Queer Was Always Here: Fascinating Accounts Of Queer Identities In India

The West is often considered a flagbearer for the queer rights movement. Indeed, the blusterous Stonewall Uprising late in the 60s left an enduring legacy to inspire queer liberation across the world. Over the next 50 years, many of the White-dominated territories led the charge for equal rights, from recognizing civil unions to legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, implementing anti-discrimination policies, and taking a progressive stance towards the transgender movement. On Stonewall’s semi-centennial, the WorldPride was celebrated in full swing as thousands took to the streets of New York flashing their rainbow flags. Of course, the event was mired in some controversies, such as the sidelining of trans and gender non-conforming persons of color as well as criticisms of overt corporatization. Nevertheless, what matters equally is that the message resounds loud and clear, that Love is Love is Love is Love – a clarion call to conservative pundits and their ilk who persist in queer-phobic ideologies.

The mainstream narrative associates regressive practices with the developing world, and it is a fact that the laws and public attitudes towards identities outside the cis and heteronormative binaries remain neutral to life-threateningly hostile in societies especially in the Middle East, Russia, and African countries. Queer folx here find solace in underground support groups and social media spaces. A democratic establishment and the tireless rallying by activists and legislators have improved the overall climate in India over the years, with the Supreme Court finally striking down the colonial vestige of Section 377 and the Parliament tabling bills for trans rights (of course, in spite of flaws and all).

Many of those who oppose queer rights disparage it as a corrupting influence of the ‘West’, notwithstanding the historical accounts of queerness across cultures worldwide. As a rebuttal to such misconceptions, the Gaysi team decided to research fascinating and lesser-known accounts of queer existence in India.

Menzimyeors of Srinagar

Amidst the incessant clash between local protestors and security forces in Srinagar, the lives of transgender menzimyeors (matchmakers) remains undiscussed. While discriminatory attitudes remain rampant in the Valley, with community members sharing haunting anecdotes of rape and inaccessibility to public spaces, menzimyeors are patronized for their exquisite performances at the bach-e-nagmeh (ceremonial folk song and dance) during weddings. Reshma Rashid, a trans vocalist, has captured a massive fan following with her powerful renditions of Hay Hay Waisyee Yaaran Hy Tadpavnas and Baag Aya Sayyan. The societal shift towards love marriages and the competition from emerging Kashmiri (cis-gendered) artists is threatening the sustenance of the menzimyeors.

In 2017, Aijaz Ahmed Bund, a queer activist who runs the NGO Sonzal Welfare Trust in Srinagar, published the first ethnographic study about the gender and sexual minorities in his book Hijras in Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood.

The Jogappas of Yellamma

Jogappas or jogatis are the devotees of Goddess Yellamma and worship at temples dedicated to the deity in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The belief goes that the Goddess herself chose the Jogappas, who are thought to possess the supernatural powers of healing and fortune telling. They usually identify as transgender women, though male presenting members do exist, and they earn their bread and butter seeking alms and performing in public.

Jogappas are expected to embrace chastity, a tradition that finds its roots in the folklore of Renuka, the wife of the ascetic sage Jamadagni. Renuka became Yellamma after she broke her vow of chastity and was beheaded and later revived by Jamadagni. Their two sons who refused to obey their father’s order to punish their mother were cursed as Jogappas. Community members are also traditionally forbidden from sex work and undergoing nirvana or castration, although such rules have been slightly relaxed as modernity threatens their livelihood.

Nupi Maanbis/Maanbas in Manipur

Eastern India has several local names for gender variant identities, including durani, sitang, koena, bahkong, maigonia, ola, etc. The transgender community in Manipur is recognized by the indigenous terms nupi maanbi and maanba (being like a woman/man). A formerly used term nupi sabi, reserved for male artists playing female roles in the local theatre Shumang Kumhei, fell out of currency to avoid confusion between the two identities. In early days, the community also manifested in the form of maibis/maibas or local trans shamans who performed priestly activities in the Lai Haraoba festival honoring the deity Umang Lai, and feitas or gender-nonconforming persons who advised the Meitei society on important state affairs.  The All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA) has worked extensively towards transgender rights in the state, from serving as an advocacy hub for the LGBTQIA+ community to conducting spoken language courses in English, to organizing the Trans Queen Contest North East. The trans community has also found lucrative avenues in the salon industry, with 30+ trans people-operated beauty parlors in Manipur today.       

The Pavaiyas of Bahuchara Mata

Pavaiyas are the transgender community members residing in Gujarat. They are worshippers of the Mother Goddess Bahucharaji, the incarnation of Shakti or the divine feminine creative power in Hinduism. Her primary temple is located in Becharaji town in Mehsana district. Each March, the pavaiyas congregate at Becharaji to celebrate the festival of Chaitra Poornima. The celebration extends over a span of two days and has been recurring for the last two hundred years. The pavaiyas receive gifts or dana from the pilgrims, who are in turn showered with blessings. They reside as organized communities in most major cities in the Indian subcontinent and adhere to the guruchela roles common among the hijra social organization.     

Further Resources

  1. A short film on Pavaiya – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wM6kWqvTuUE
  1. Dutta, A., & Roy, R. (2014). Decolonizing Transgender in India: Some Reflections. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(3), 320-337. doi:10.1215/23289252-2685615
  1. Finding Love: Trans Women in Imphal – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZsq-3brS4U
  1. Jogappa: Gender, identity, and the politics of exclusion. (2014). Retrieved from https://in.boell.org/sites/default/files/jogappa_gender_identity_and_the_politics_of_exclusion.pdf
  1. Kunihiro, A. (Feb 2016). The Etiquette of Dana – Unreciprocated Gift Giving – at the Temple of a Hindu Goddess. Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, 37, 55-63.
  1. Parthasarathy, S. From Manipur’s trans community, stories of hope, despair, triumph and rebellion. Retrieved from https://www.firstpost.com/long-reads/from-manipurs-trans-community-stories-of-hope-despair-triumph-and-rebellion-5632151.html
  1. Report of the Regional Transgender / Hijra Consultation in Eastern India (Rep.). (2009). Kolkata: SAATHII and UNDP.
  1. The Invisible Gender: Menzimyeors of Srinagar. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.sahapedia.org/the-invisible-gender-menzimyeors-of-srinagar
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