition of transgender is only partly true. The term has a broader meaning than what people generally think.
To understand it simply, here are a few examples of transgendered people.
Cross-dressers: People who like to wear clothes, makeup and accessories of the opposite sex.
Multi-gendered: People who experience more than one gender identity.
Androgynous (also called Two Spirits): People who have both masculine and feminine physical features.
This picture above depicts Andrej Pejic, an androgynous celebrity from Bosnia who has appeared in both women’s and men’s fashion shows.
Observing this socially divergent nature of transgenders, people assume that they are mentally ill rebels or products of western culture. But by taking a look at the country’s history and mythology one can realize that being a transgender is as Indian and human as can be.
Transgenders in Indian Mythology
Many deities in Indian mythology are represented in both male and female forms.
Ardhanarishvara, for instance, is formed by the merging of Shiva and Parvati. The name Ardhanarishvara means “The Lord whose half is a woman”. Similarly, a merger occurs between the Goddess of prosperity Lakshmi and her husband Vishnu, forming Lakshmi-Narayana. The icon symbolizes the oneness of male and female forms.
In Mahabharata, Arjuna, one of the most ferocious warriors of his time, spent the thirteenth year of his exile as a eunuch at King Virata’s Matsya Kingdom. Another reference is Shikhandini. She was born a female, but raised as a man and trained to fight in the battlefields. After an encounter with a Yaksha, Shikhandini returned as a man after exchanging her sex with him and was called Shikhandi.
Evidently, Indian mythology has a plenty of examples that prove the existence of transgenders. In fact, a look back in time reveals that transgenders were not only in existence, but they were treated with respect as well.
Then why are they seen as maniacs today? Why are they treated as pariahs?
Being a Transgender is not a Mental Disorder
This assumption is one of the major causes of their unfair treatment. Many assume that this is a mental condition.
But that’s not the case. Many experts believe that biological factors such as genetic influences, prenatal hormone levels, early experiences, and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood — all contribute to the development of transgender identities. So calling it a mental disorder is the most ignorant and illogical assumption one can ever make.
If the word “transgender” is broken into two, we get “trans” and “gender”. Essentially meaning, “transcending gender” or “moving beyond gender.”
The problem is that society views and decide a lot of things based on gender. Therefore, there are countless stereotypes and norms that create boundaries and barriers between us. The real need of the hour is to transcend these boundaries and accept each other as who we really are. The good news is slow steps are being taken in that direction.
The state of Kerala has unveiled a transgender policy. The policy aims to give transgender people in the state a platform to be able to demand a right to equality, dignity, development and expression. Now that surely is a positive change.
But is that enough?
True change can’t happen unless the boundaries that exist in minds across the country are broken. It begins with first knowing about the reality of the transgender population. Instead of ignoring them or their problems, it’s important to talk to them and listen to their concerns. Then, if possible, stand up and fight for them. For them, even a simple acceptance of their existence is a huge thing.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a popular transgender activist, said this in an interview:
“I am a hijra and have been accepted by my family. This is rare in a culture where deviant sexuality is enough for parents to disown their offspring”
Transgenders are not demanding reservation seats or special services for being a minority. They are simply asking to be accepted and granted equal opportunities. Is that too much to ask?