One gender, and two half-genders?

Once upon a time in India, and no this is not a tale, a person that was transgender (or the “third gender”) was met by great respect. They are mentioned in the ancient Hindu scripts and they played a prominent role in the royal courts during medieval India. Today, the situation is extremely different. People who are transgender in India today usually live on the outskirts of society and often in poverty. It is hard to find someone who would employ people that are transgender and most families in India would not accept if their son became a transgender, and a lot of the times they get disowned or evicted. The main ways of making a living for transgendered people is therefore working as dancers, prostitutes or begging.

In mid-April this year, 2014, the Supreme Court in India recognized transgender as a third gender, which hopefully will help mainstream transgender issues in Indian society. According to a UNDP report from 2012 this was the third suggestion that they had concerning how to go about legally recognizing the transgender community. The three options were to either have transgender identify as men or women, secondly to recognize transgenders as a separate, i.e. third gender or to recognize transgendered people based on their own choice; male, female or transgender. Why this was such a contentious issues was due to the legal consequences and rights associated with the issues especially, since India has specific laws concerning men and women.

I feel like the transgender debates therefore automatically should have facilitated two debates in India. It should also have raised the issues of women’s rights when talking about whether the transgender community would be able to choose their own gender. The issues for the transgender community can be summarized to: would transgender community choose to become men just to get the privileges of a man? And what happens to the privileges of a man if he becomes a woman? I strongly believe that the attitude against women in India is something that in turn hinders the further development for transgender rights.

It is extremely important for families in India today to have a boy in the family, for many reasons. Three of them being that instead of paying dowry when getting married they receive dowry, a son can also more easily get a paying job and look after the family and finally a son will light the funeral fire when the parents die. With this in mind, the idea of a family’s only son being transgender is devastating. However, if there was no dowry to be paid and if women could have the same possibility to get an education and to work, maybe there would not be as great a resistance to having a son that is transgender.

This is an extremely complex issue, but nevertheless one thing seems obvious to me. When the Indian government was discussing the issue of transgender and making a third gender, the issues of women’s right should also have been brought to the table! India now has a third gender, but when not discussing the rights of women, can India really claim 3 genders or do they only have 1 gender and two half-genders?

Malin Persson – Linnaeus University in Sweden

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