Thursday, November 13, 2008

Neither man. Nor woman. All Human

Photo credits: Firoze Shakir ,
Text as published in the Amsterdam Weekly

Laxminarayan Tripathi: once a social outcast, now the face of India's third-sex community.

'Laxmi' (28) travels around the globe, going out of her way to fight for the rights of hijras, a sexual minority on the Indian subcontinent with an own traditional infrastructure embedded in Indian history. She holds the credit of being the only transgender in the UN's Civil Society Task Force on HIV/AIDS. There are no exact numbers on how many hijras there are in India. Some say 50,000; others claim it is closer to two million.

When interviewing her, one cannot help being completely mesmerised by those pitch-black eyes. Her sensual lips. Her nasal twang a la Fran Drescher. And that's only the outside. Diving beneath the surface is equally intriguing: she's witty, well-versed in religion, has an unmistakable flair for the dramatic, and is obviously a social butterfly who really cares.

Until 30 November, she is hostess of the Mumbai Direct Salon at Lloyd Hotel where she will address many aspects of Indian culture in India and the diaspora. In the evenings, there is live music played on traditional instruments and dance by a five-member dance troupe.

You are a hijra. What does that mean?
There is no exact word to describe the hijra community in India. But it all begins with the soul. One must have a hijra's soul, in other words, someone who is feminine but not a woman, masculine but not a man. You go beyond the boxes of man and woman and end up with the so-called Third Gender. That is the hijra.

Some define hijras as eunuchs.
Oh I know! [She gasps dramatically]. Here, look. [She holds out her passport] 'You see, it says eunuch. I told them this is a wrong word. You can be a castrated man and still be a man. You can be a non-castrated hijra and still be a hijra. In my passport I have three sexes: female, eunuch and transgender. I prefer the latter, because it is the closest English word to the term hijra.

Hijras have been part of Indian culture for centuries. How do you explain the stifling social climate nowadays?
Hijras are mentioned in various classic works, like the Manu Smriti--an ancient Hindu book of law. We rose to high positions in Mogul times. But when the era of the British Raj began, things took a turn for the worse. Laws were passed in which hijras were described as 'sodomites' engaging in 'homosexual offences'. And we have become more vulnerable ever since.

Aren't you protected by Indian law?
The Indian constitution stipulates that one cannot discriminate on the basis of sex, cast, creed, religion, blah, blah, blah. But what is in the books is one thing, what is practiced another. As a hijra you do not have many employment or education possibilities, and usually hardly any support from parents, siblings or friends. All you have is your hijra community to fall back on. There is this notion that since we cannot procreate, we serve no purpose in society. How silly, because we can be productive to society by our art, music, dance, our ethics.

How do you survive?
We have three possibilities. To begin with, we do blessings at births, weddings and other auspicious ceremonies. We sing, dance and clap. These are intended to bring good luck and fertility. The second possibility is to beg and then there is the third option, sex work. I only danced and clapped. No begging or soliciting for me. The third option in particular poses a problem for our community, as there is a lot of unsafe sex going around. HIV/AIDS is rampant amongst hijra sex workers.

Don't you ever tired of the discrimination and want to leave India?
Oh no, I could never ever think that. There is a huge stigma regarding our hijra community and my parents have always stood by me--and that took guts in such a conservative society. I may leave India after my parents are no more. But even then, there is still so much work to do and empower the hijra community.

Empowerment? Do tell.
I joined Dai Welfare Society, a Mumbai-based NGO, which works for the community, especially on HIV/AIDS awareness. That didn't do the trick for me, so I started Astitva, an organisation for the support and development of sexual minorities. And before long I was joined by many others. But it doesn't stop there, since we hijras are also to blame for the stigmas. We have to stop thinking along the lines of 'Can't do this. Shouldn't do that.' If that were the case, I would not be here in the Lloyds Hotel in Amsterdam. And why shouldn't I? Am I any less than you?

Mumbai Direct Salon, until November, Lloyd Hotel: