The activist on the ancient legacy and contemporary struggles of hijras.
In the minds of most Indians, a hijra is an annoyance. A man with long hair, typically dressed in a sari, who seems to always and miraculously know when a child is being born or a wedding taking place. A hijra arrives just in time to beg, and if you don’t acquiesce, you will be cursed. The same hijra waits at traffic lights and peers into the windows of stopped cars, once again to ask for money. Hijras, who can be trans, intersex, or eunuchs, were historically revered in ancient India, but over the past two centuries, have become one of the country’s most misunderstood and marginalized communities. Other Indians often won’t speak to them, but will instead pass on a string of unsubstantiated myths relating to the group, spawning prejudice generation after generation. Anthropologists have tried in the last few decades to study hijras, but there is almost no literature about the community from within.
In recent years, however, one hijra, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, has made it her mission to fill this silence. As India began to grapple with HIV in the 1990s, she was one of the earliest activists to demand that the government’s anti-AIDS program include hijras as a distinct category. Tripathi first traveled outside India in 2006 to attend the World AIDS Conference in Toronto and has since become a familiar face at the UN and other international forums on HIV. Her nonprofit, Astitva, aims to support and empower hijras in her home city of Thane, just outside Mumbai. And in 2012, she published an autobiography in Marathi; its English translation was released in February of 2015. The title, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, is meaningful in both languages—me, pronounced “mee,” is Marathi for “I am.”
Tripathi also played a key role in the movement in India to recognize transgender people as members of a third gender on official government documents. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that “it is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” granting legal sanctity to a gender classification that is neither male nor female, but a neutral third category. In India’s most recent federal elections, hijras and other transgender people were permitted to publicly declare their gender identities when voting.
Tripathi may belong to a largely ostracized group, but years of chasing the limelight on television shows and dogged activism on HIV has turned her into a celebrity. She was the star of Between the Lines, a 2005 film about the lives and struggles of hijras. When the film screened in Amsterdam in 2007, she ran dance workshops in the city, and the next year performed traditional dances from across India at the Amsterdam India Festival with a troupe of hijras. When I arrived at her apartment on a warm afternoon last month, she was lounging on her bed in an ankle-length black nightgown accented with red embroidery. Her long, glued-on nails were painted with glittering black and white stripes. She did not want to be interviewed—and made no bones about telling me as much—because she had just returned from traveling, and was leaving again the next day for Bangkok.
“At times I have the right to be a diva, no?” she asked, her voice like honey on gravel, half-apologizing for the countless interruptions—answering phone calls, chatting with her mother and boyfriend, brushing her teeth, snuggling her black Labrador. One of the calls came from a hijra living a few hours outside Mumbai who had been told she couldn’t buy a house. Tripathi advised her to complain to the police, but added, “If the police is not acting, I will help you out.” When she put down the phone, she looked up at me and sighed: “I get soooo many calls like this from all over the country.”
“You’re getting to see me without makeup,” Tripathi said, a rare privilege. But, as she detailed over the course of our conversation, behind her usual flamboyance—the sequined saris and heavy jewelry, the ringlets of waist-length blond-streaked hair—is a story of pain and survival, one that she isn’t afraid to tell.
—Shanoor Seervai for Guernica
Guernica: “Hijra is a loaded term.” What does it mean to you?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: A hijra is [someone who has transitioned from] male to female, but we don’t consider ourselves female because culturally we belong to a completely different section of society. Many hijras are castrated, but it’s not compulsory. They say it’s the soul which is hijra. We feel we are neither man nor woman, but we enjoy femininity. I enjoy womanhood, but I am not a woman. It’s very confusing.
We are not hypocrites. We live our sexuality openly, being truthful to our souls and our bodies. Science and doctors assigned something else to us when we were born—which they didn’t have the authority to—but we choose what we are and we are very truthful about it.
The biggest misery in the world, I believe, is the feeling of being unloved.
