‘Normal’ is Over-Rated: A Study of the Exceptions.

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“Is that a bearded woman?” my mother asked me as she peeked into my computer screen.
“Yes. She’s beautiful.” I replied, expecting a negative backlash.
“Yes, she is,” she agreed and continued tidying my study table.

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Conchita Wurst is all over the internet. I’m sure you’ve seen her by now. Yes, she’s the extremely hot lady with the beard. She is also the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 which was organised in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is an Austrian drag persona who had represented her country in the contest.

She was born as Tom Neuwirth in Gmunden, Austria, in 1988. Since the singer uses female pronouns to refer to herself, I shall use those too. She reached the finals of a show called Starmania as her own self, but returned to the television in her drag persona, Conchita Wurst, to spread an important message. From what she had gathered from her previous experiences, she wanted to make a stand: “…it’s call for tolerance for everything that seems different.” Her message was significant- it should not be a crime to be different, it should not matter where a person comes from or what he or she looks like.

Though some people still don’t get what she wants to convey, no one can deny the fact that she is mightily talented. A very few success stories such as these come to our notice. In India, the majority harbours a strong hatred for the ones we call ‘hijras’. The level of ignorance that we boast of regarding this subject is surprisingly high. Every effeminate, transgender, transsexual man is lumped under this classification of ‘hijras’. First of all I have to clarify one thing- Conchita Wurst is a drag queen, NOT a transgender person. But I would like to shed a bit of light on this subject that has been shoved away into the darkest and the dingiest corners of our city.

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(a still from the video of ‘The Seat-belt Crew’)

 

Hijras are not just men who behave like women and wear women’s clothing. Their community is much more diverse than that. Yes, the term ‘hijra’ does refer to the transgender and transsexual population of South Asia. Within their own communities, they call themselves ‘khwaaja sira’ and the internal divisions are also well marked and named: transsexual and transgender people are called khusras, cross-dressers- zenanas and eunuch-narnbans.

The word ‘hijra’ was translated to English as ‘eunuch’ or ‘hermaphrodite’ but the translation is not very apt since eunuch just means someone who is impotent or has been castrated; hermaphrodite means people who have both ovarian and testicular tissue. But ‘hijras’ are born with typical male physiology, a very few people naturally have an intersex condition. Before entering the community, they have to undergo an initiation rite called ‘nirwaan’ which involves the removal or penis, scrotum and testicles. Hijras to not associate themselves to either side of the male-female binary. Neither do they confine themselves to any particular sexual orientation, rather they renounce their sexuality altogether. Their sexual energy is transformed into sacred powers, which is why they earn their money by exchanging blessings. But in reality, this is ironic because the main profession of the hijra community is prostitution.

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The ‘kothis’ are not similar to the ‘hijras’, nor are they included in their communities. They are feminine men or boy who play the receptive part in sex with a man. They do not have tightly bound communities, nor do they have to go through the initiation ceremonies of the hijras. No such sacred concepts are linked to them. They are called durani in Kolkata, menaka in Cochin, meti in Nepal, and zenana in Pakistan.

There’s a very intricate difference between transsexuals and transgenders which we fail to grasp. For this, we must first understand the difference between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. No, these are not mutually inclusive. The Medilexicon Medical dictionary states that one’s sex is a biological or physiological quality, while one’s gender is a psychological “category to which an individual is assigned by self or others…” Therefore, transsexuality deals with the more material aspects of one’s sexuality. Transsexual people often opt for Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). After the surgery is performed, that person may chose to be a part of the male-female binary, though often SRS is too expensive and hence they remain as a part of their own separate community. The transgender people are more concerned with their “internal gender disposition or predisposition, as well as the related social expectations that may accompany a given gender role.”

In India, the hijras were only recognised by the law as the third gender a month back in April, 2014. Hence, there aren’t many known success stories. The term hijra is still used as an derogatory term. ‘The Seatbelt Crew’, which involved many transsexual and transgender individuals teaching the public about traffic safety measures, generated a positive interest which made these people a bit more acceptable in the eyes of the society. But this video did not really help in raising their status. In the foreign countries, they have achieved great heights of success in every single field- medicine, business, literature, art though it’s still an uphill battle. The film ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is a brilliant depiction of the life and death of a trans man called Brandon Teena. It is based on a real-life incident.

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I’ll end this with a personal experience. Many of our train journeys are plagued with the visits of these hijras who demand money. But I remember a transsexual woman who used to travel with us on the train. Most of the daily passengers had befriended her and admired her sarees. Often I would hear someone calling out from the crowded cubicles, “You look very pretty today!”, she would thank the person very politely in return. She took that particular train everyday to go to a NGO where she worked. I met her every day for a year until my class timings changed and I had to take the next train.

She gave me hope. A hope that I had almost lost- one day everyone- no matter how they look, how they are born, how they wish they had been born, how they alter themselves, whom they love- will be treated as equals.