July 2014
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Don’t Speak

Text: Michael Edison Hayden
Photographs: Sushant Chhabria

After centuries of repressive tradition and castration rituals, India’s vast legion of transgendered minorities are undergoing a cultural sea change.

Somewhere tonight in an ugly, industrial town in Navi Mumbai, a young unnamed construction worker is going to visit his fantasy girl. All day at work, he’s dreamt about her. At around 7pm, he’ll get off work at his refinery, and he and his buddies will hang up their hard hats to take a stroll up the road, crossing over the grotesque puddle of liquid trash, avoiding the feral pigs, before walking up a staircase on the side of a legitimate, if unspectacular, Udipi restaurant.

They’re headed toward the area’s most notorious illegal dance bar. Stepping into a sea of multicolored lights, and erotic, grinding flesh, he’s looking only for her now. He and his friends sit down at their favourite table, and there she is, waiting in the aisles. She’s staring at him with ocean blue eyes that look too perfect to be real, flashing a warm smile that makes him feel like the only man in the room. An item number plays. The bass is so loud that his Samsung phone rattles on the table in front of him. And when she walks over, he slips her a 100-rupee note to get things started. From the corner of his booth, he leans in to inhale her perfume. He watches intently, as she starts to shake her hips.

But what our unnamed friend doesn’t know is that is that his fantasy girl, H., is transgendered. H. was born male 23 years ago in Rajasthan to parents who couldn’t foresee this life playing out for their youngest son, and can’t comprehend it now. In fact, the owners of the bar don’t know it either. Nor do the waiters, who flirt incessantly with her. The same can be said for the majority of the twenty or so other bargirls that work the dark, mysterious cafeteria-shaped room on any given night.

Only three other girls at the bar know of H.’s transgendered identity: Two of them are female friends who are allowed to share the changing room with her. The last one is R., her childhood friend from Rajasthan and current roommate, who is also transgendered.

In my four years of living in India, nothing I’ve seen has embodied cultural hypocrisy quite like the country’s mistreatment of its transgendered women. Let me first acknowledge that transgendered women face prejudice everywhere in the world, including in my native country, America, where that nation’s billion-dollar reality TV and pornography industries portray transgendered women as dolls, incapable of sophisticated thoughts, ambitions or feelings. So, just because India is particularly shameful in this regard, doesn’t mean that the nation is an island in terms of its regressive attitudes.

Nevertheless, there’s something uniquely cruel about a country whose transgendered women have lived openly on the streets for centuries as neighbours, daughters, and sisters, but are still subjected to a colonial-era law like Section 377 of the Penal Code, which bans their right to make love to a partner. If outed by others or identified by appearance, transgendered women are sometimes denied entry into hotels and restaurants here. Some of them are even denied treatment at health care centres.

An April 15th, 2014, a Supreme Court ruling provided some acknowledgement of their right to exist by allowing transgendered women to register as a “third gender” (a designation that lumps them in with what the government calls its “backward classes”) on official documents like voter registration ID cards. The legislation is a victory of sorts, but only represents a small step toward the kind of sea change these girls require to integrate into society as regular people with normal, decent paying jobs. Not only does the practice of sexual intercourse remain banned for them, but also labeling transgendered women potentially firms up their position as cultural outsiders in the eyes of others.

My own interest in transgendered rights has evolved since first moving here in 2010. A day after touching down in Delhi for the first time, my wife took me to Lodi Gardens where I saw my first hijra. She was tall, wearing a sunburst orange sari, and she was begging for change. The bangles on her hands crashed like tiny cymbals when she clapped them. We did our best to ignore her, of course. Everyone did. For the majority of people, intellectuals and progressives alike, distancing ourselves from beggars forms the bulk of interactions with India’s vast male-to-female transgendered population.

Writing a story for The Wall Street Journal in early 2012, I learned that transgendered women in India have a documented history that dates back to the Kama Sutra. The text of that book features an unintentionally bizarre chapter detailing the proper way for a ‘eunuch’ to pleasure a man. (Hint: It contains a descriptive metaphor for suckling a mango slice.) Later in the same year, I covered Koovagam for a series in The New York Times. Koovagam is a yearly Hindu festival that draws thousands of transgendered women from across India, and finds its basis in a story from the Mahabharata in which Krishna transforms himself into a woman one night to marry Aravan, before the latter is sacrificed to an early death.