Guernica: Historically, hijras were highly respected in Indian society. But that changed under British rule, and since then, they have been feared and excluded. Can you tell me more about the evolving place of hijras in Indian culture?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: I’ll start with the Manu-smriti [one of the earliest Hindu texts on social order]. Then in the Vedic period [1750–500 BC], we were known as the Kinnars. We were very highly regarded people. We were at the court, we were cooks, the keepers of the queen’s palace. When the Muslim nawabs [nobility] came, we were the harem keepers, the advisers, responsible for guarding the queens. We were in all the sectors of life, considered special people, nobles, even divine.
Our status changed after the British came to India. They saw us as a threat to their rule because we were very loyal to the courts and the kingdoms we served. They took away our lands, because they thought inheritance had to be through blood, and they never understood our structure. They didn’t allow our land to be inherited by our chelas [disciples]. Our possessions were taken away from us, and we were left with nothing. The British brought in laws like the Criminal Tribes Act [a colonial-era law restricting Indian tribal communities], and Section 377 [a colonial law that criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”].
After independence, nothing happened. The British mentality was still very deeply rooted in society, and 200 years of British rule had totally discarded our existence. Not any government, nobody took heed of our situation.
When we started our activism, we had to tell people, “We exist, we are humans. Please give us nothing but our basic dignity.” The biggest misery in the world, I believe, is the feeling of being unloved, and that this community faces a lot. You’re not even considered to be human. You’re considered transparent.
We were ignored until we started organizing, when HIV first became a factor. Even in the HIV world, people could not believe that hijras have sex. And then also we were put in the category of men having sex with men, the gay community. I said, “We are not men”—way back in 1999.
Guernica: How do you feel when hijras are lumped into the general category of “transgender,” or mistakenly categorized as “gay”?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Being called gay is worse. I remember when I started fighting way back in 1999, and I said the state doesn’t have the right to use my gender to club me into “gay.” If I say I am not a man then who are you to question it? Being called gay or a man really upsets me.
When somebody asks me, “Who are you?” I tell them, “I am the oldest ethnic transgender community in the world, which has its own culture and own religious beliefs.” And we are in four countries in South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Terai region of Nepal.
What binds us hijras together is the same pain that has gone through our lives, which is much thicker than blood. That’s why in our community we don’t have old-age homes. Our guru may be horrible, but at the same time, we take care of the guru till the last breath.
Guernica: I’m curious about your childhood, and how you came to recognize your identity as a hijra.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: As a child, you’re so confused. I thought, “I’m so feminine; why does everyone call me a boy?” I always wanted to dress in frocks. I hated my school uniform, I liked the girls’ uniform. I thought, “Bitches are wearing those beautiful frocks.” I had to wear shorts. I always hated it.
My femininity started to be targeted at a very young age. Whenever I had a chance, I used to dance and dress up. I started learning dance in our hobby class at school, and I was the only boy in the dance class.
I was first sexually exploited when I was seven, by a distant cousin at a family wedding. Even after that I was routinely molested by older cousins and their friends. See, my innocence was taken away and I became mature at one bloody incident. I believe I never had a childhood. I grew up as an elderly person. And that’s what my femininity brought upon me. Of course, in a patriarchal society, hijras’ bodies are thought of as toys.
I learned dancing because I loved dancing. It took away the pain, it took away everything, I was happy when I was dancing. I got a lot of respect when I was dancing: people respected my art, they didn’t only respect my body.
Guernica: Did you ever think to tell anyone about the abuse?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: No. I was a sick child, I was scared, and honestly speaking, I never thought about why I didn’t tell anyone. Abuse victims don’t have all the answers, and I never thought it was abuse, do you understand? My generation was totally different. Now a small child knows many things, much more than what we knew. When I understood it was not right, it was much later.
