Trans progress alerts

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

This season of Bigg Boss, India’s answer to Big Brother, features celebrated hijra activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. This isn’t a first for the show, which even in its first season starred transgender actress Bobby Darling; nor for Tripathi, who is a TV star in her own right, having been on programs like Sacch Ka Samna (the subcontinent’s Moment of Truth) and Raaz Pichle Janam Ka (“Past Life Secrets,” where participants go back to previous lives).  Like its multiple international cousins, Big Boss places people in a house with constant cameras and no access to the outside world; viewers are exposed to controversial social issues, personalities, and identities walking around in their underwear. The latest contestant thrown out of the house complains of Laxmi,

“She wants to play her transgender card 24×7. She forever goes ‘mera beta’ ‘meri beti’ and one feels like telling her to shut up.”

That you can talk of “playing a transgender card” in India is probably a victory in itself. Strange that even in a country with its proud, independent, and distinctive cultural traditions, the bitching and backtalk and blahblahblah that go with reality shows are exactly the same. 

Meanwhile, and more momentously, the Indian government announced that 12,548 transgender people across the country have already received the aadhaar,  a new ID system designed to provide simplified, official proof of identity to every Indian.   Many hijras have been unable to obtain state IDs in the past, because they lacked documents or their appearance clashed with their recorded gender. The aadhaar application form allows one to check “transgender” under “sex,” and applicants need not provide documentation of their identity if another aadhar holder will vouch for them. It’s a significant step toward ensuring that hijras, as well as other marginalized people including migrants and the homeless, can access full citizenship.

Max Zachs

Several thousand miles away, the UK may soon have its first transgender rabbi. Maxwell Zachs (his blog is here) says:

“In my early 20s I was dealing with my gender and also decided that I wanted a more Jewish life. Judaism has been so important for me because I felt connected, when not a lot else made me feel connected. When I first started my transition I did not know whether I would find a community that would welcome me.

“I did a lot of text-based study on my own. I loved that and it formed a big part of my life. I fell in love with how we work as a community to support each other and draw so much from these texts. …

“I’ve never had a negative experience within the community – people sometimes have no idea how to include me or help me, but they are always willing to learn, which is great. But as a community we still need to do more to educate about transgender people. …

“For me it’s not really about becoming Britain’s first trans rabbi, it’s just about doing what I want to do with my life.”

Identity without community

An Indian trans man movingly describes some of the multiplicity of gender identities in South Asia, and the difficulties of falling outside a “traditional” identity with a structured community:

I identify as a Thirunambi. Female to male transgender. Long before I knew what I was, I knew I was gender non-conforming. Only recently did I find the terms that best describe what I am and found people who are similarly gendered. A person born as female but with the gender expression that is male. I struggled for several years of my life trying to articulate what I am. To tell my family, friends and lovers that I am not a woman who is boyish. But a man.

There are diverse ways to be a transgender man. Some of us want sex change surgeries, some don’t, some of us identify as heterosexual, some as lesbian or gay, yet others as multi-sexual. Some of us are more fluid with our genders than others. Some of us have been forced into marriages with men by our families, while others managed to leave our biological families to find limited freedom by migrating to other cities.

But the oppression that we have faced due to our “deviant” gender expression cuts across the variety of gender expression within the community. The levels of oppression of course vary according to the caste and class positions that we occupy. I write as a Nair-born, English-speaking, middle-class FTM. I write for my working class, dalit, non-English-speaking FTM brothers. I write because our voices are never heard.

We are silenced before we can speak. We face the double oppression of being female-born on top of our non-conforming gender expression. We don’t have a system like the hijras. We don’t have Gurus who will mother us when we leave our biological families. We are invisible because we are conditioned to “pass” in public as men, to say that our bodies don’t matter because we feel disconnected with them. Is that body that bleeds every month, the body with breasts, that is seen as female mine? This is a question that all of us have grappled with.