Bengaluru recently hosted the 2015 edition of its Pride March and Queer Habba. It was a celebration for sexual minorities, and saw numerous members of the community onto the streets in a display of colour and celebration. NGOs, sex workers, people with different sexual orientations and supporters were present.
While most present at the event knew of or understood sexual identities like gay, lesbian and bisexual, there are several other specific sexual identities which we are not aware of, let alone understand. it is imperative to acknowledge these India-specific and worldwide identities, since they give a voice to people who may identify themselves differently from others.
Not all transgender people are the same
While most of us are familiar with terms within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) bracket, did you know there are four different identities under just ‘Transgender’?
To begin with, there are transgender people and transsexuals. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD) media reference guide, transgender talks about a ‘gender identity’, which is a ‘social or psychological’ rather than a ‘biological' identity.
It may be different from their ‘sexual or biological identity’, which they were born with. Transsexual, on the other hand, has a biological basis. Those who have permanently changed their bodies through surgery or hormones, or wish to do so, may identify themselves as transsexual.
The ‘T’ doesn’t stop there. GLAAD’s guide goes on to tell that both transsexual and transgender can be suffixed by either ‘man’ or ‘women’. A transgender man is biologically female, but identifies himself and lives life as a man. A transsexual man was born biologically female, but either underwent a permanent sex change or wishes to go for one. Similarly, a female transgender or a female transsexual identifies herself in the same equation.
While referring to anyone within the ‘T’ bracket, it is imperative to know which pronoun to refer to him or her. You must always use what they prefer to be referred as.
Did you know transsexual/transgender is different from drag queen?
Another confusion is when ‘drag queen’ or ‘cross-dresser’ is considered synonymous with 'T', however, these terms simply refers to someone who enjoys wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex, whether they are heterosexual, gay/lesbian, or bisexual.
What does ‘queer’ mean? Is it different from being gay or a transgender person?
Now, when the bracket is extended, you arrive at ‘Q’ or Questioning/Queer/Genderqueer. The Bengaluru Pride March explicitly mentions ‘Queer Habba’ or ‘Queer festival’ in its naming. Yet, this sexual identity is not well recognised, even though many were present at the recent pride. Queer people are those who feel their gender identity falls outside the categories of man or woman. They would either consider themselves as falling between the two genders, or wholly different from them. However, they are in no way transsexual or transgender, since that would mean identifying as either of the sexes/genders. Intersex, on the other hand, is the term used for an individual with biological characteristics of both genders, although they may choose to identify with one.
Other than these internationally recognised identities, there are some very specific to our nation. Most NGOs are focused on their rehabilitation and well-being, considering the levels of exploitation and discrimination they have faced over the years. Broadly, they are Hijras, Kothis, Panthis, Jogappas and Double Deckers.
Isn’t ‘Hijra’ just the Indian term for transsexuals/transgendered?
The Hijra community in India is over 4,000 years old. Although many of them have biological and sexual identities same as the above-mentioned global identities, cultural and behavioral differences make it imperative for their recognition as an identity of their own. They include cross-dressers, intersex people, as well as transsexual and transgender people. They worship goddess Bahuchara Mata in the North and Goddess Yellamma or Renuka in the South, believing in their diving power ‘to change one’s sex’. They live together in mid to large sized communities; many are sex-workers, and mostly don saris. Many of them undergo a ritual known as ‘Nirwaan’, or the removal of their private parts. They have long being a part of Indian culture; though today have been pushed to the margins of society due to discrimination and ill-treatment.
Kothis, Double Deckers, Panthis, Jogappa - who are they?
A Kothi is often mistaken as a Hijra, but that is not the case. The term refers to a man or a boy with effeminate characteristics, who behaviourally takes on the role of the ‘female’ in same-sex relationships and would usually be the penetrated member during sex.
Panthi, on the other hand, is the term used for someone who takes on the behavioural role of the ‘male’ and would be the penetrator or inserter.
Finally, gay or transgender men ritualistically married to the Goddess Yellama in South India are known as Jogappas. They are often seen handling various temple proceedings.
It is extremely difficult to apply international conventions of sexual identity on such groups, whose existence is guided by their profession, religions belief, and cultural rituals. However, cases of STDs and exploitation remains high, and social discrimination is severe. The Indian law also doesn’t do much to protect their rights, or ensure that they carry on with their trade and livelihood properly. All of this is in spite of the fact that the role of the Hijra as a mid-wife, a spiritual being, and an auspicious ‘bringer of luck’ made them an essential part of Indian society once upon a time.