I was recently chief guest at a function, and one of the boys who had exploited me was there. He could not even look at me, but I was kind to him. I have not forgiven, but I believe that what you do to me is your karma and what I do to you is my karma. What is gone is gone. I have lived it, I have overpowered it. I don’t carry any baggage with me. It’s done, it’s finished, it’s over. You can’t change the past, but you can make the future much more beautiful.
Guernica: I understand you belong to an upper-caste family. How did that social standing affect how you realized your identity?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Yes. My family is Brahmin, and we had such a big house. I studied at one of the top schools in Maharashtra. Children of our school are considered snobbish. I was very good at debates, dancing, music, art, craft. I hated hijras. I used to ask, “Why do they clap and why do they strip?”
I believe good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere, so I’m a bad girl.
My whole process started with me thinking I was gay. But my femininity was so strong that the gays thought I was an outsider. I was so feminine. I was such a flamboyant bitch. I believe good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere, so I’m a bad girl. And they used to say, “No, gays are not like that. You walk and even a blind man would know something had passed.” They used to call me Pepsi bottle, a cola bottle—shake it and it’ll go ssssssst.
Afterwards I started taking part in drag queen pageants. But those get-togethers and parties were so bloody sexual. You get it? People used to meet, and date, and I didn’t want that. I was so different. I just wanted to be myself all the time. It’s a very different feeling. There was a woman in me, and I just didn’t want her to sleep. It was not sexual, it was being myself.
And I wanted meaning in every relationship in my life. I didn’t want any Tom, Dick, and Harry to touch me. I had beautiful mentors who always said, “Dignity is more important.” My mother always emphasized character.
When I started meeting members of the hijra community, it was a whole different ballgame. They were like me. This was the first time I felt that I was with other people who were the same as me. It was not about cruising a man, it was not about sleeping with somebody—it was beyond that. It was so much a community, wanting the best for each other, loving each other, caring for each other.
The guru is the one person who will never question you for the reasons the world questioned you.
Guernica: So what does a typical hijra community—if we can say there is such a thing—look like?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: It’s a guru-chela parampara [tradition]. The guru is a mentor, guide, and philosopher, and the chela is a disciple. In our community, your parents disown you, your family, friends, everybody disowns you. In the world of being disowned, the guru is the person who gives you shelter, who gives you food, who teaches you how to earn money and live in this world. The guru is the ultimate source of a different world, after your own people have discarded you, stigmatized you, and have discriminated against you. The guru is the one person who will never question you for the reasons the world questioned you.
The chela’s responsibility is to take care of the guru in her old age. Once your guru is dying—she may have twenty chelas or 2,000—the leadership goes to the disciple who has the ability to carry the house forward, to keep everybody united and strong.
Every chela has her own chelas. It’s a pyramid. A guru has as many chelas as she wants. At present, I have around fifteen or twenty.
It was not always a nice relationship with my one guru Lata, because I was breaking all the rules and I was not a puppet in her hand. Whether your guru is right or wrong, you can never challenge your guru. My chelas question me much more than [they could] any other guru—I’m much more chill. They can question me and I have all the answers.
Guernica: How do hijras earn a living?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Begging, sex work, badhai [blessing]. There are now transgenders in social work, the fashion industry, who have PhDs. I say, “Study, study, study.” You need not wear a sari, and even our ancestors said you need not wear feminine attire to be part of the third gender.
When I started bar dancing, nobody else was doing it. When I joined the social sector in 1999, there were no nonprofit organizations [working for the rights of hijras] in India. But I had to do it, I wanted my dignity. I wanted to give it back to the society that had tortured my parents, that always said, “Oh, their son is a hijra,” and looked down on them.
Today these people have seen me travel around the world and on the most famous reality shows. They have seen me go from nowhere to being a celebrity, they have seen me from when it was difficult for me to even walk on the street to when people wanted to take photographs with me.
