There are several transgender identities that exist in South India. There are the female to male transgender identities of Thirunambigal in Tamil Nadu, Magaraidu in Andhra Pradesh and Gandabasaka in Karnataka. Then there are male to female identities such as the kothi, hijra (also called Aravanis and Thirunangaigal in Tamil Nadu), Jogappa in Northern Karnataka, Jogatha in Andhra Pradesh and Shiva Shakti in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
Not all of these various identities are as well known as the hijra identity which has become societally synonymous with transgender identity. This is mainly because of the historic visibility of this community which has self-organised a cultural and social space through a Guru-Chela system.
This acts as a support to a lot of young hijras/kothis who leave their homes and join one of the seven Gharanas as ‘daughters’ or ‘chelas’ under their gurus. The hijra/kothi can often be seen at traffic lights carrying out their “basti collections” — one of the few occupations this community has struggled to provide for itself in a hostile and discriminatory society.
The HIV/AIDS funding that India receives has resulted in the setting up of many NGOs across the subcontinent which “target” the kothi as a primary carrier of the infection. But the gender identity of the kothi is glossed over by the easy conflation of the NGO term MSM (men who have sex with men) with kothi. Kothis are not men. They are male-bodied but identify as female.
Jogappas are young male children usually from dalit or other ‘backward’ castes, sometimes even from Muslim families in northern Karnataka, who are dedicated to the Goddess of Yellamma. They wear female clothes and act as mediators between devotees and the Goddess. They are forbidden to marry.
The Jogappa is not a category exclusively for transgenders but is a traditional space that permits cross-gender expression. This provides a lot of transgender women with a legitimate space to express their non-normative identities in society.
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.
It is difficult for us to transition with respect to our bodies because of the lack of awareness about our genders in society. The medical establishment is largely ignorant of our needs and don’t offer affordable sex reassignment surgeries for working-class female-born transgenders. Some of us have been in lesbian relationships, not knowing how to articulate that we are men. Trapped as butch lesbians.
Very few funders are interested in our struggle for recognition. Even queer/ feminist groups exclude us as ‘anti-feminist’ for joining the oppressive side by identifying as male. A reductive feminism that ignores the female-bodied experiences that we have. A feminism that does not recognise how difficult it was for us to leave our homes and express our gender in spite of being born female.
We don’t clap our hands drawing attention to ourselves, we slide past the crowd, knowing that transphobic violence will follow if we are outed as female bodied. We are directed to urinals where biological men stand and pee. We are beaten up if we step into women’s toilets by women who think we are voyeuristic, male harassers. Most of our public spaces are gendered spaces — buses, toilets, queues at the cinema hall, etc.
Our struggle is to find a space where gender non-conformity is not condemned as abnormal. To push from the margins to claim a place in the centre, fearlessly and unapologetically. This is a call to recognise the existence of non-hijra transgender persons. This is a call for support from those of you who are straight, gay, lesbian, feminist, bent, non-labelled, gender queers, multi-sexual. A call for the annihilation of gender as we know it.
Gee Ameena Suleiman is a transgender man who works with LesBiT, an organisation working with Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender men