16 April 2014

A Third Gender In India

Quite possibly the most revolutionary piece of legislation regarding gender identity and expression was passed two years ago in Argentina.  In essence, it says that any Argentinian aged 18 or older can live as whichever gender he or she chooses. It also authorized doctors, surgeons and other medical professionals to provide the necessary care for those who chose not to live in the gender to which they were assigned at birth.  And, for those who couldn't afford those treatments and therapies, the government would foot the bill.

Now something arguably as radical--or, perhaps even more so--has happened in India.  A couple of days ago, that country's Supreme Court ruled that transgenders are a third gender.  So, for starters, all official forms must allow for trans people to indicate their gender as such, just as males and females check off the boxes that correspond with their sex.  It also allows transgenders to receive government benefits and partake of the social programs to which the rest of the country's citizens are entitled.

On one hand, I am pleased with this development.  Although I identify as female, and would continue to do so even if I were offered the option now available in India, I do not believe that people should be bound to the gender binary if they feel it's inappropriate for the way they identify and express themselves.  

On the other hand, given India's history with transgender people, this development could be troublesome.  I am thinking specifically of the hijra, who are both venerated and stigmatized in the subcontinent's cultures.  

Traditionally, hijras lived outside of the gender norms of Indian society and were believed to have special spiritual (and paranormal) abilities cisgenders don't have.  So, they were often called upon to officiate at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies and to cast, or cast away, spells.  But, even with such a status--which, for the most part, they've lost as India has become more influenced by the West--they were still very poor and begged or even engaged in sex work.   To this day, people give them money simply because they don't want to take the chance that a spurned hijra will send some dark enerty their way.

Given such a history, I have to wonder whether India's new ruling might actually further stigmatize the hijra, as well as other trans people.  I can't help but to think about a trans woman who was a hijra in India and was seeking asylum here.  From what she told me, even though some people still believe hijras have special powers, they can be killed with little or no penalty to those who kill them.  And, according to this trans woman (who will remain nameless, for obvious reasons), many men in her native country "accept" trans people insofar as they can use us sexually, or simply as lurid curiosities.

I guess time will tell what how the Indian Supreme Court's ruling will affect the lives of trans people.