Guernica: There seems to be a rift within the hijra community, between those who want to be completely separate from the mainstream and those, like you, who want to integrate, while at the same time remaining true to your identity. Can you talk a bit about this division?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Why not be visible? The people who want to be segregated are part of a different generation, and they have lived their lives. They are the stakeholders and guardians of the culture. Historically, the British tried to erase them from their land, but they survived. They survived the non-acceptance of the government, so they have always been very secretive. They have created a barrier, which they don’t want to lose.
These gurus lived in another time. Now it’s a liberal time. I can’t say they’re bad; they’re doing their job and I’m doing mine. They may not understand why I am doing this, but I believe my culture and community should be out there. I think that as every society is evolving, even mine should evolve with education, work, respect, and access to technology.
We are a sexual minority that is visible, and yet we are treated as the invisibles. I believe I was never invisible. I thought, “I’m the face in the crowd, not the crowd.”
What secret life? My femininity used to drop out of my body like I was melting.
Guernica: Do you think it would have been easier for your family if you’d led a secret life?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: They should answer that. But I don’t believe it would have been easier for my family, because, you know, I was so over the top, even as a child. What secret life? My femininity used to drop out of my body like I was melting.
My father was quite proud of me later on, and every parent has a difficult time with their own children whether male or female or whatever. I made them proud, no, at last?
At times, my parents said, “Let’s get the child married,” and I said a big no. Impossible. How could I be with a woman? I told them, “If you try to get me married, I’ll get myself castrated and commit suicide.” It was the best weapon. They were shocked, and they knew that if I decided, I would do it. I was selfish. I just wanted to live my life.
Guernica: Some hijras undergo castration as an initiation rite. Can you tell me about your decision not to be castrated?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: According to the norms of the community, it’s not necessary that one be castrated. Castration is your choice. If you do it, testosterone doesn’t build up, femininity comes, but I have always said that castration is not the right way. A person should go for complete sexual reassignment surgery, hormone therapy, psychological counseling.
Guernica: Is there a hierarchy among those who are castrated and those who are not?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: After meeting a non-castrated hijra like me, do you think I’d allow anyone to take [part in] a hierarchy? People get castrated because of peer pressure, because they want to look feminine, because when they go to weddings and beg and people don’t give, they can suddenly strip—that’s the biggest weapon they have.
Guernica: One of the myths about hijras is that they kidnap children and forcibly convert and castrate them. How do you contend with this and other fictions?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Nobody kidnapped me. I still remember my gurus, they never said, “Wear a sari.” They said, “There is no fun, there is still no societal acceptance.” Nobody wants any child to go through the pains we have gone through. I always say, “First complete your education, be what you want to be in life, get a position, start earning. Then, when you are financially stable, everything will be stable in your life.”
I have become like a role model, and people feel that I must have had a really cool life, my parents accepting me, like a Cinderella story. It’s not like a Cinderella story for me. I had to be my own fairy godmother and create myself. I took decisions and I lived with those decisions, and I did everything for my own dignity.
When people told me to write a book in Marathi, I said, “I’m too young to write this book.” But they said, “No. The world should know. How many people know about the real hijras?”
People believe that if a hijra curses you, bad things will happen. That God Ram blessed hijras with this power, that our [blessings and] curses will come true. People give us money because they are scared of our curse. Now that’s the only way hijras can survive—by saying, “Give me money, otherwise I’ll curse you.” That clap, which scares people, has become our identity. In a way, you use myths and misconceptions for your own survival.
Guernica: From its inception, you’ve been part of the movement for India to legally recognize a third gender, which finally happened in April 2014. Almost a year after the law changed, has it made a difference on the ground?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Yes, for coming generations. I have seen hijras learning skin therapies so that they can have their own parlors. A hotel management student told me that after the verdict she went to a college, and they asked who she was, and she said, “I’m a hijra, I’m the third gender.” Now, sitting with you, I get a phone call, that a hijra is trying to buy a house and nobody’s allowing her. I said, “Go to the police station.” I could not give this advice to them [before].
