Letters to the South Asian Community
ON TRANS HISTORIES | BY JAMES ROGERS
With trans and non-binary identities being the subject of so much contention in society, it would be easy to assume that this is the way it has always been: that gender non-conforming and non-binary people have always faced opposition. However, this is very far from reality.
South Asia’s religious and cultural heritage has celebrated multiple genders and sexual expressions uncommon to Western societies for thousands of years. Hinduism's first sacred texts depict various stories of same-sex love and gender-morphing figures. These texts, dating back as far as 4000 years, also celebrate a “third gender” which was used to identify people who did not fit into the binary categories of man or woman.
Hindu mythology also has several examples of deities changing gender, manifesting gender fluidity or combining genders to form androgynous beings and even blessing people by giving them different gender identities.
These celebratory mentions of trans identities in ancient texts like the Kama Sutra and the Mahabharata are a testament to the sexual diversity that is an integral, yet often overlooked aspect of South Asian culture.
The people who identify as the “third gender” in those sacred writings are also known as the Hijra. According to one text, when Lord Rama (one of the most prominent Hindu deities) went into exile for fourteen years many people from his kingdom followed him out of love and respect. When Lord Rama found out about this, he ordered all the “men and women” to return to their homes. After returning from exile fourteen years later he saw that the Hijras, who were neither men nor women, had stayed in that same place. Pleased with the devotion of the Hijras, Lord Rama blessed them and said that they would bring good fortune on various auspicious occasions like childbirth and marriage.
These accounts lead to the celebration of the Hijra in pre-colonial South Asian society. They often held positions of high esteem, belonged to a special or holy caste and were considered to hold religious authority with the ability to cast blessings upon others. They even held demi-god status and were hired to dance, sing and bless households, newly-weds and newborns.
Then came the British colonists with their Western ideas of what society should look like. Binding their binary and patriarchal structures around a beautifully colourful culture, the Hijra’s identity stood at odds with Western morality and the coloniser’s concept of sexuality and gender. In 1864, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was put in place which criminalised non-procreative sexualities and whilst it was not specifically targeted at the Hijras, it criminalised them as a group. They were also placed under the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ in 1871, labelled a threat to society, stripped of their inheritance rights and a campaign was launched to rid them from public consciousness.
This policing of identity and individuality had specific repercussions on the Hijra’s way of life and status within society. The community was stigmatised to the point that it still lasts to this day in many parts of South Asia and after being ostracised for more than a century, the Hijra community find themselves in a complex and contradictory position in society. Whilst Hindu mythology worships them, British colonists demonised them, meaning that today they are admired by many as demi deities and vilified by others as deviant and dangerous.
Along with many in the trans community, both in South Asia and the rest of the world, Hijras nowadays have few employment opportunities available to them due to discrimination and obtain their income through begging, sex work and performing at ceremonies. They are frequently subjected to brutal and public violence, even in police stations, which is often not investigated.
Their very being is viewed as a commodity for religious blessings, removing and despising any other form of their identity. In reality, the hijra identity is actually a unique blend of biological, gendered, and sexual identities underpinned by religion and bound by a tight-knit social structure.
Seeing how our native lands have been obscured by colonialism and Western societies is painful. These structures birthed and fed rampant homophobic and transphobic beliefs in cultures that once held fluid beliefs on sexuality and gender, which displays just how toxic the foundation of today's society is.
With a lense on the South Asian community, when you merge the white-washing of our native cultures along with cultural stigmas and internal barriers within the community it is clear to see that LGBTQ+ South Asian people require additional support. GAYSIANS are working to support this community with various projects and campaigns directly focusing on the needs of these vulnerable people with a unique set of experiences. You can read more about how we are doing this here.
To any trans or gender-queer people reading this, regardless of your religious beliefs or background, you are godlike. Not only because ancient civilisations celebrated you in this way, but because in being who you are you show a supernatural strength to exist in a society that tells you you shouldn’t.
And for the rest of us, in a world that vilifies us as LGBTQ+ people; that tells us we’re dangerous and demonises us—let’s glorify one another and praise ourselves as the deities we truly are.