Week 2 began on Monday at the Mitr Trust an MSM and Transgender Project. Below is CFHI’s description.
A NGO that works in areas of gender issues, sex/sexuality and human rights. Its mission is to empower sexual minority groups who face problems due to their sexuality, by providing such support that allows the choice of safer sexual practices and sexual responsibility.
The description is a little misleading; Mitr (which means friend in Hindi) only works with sexual minority males, transgender women and Hijras, therefore it only caters to biological males not females. Keeping all of the terms straight can be difficult so I’ve listed some terms that people use to describe themselves (taken from a handout given to us by Mitr):
Hijra – “self identifying term used by males who define themselves as not men/not women but as third gender. Hijras cross-dress publicly and privately and are a part of a social, religious and cultural community. Ritual castration may be part of the hijra identity, but not all are castrated. Sex with men is common.”
Kothi – “term used by males who feminize their behaviors, and state that they prefer to be sexually penetrated. Kothi behaviors have a highly performative quality. Kothis state that they do not have sex with other kothis, and they may also be married to women.”
So for us westerners, a hijra is closer to what we’d define as a transexual whereas a kothi could be closer to our stereotype of a gay man. At least this was how I understood it. I learned during the visit that the concept of gender and identity is very complex in India, and those who do not conform to social norms lead a very difficult life. Indian culture has three genders: male, female and no gender (third gender). Hijras traditionally constituted the third gender and have a somewhat elevated role in society. They can be asked for blessings during major life events like birth or marriage for a fee and if that fee is not paid, they can hand out curses as well. The director of Mitr told us that hijras are outcasts of society but also accepted because of their spiritual role. Not all hijras play this socially accepted role. Those who are not castrated or not beautiful enough/dance well enough to perform the rituals can still be a disciple of the higher hijras, but work as sex workers. The interesting thing I found at the center was that being a sex worker was a perfectly acceptable profession. Kothis on the other hand do not have the same social acceptance.
However, regardless of whether a person is a hijra or a kothi, transgender people lead a very difficult life in India. Most cannot openly come out to their families and are often forced into marriages. They will usually have children with their wife while also having relationships with men outside of the marriage. This is where the problem with HIV comes into play. The director of Mitr explained to us that in Indian culture, using a condom is not ideal because it is seem as a barrier to pleasure, which leads to unprotected sex. Sadly, she was also saying that many transgender people have very low self-esteem because of social and familial rejection, therefore don’t care if they get HIV and die of AIDS also resulting in risky behavior. Once one of these people gets HIV, they can easily pass it on to their wife and their children. The director was very adamant about promoting safe sex, saying that at the end of the day she didn’t care what you were, what you were attracted to as long as you were using a condom.
At the end of our visit, we visited the drop in center and talked with more people from the transgender community. They were very open to us and even danced for us – much better than we did when we danced for them. It was an incredibly informative day. Definitely a little uncomfortable at times (we had one guy in our group get hit on by some of the outreach workers) but a lot of fun.
Here are some of my thoughts on Monday: I felt uneasy about the idea of trandgender women still keeping a wife at home. The director said that it was not only out of societal pressure but also because the wife represented stability. I think if you really want society to change you have to be willing to reject it and keeping someone at home unaware and even vulnerable because of your behavior is selfish. I also wonder if some who identify as hijra only do so because it is a socially accepted identity. Lastly, the more I learn about it, the more I’m realizing how much gender is a social construction and how little it has to do with biological sex.
*and just to put this out there, if anything I post is offensive in any manner, please let me know