The Queer Questionnaire #9: The Desi Trans Experience

Hello! We’re back this week to answer one of my favorite questions so far! One of our Instagram followers asked us a very important question about the desi trans experience, and we’re going to jump right in:

Q: How is the trans experience for a desi trans person? Like how significantly does it deviate from the western framework of trans identity that is pretty dominant everywhere?

A: Before I answer this, I feel like I have to acknowledge that I am not the most qualified to answer this question as I have been raised outside of India and have only recently moved back. Keeping that in mind, I reached out to a few queer and trans desis that I know to get their inputs and first-hand accounts of said experiences.

So, now we dive in. The western framework of trans identity is also seen as the more modern version of being trans. Several cultures around the world, including India, have had indigenous trans communities historically. These communities in India include Hijras, Aravanis, Kothis, Jogtas/Jogappas, and Shiv Shakthis. One common thread is that these communities have a religious aspect to them and that comprise almost exclusively of people assigned male at birth. This differs from the western framework of trans-ness because being a part of these communities isn’t just an expression of gender, it is also a religious calling/dedication.

But, is every desi trans person a part of these communities? No. For the most part, whether someone identifies with the historical, religious trans communities in India, or with the more modern, western framework of what being trans is highly indicative of their socioeconomic status and privilege. The uncomfortable reality in India is that these indigenous trans communities are associated with sex work and begging because they are ostracized, ridiculed, and persecuted by mainstream society.

It would be hard to imagine someone from an upper-caste, middle class family in a large city who would give up their privilege to live in an indigenous trans community. They would most likely identify with a secular, modern trans identity. This creates a sharp divide in the desi trans experience. Almost all trans people face some amount of aggression, violence, and discrimination by virtue of being trans in a regressive society. However, caste and class privilege influence the degree to which they experience this.

Another divide is in the fight for the “Third Gender”. The trans rights bill, which is supposed to help alleviate the discrimination trans people face, is far from ideal. It still cites dysphoria as a prerequisite to be counted as trans. It also requires trans people to register themselves as “Transgender” or a “Third Gender” instead of seeing trans men as real men and seeing trans women as real women. In doing so, they invalidate the identity of binary trans people––and this is quite trans-exclusionary. This divide of supporting and identifying with the third gender comes in, because there are indigenous trans people who see themselves as belonging to a third gender, and that is slightly different than being a woman. And (along with religion,) this is where the western framework significantly deviates from the more traditional experience. (On that note, there are significantly more MTF historical trans communities in India than FTM ones.)

Which one is more desi? Both, and neither. Just like there is no “right” way to be trans, there is also no desi trans experience that is more “authentic” than the other. Some desi trans people relate to the more western framework of being trans that is prevalent everywhere because it might be more in line with the life they know. Or they might identify with indigenous communities, because that is where they feel they belong most. For most desi people though, being trans is not a theoretical debate about which framework they feel is better, but a reality of finding their own identity in whatever way works for them.

That’s all for this week. If you have more questions, or want me to elaborate on something I’ve mentioned, you know what to do!

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Jess is a genderqueer, polyamorous pansexual. They write about mental health, polyamory, gender & sexuality, and people in general. When not furiously typing away at their laptop, they can be found at hidden food spots around Mumbai.

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