Not too long ago did India decided to recognize transgender people as a third gender. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruling provided them with the quota for jobs, education, as well as other amenities. An estimate shows that India has over 2 million transgender people, and yet we know so little about them.
Labels like transgender, intersex, and cross-dressers leave us with specific classification, but these terms aren’t always black and white. However, what these labels do for the society is allow room for a conversation that helps us understand what education in schools or in the society continues to neglect. We may try to put them all in one box and call them hijras, but those who identify as transgender, intersex and cross-dressers are all very different from each other.
People who identify themselves as transgender are born with typical male and female reproductive organs but feel as though they have been born into the wrong body. They may be born with the female anatomy but feel like a male and therefore may choose to alter their bodies through medical intervention to more closely resemble their gender identity. Some individuals who transition from one gender to another prefer to be referred to as a man or a woman, rather than as transgender. In India, transgender people don’t necessarily go through surgical transformation but transform on a spiritual level. They undertake a 40-day self-emasculation ritual in the name of the Hindu goddess, Bahuchara Mata.
An Intersex person is a someone born with a combination of male and female biological characteristics that can make it difficult for doctors to assign their sex as distinctively male or female. There are different variations of intersex. Some people may be born with ambiguous genitalia or both internal sex organs such as ovarian and testicular tissue. Some may be born with the XXY chromosome, which is unlike the XX and XY chromosome. For some, internal organs or hormones released during puberty don’t fit into the binaries. Intersex is not necessarily detected at birth but can be so during puberty for many.
Earlier, babies born as intersex would undergo surgery and be assigned a particular sex chosen by their parents. More often than not, they would grow up not recognizing themselves as the sex which would lead them to further undergo transition at a later stage in life, usually during puberty. Lately, there has been an increased attempt in changing the norm, with several activists fighting against the unnecessary sex reassignment surgeries at the infant stage, which strips the child of the right to make a decision for themselves.
Those who cross-dress, on the other hand, are people who wear clothes that are stereotypically meant for a different gender. Transvestites are another, rather unpopular term used for cross-dressers. The term stresses on the way a person dresses rather than his sexual orientation. Those who crossdress usually identify themselves with their assigned sex and do not wish to change. They tend to defy the stereotypes associated with dressing that the society has hammered down on to us right from a young age. It starts with pink and frills for baby girls and blues for baby boys until they are told exactly how they are expected to dress up for as long as they live. Generally, cross-dressers are men who like to dress up in ‘women’s clothing’ simply because it makes them happy. In Zoya Akhtar’s Bombay Talkies, there is a scene where a little boy who loves Katrina Kaif and dances his hips off to the song Sheila ki jawani is made fun of because he dresses in clothes that are ‘meant for girls’. This is unfortunately extremely relevant to how our society functions on a regular basis. Most cross-dressers find their liking towards dressing as the different gender at a very young age. Some are able to continue into the older years, but many are shut down by families and society rather young.
Over the past four years, India has made progress in terms of accepting its citizens of alternate gender identities (if we ignore its 2014 ruling, that is). Kerala’s Kochi Metro Rail Ltd employed 23 transgender people in an effort to provide them job opportunities and a life as part of the mainstream society. Sure, the effort didn’t make much of a difference, but the step counts for a lot. Rajasthan got its first transgender police officer and Tamil Nadu got its first transgender sub-inspector. We are changing as a society, but it will take some time before we actually see some tangible changes.
In India, hundreds of cross-dressers attend three festivals—Chamayavilakku in Kerala, Ganga jatara in Tirupati and Kulasai in Tamilnadu. Traditionally, men in these towns dress as women to please the goddesses and seek blessings. However, nowadays they have to defy families to attend these festivals, says Simi Dcosta, “I can’t explain to my wife what it means to me, most people in India look at us in an unpleasant way. Cross-dressing is considered as homosexual behavior or some form of a sexual dysfunction originating from deviant sexuality that needs to be treated or cured”, Simi says while talking to India Times. While they come to enjoy them they are also abused and tortured by other participants.
As a country, we still need education and lot more awareness right from childhood. Schools need to make a better effort to ensure that the students learn to treat everyone with respect and tolerance.