History

Transgender identities and culture is deep routed in Indian culture. In India, various ancient scriptures indicate three genders distinctively; Nara (Man), Nari (Woman) and Kinnar (the one who is not identified as male). The main two epics of Indian history, Ramayana and Mahabharata which has been written approximately 2,500 years B.C. also talks important identities such as Shikhandi, Bhihannnala, Kinnnar who were considered and respected as an important part of the Indian society. These individuals were noted as dance teachers, guards, worriers, queens and kings, consultant to the king’s advisory and many more important positions such as ‘fortune tellers’. The traditional reference of the identities kinnar refer towards the ‘dancers and musicians or artist’ in the kingdom of lord ‘Indra’ (kind of gods).

 

As a result of more than 300 slavery and the invasions on India, trans communities were immensely discriminated in the mainstream society due to the discriminatory laws such as ‘Tribal Act’. The constant discrimination and legal harassment pushed the trans communities survive on the outskirt of the society and also live mysterious life. Their core survival was called ‘Badhai’ which means giving blessings on the happy occasions through songs and dancing. Post-independence, India took almost five decades to come out of the poverty and religious conflict induced by the British government ruling. During the entire time trans identities were invisible and unrecognized. They were considered for blessings but out casted from the mainstream society.

 

Transgender people in India are known with different gender identities. Some of the major identities are explained below,

Hijras : women, or “not-men”, or “in-between man and woman”, or “neither man nor woman”. Hijras can be considered as the western equivalent of Transgender/transsexual (male-to-female) persons, however, they have a long tradition/culture and have strong social ties formalized through a ritual called “reet” (becoming a member of Hijra community). There are regional variations in the use of the term ‘Hijra’. For example, the term ‘Kinnar’ is used in Delhi and the term ‘Aravani’ in Tamil Nadu.  Many Hijras earn through traditional work: ‘Badhai’ (ritual of clapping their hands and asking for alms), blessing new-born babies, or dancing in ceremonies (like weddings). Some Hijras engage in sex work for lack of other job opportunities, while some may be self-employed or work for non-governmental organizations.

 

Aravanis/Thirunangai : Many Hijras in Tamil Nadu call themselves “Aravani”. The Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Welfare Board, a state government initiative under the Department of Social Welfare defines.  Aravanis as biological males, who self-identify themselves as women trapped in a male body.  Some Aravani activists however want the public and media to use the term ‘Thirunangi’ rather than Aravani.

 

Shiv Shakti : Shiv-Shaktis are males who are ‘possessed’ by or considered close to a goddess and who have feminine gender expressions. Usually, Shiv-Shaktis are inducted into the Shiv-Shakti community by senior gurus, who teach them the norms, customs, and rituals to be observed by them. In the ‘induction ceremony’, Shiv-Shaktis are ‘married’ to a sword (symbolizing male power or Shiva (deity)). Shiv-Shaktis are thus seen as the bride of the sword. Occasionally, Shiv-Shakthis cross-dress and use accessories and ornaments that are generally/socially meant for women. Most people in this community belong to lower socio-economic status and earn their living by working as astrologers, soothsayers, and spiritual healers; some also seek alms.

 

Jogappas : Jogappas are devotees of the Goddess Yellamma (a popular deity in Southern India) to whom they are dedicated to by their family members. Sometimes, some biologically male-born adults who express feminine gender characteristics choose to join the Jogappa community. These two groups can join only with the with community acceptance. An initiation ritual formalized by  Guru marks the acceptance of a person as a Jogappa. Most Jogapppas are seen in public wearing female attire, but some may be seen wearing ‘lungis’[1]. However, all grow long hair and use ornaments and other accessories meant for women. Community norms discourage emasculation and getting married to a woman and those community members who transgress these community norms cannot perform religious rituals and may affect their social standing within their community.

 

Trans women : Male to female transgender community who identify themselves as woman and would like to identify as trans woman.

 

Trans man : Female to male transgender people were extremely invisible in India for long time and also quite often been counted under the lesbian community. Trans men work was effectively done by Sampoorna Group for long time. Recently the visibility of the transmen has increased and many young transmen are taking lead in addressing the trans men issues and giving due visibility to the issues.

[1] A lungi is a traditional garment worn around the waist mostly by men of the Indian subcontinent