Do Transgender Identity Claims Reinforce Social Inequality in India?

Photo provided by Liz Mount

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen increasing attention to transgender issues. In fact, we’ve learned that people all over the world are publicly identifying themselves as transgender. On the face of it, this seems an entirely positive trend if we assume that claiming a trans identity allows people to fully express themselves. However, my research on transgender identities in India complicates this. I find that trans identities in India are used by working-class gender non-conforming (GNC) people to align themselves with middle-class status. I show that transgender identities are used to reflect different class statuses and thus have become incorporated into systems of economic inequality.

India is an interesting place to study trans identities because South Asia is home to a well-known group of GNC people, hijras. Hijras are feminine-presenting GNC people who have been widely recognized (though also very marginalized) in South Asia for centuries. Hijras are usually included under the transgender “umbrella.” However, I met many working-class GNC people who identify themselves as trans women and make a point of distancing themselves from hijras. I became curious about how and why trans women distinguish themselves from hijras. To explore this question, I conducted an 18-month ethnographic study in Bangalore, India. During this time, I interacted with groups of transgender women, hijras, NGO workers and sexual rights activists. I have also analyzed current media representations of hijras and transgender women.

Hijras and/vs. Transgender Women

Hijras are feminine-presenting GNC people who often run away as teenagers. Many report abuse from family and community members due to their gender expression and/or perceived sexuality. They come to live and work with others “like them” in communal households known as hamaams. Because they face discrimination finding employment, hijras often engage in sex work and soliciting money. Despite activism and outreach by NGOs over the past 25 years, hijras are stigmatized and marginalized.

Throughout India, there are also groups of working-class, feminine-presenting GNC people who identify as transgender women. These transgender women often claim to be “independent” from hijra groups, yet most have connections to hijra groups. Despite this, these trans women work to raise awareness of their transgender identities by emphasizing the differences between themselves and hijras.

The Findings

You might imagine that all trans women would be interested in challenging negative stereotypes about gender non-conformity, especially the abuse faced by hijras. However, the transgender women I spoke with are at pains to prove their difference from hijras. As they claim transgender identities, these trans women distance themselves from stereotypes of hijras. One way they do this is by emphasizing that their identities are respectable, in contrast to stigmatized hijra identities. In this process, these trans women align themselves with social ideals of middle-class womanhood. They do this as they seek access to the privileges enjoyed by middle-class cisgender women. In doing so, trans women implicitly support the marginalization of hijras.

The transgender women I spoke to draw boundaries between themselves and hijras through adopting middle-class status markers like education and claiming to be “modern.” One day, I asked a young, shy feminine-presenting person wearing a deep green sari if she identifies as a hijra. Before she could answer, Deepa, a trans woman in her 20s, jumped in, explaining, “the people who are…living in the hamaams, following the tradition of the hamams, they are called hijras. She’s a modern girl; she’s educated, she’s literate. She’s called transgender.”

I found it surprising that trans woman choose to align themselves with middle-class womanhood rather than create an allyship with hijras. This may be because some visibly GNC people now work in sexual rights NGOs and these “office” jobs have opened up opportunities for GNC people to work in respectable, middle-class employment. The trans women I spoke with seek dignified employment. Suma, a trans woman in her early 30s, explains, “see, that’s my dream. Like, everyone has to work, but dignity is very important. Begging and sex work [i.e. occupations hijras do] are not bringing you any dignity.” These working-class trans women’s desires for respectable employment are also connected to their desire for middle-class status.

Working in an office is believed to be “empowering” for middle-class women. When this opportunity is open to working-class transgender women, they can imagine closing the gap between themselves and respectable middle-class womanhood. Kanika, a trans woman in her 40s who once identified as a hijra, explained that she doesn’t like sex work and this was her least favorite aspect of being a hijra. She earnestly explained, “I want to be like normal girls, study and get a job, like normal girls,” a reference to the options available to “normal” middle-class girls. Kanika made a point of aligning herself with middle-class femininity, assuring me that she’s a very peaceful person who “do[es]n’t like to get into any conflicts.” Among hijras, she explained, “you have to be rude, rough, it’s like that,” which she couldn’t cope with because she’s “totally feminine.”

Media representations depict these new middle-class transgender women as enjoying newfound opportunity, promise, and social progress. In contrast, hijras are connected to stigmatized employment, poverty and overall “backward[ness]”. The trans woman/hijra distinction is perhaps most apparent in an online media campaign from 2016, aptly entitled “I am Not a Hijra.” The 16 photos in this series picture feminine-presenting GNC people holding signs that claim trans* identities and emphasize their difference from stereotypes of hijras. Like the trans women I spoke with, these trans people emphasize how their employment (and, thus, class) status serves as a key marker of their difference from hijras.

Photo provide by Liz Mount

The Takeaways

For the trans women I spoke with, identifying as transgender, rather than hijra, is a strategy they hope will help them move into to the middle-class. It is their strategy for upward mobility. Because transgender identity has become aligned with middle-class status, it is attractive for working-class GNC people seeking to move up the class ladder. These trans women’s claims that “I am not a hijra” are actually claims for the kinds of social benefits that middle-class cisgender women receive. I show that seemingly progressive new identities can also support inequality among gender non-conforming people. .

Liz Mount is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Flagler College. Her research examines gender, sexuality, and social change in India and the US. Her work can be found forthcoming in Gender & Society and Development in Practice, and published in The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Contemporary South Asia, and Teaching Sociology.

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