Nobody will come and give you your rights. Hijras have got their right. They should know to expand it, should know to demand it.
Guernica: I know you’ve personally faced discrimination despite your fame and social connections. I wonder if you can talk about a particular such experience.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: I was thrown out of the Bombay Gymkhana Club, [an elite membership-based club, in 2010]. It was shocking for me. I had just opened an LGBT film festival, and the next day was a TedX conference where I was supposed to be a speaker. The party the night before was for the cream of society—name the people, they were all there. At the gate, all the women who were sitting inside came out and said, “We have seen you on television.” I clicked photos with them, and later on, I was escorted to the first floor, where the party was.
Suddenly the CEO walked in, and he called the person who was the host, and he said, “You tell this woman to go out.” The host said, “I can’t, she’s my guest.” And he said, “If you try to act over-smart, I’ll cancel your membership.”
The drama went on behind me, and finally [filmmaker] Mahesh Mathai came and said, “Laxmi, this is the story.” He was in tears. “I’m feeling really bad as an Indian that this is happening.”
I said, “Don’t worry.” It didn’t hit me, but while getting up I said to myself, This is the same place where it was said [during colonial rule], “Indians and dogs are not allowed.” This is the same place where it was said that even women were not allowed on the first floor, after independence. I said to myself, Again the walls of Bombay Gymkhana are painted in blood by the language of my own fellow beings, and I believe I should leave.
I told my hosts to carry on, but the entire party got out with me. Then it hit the headlines and went all over the world. I took the Bombay Gymkhana to the Human Rights Court. I didn’t ask for money or anything. I said, It’s an apology I want.
Guernica: Within the community, you’re something of an exception. You travel, you’ve starred in films that are screened at international film festivals, you dance at shows abroad. Have you ever experienced resentment from other hijras who don’t have these opportunities?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: Many. They hate me. They ask why I am famous. And it’s because I did it, I was the first one. Other people didn’t do it. At times, life has been really very hard. There have been situations when I’ve been about to be killed by a gang of hijras who really hated me, and I had to change my clan, from Bombay to Delhi.
A trans woman or a hijra shouldn’t have to choose sex work because all the other doors are closed.
I try to educate people. I’ve told the hijra community that it’s not about getting breasts or having SRS [sexual reassignment surgery]. First we need our rights. We need our dignity. We need inclusion in every bloody policy for the marginalized. We need education. We need dignified shelter.
There are many like me who are able to earn without begging. But the fact is that before even coming into the social sector, I was running a dance class, and before that I was a model coordinator. I didn’t want to beg, or do sex work, or sell myself.
I advocate for people who believe sex work is work. But women have so many avenues open. In the same way, a trans woman or a hijra should have that many doors open. If later on she chooses sex work, that’s fine. But she shouldn’t have to choose sex work because all the other doors are closed. Every hijra or trans person is not a sex worker. We need our own respect. And whoever chooses sex work after having all doors open, I really respect that.
Guernica: What keeps you motivated as an activist for this community?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: It’s my job. It may be a thankless job, at times. I’ve been stared at and faced hatred and more agony than normal hijras. But I believe I was truthful to myself, and my truthfulness has brought me where I am.
Guernica: Why did you call your book Me Hijra, Me Laxmi?
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: I am Laxmi. I am myself. When I want to dance, I dance. When I want to sing, I sing. When I want to be an activist at the forefront, marching forward, I am there. If my mother feels I’m a son to her, I’m a son. If my sister feels I’m a brother to her, I’m a brother. If my disciple feels I’m a guru to her, I’m a guru. To my guru, I’m her disciple.
That word, “hijra,” that was given to me always, taunting me. People tease me. They say, Ee, hijri, ee, this chakka [a derogatory term for a hijra], homo, whatever. But I’m a hijra. They need not tell me I’m a hijra. “Hijra” is much more dignified, that’s why my book carries this name. I’m the same hijra, Laxmi.
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