In my research, I learned that most of transgendered girls work as prostitutes and bargirls in India, because they don’t have alternatives to make money. Some of them, the luckier ones, work as stylists, make up artists, or by other self-employed means. Shabnam Mausi, a self-proclaimed hijra, served on the state legislative assembly for Madya Pradesh from 1998 to 2003. Laxmi Tripathi, an activist who has become the predictable go-to for newspaper quotes about transgendered issues in India, was on season five of the reality television show Bigg Boss. But socially prominent roles such these are rare.

As of 2004, nearly half of India’s transgendered female population suffered from HIV/AIDS. The non-profit organization Humsafar Trust who provided that figure to me said that it has probably been cut to about 29%, due to outreach work on the part of AIDS awareness campaigns like their own.

According to tradition, hijras (North India), or aravanis (South India) have always lived in clans, but that reality is changing. The clans have a sophisticated network of self-governance that is handed down through generations, and function like separate (cynics might say “shunned”) worlds. Younger members are inducted aschelas, or students. They are ultimately taught in the ways of survival by gurus, or teachers. Each of these families traditionally consists of somewhere between three and seven chelas, and one guru. The families in turn belong to larger gangs. Mumbai, for example, has seven major gangs, and nearly every transgendered woman in town belongs to (or is told to belong to) one or the other.

Working on these stories, I had the good fortune of meeting several transgendered women who have since gone on to become my friends. I count them among the most generous, intelligent, funny and caring people I’ve met. H. and R., the girls I described above who work at the dancebar, are among them.

Many of the younger transgendered girls I know, like H. and R., detest the term hijra, and don’t want to associate themselves with it. They’ve had violent encounters with hijras who have demanded money and signs of allegiance from them.

Armed with Wi-Fi connections and Facebook accounts, this new generation opts for Western-style plastic surgery and hormone therapy rather than castration ceremonies executed by backwoods doctors. They have ambitions to work in call centres, offices or hospitals, rather than at weddings, dance-bars and brothels. They want to evolve. The problem is that Indian society, as well as the journalists who write about it, continue to live in the past.

Take a paragraph that purports to introduce India’s male-to-female transgendered population to an American readership. From an April 15th, 2014 article on NPR’s website:“India’s hijras are easily spotted on the street and can be found wending their way through traffic at intersections, clad in colorful saris and bright lipstick. They tap on car windows, begging or sometimes demanding a bit of change.”

The presumably well-meaning article and others like it makes no effort to acknowledge that at least to some of India’s transgendered women, the word hijra can be considered derogatory in 2014. The article also fails to mention that transgendered women beg for money because without decent anti-discrimination laws protecting them in the workplace, the large majority of Indian employers will never consider hiring them in the first place. It’s a small point, but one that must be made.

And if hijras are so “easily spotted”, how have my friends H. and R. been passing off as genetic women in a Mumbai dance bar for the last three years?

H. and R. grew up in the same working class neighbourhood in Jodhpur. Their homes were only a few paces apart from one another on opposite sides of the street. As teenagers, they were the best of friends.

According to their memories, the desire to be female wasn’t a collective decision, or some notion brewed under the influence of one or the other. It’s possible, both concede, that they were drawn to one another because of an innate feminine side each sensed in the other. In my own experience, childhood friends choose one another both because of practical circumstances and intangible, emotional needs. When they met at age 14, their relationship likely started under a healthy marriage of both.

R.’s discovery of her sexuality evolved over time, and her transition moved along a straight path toward womanhood. She started dressing in female clothing at age 12. She grew her long hair after puberty, and started dancing in religious pageants in female dress soon afterwards.

R.’s family’s acceptance of her gender status was lubricated by money. Starting in her middle teenage years, R. worked dance bars, and was even nicknamed “the storm” by a local bar owner because of the intense energy she brought to dancing. The money she brought in from that work helped to feed the family, and keep them out of debt.

Now, at age 23, she still passes as female without hormones or surgery, but acknowledges that time is working against her unless she adapts to an aging body type. She wants breast implants, but the money needed to get them is hard to find. What she earns at the bar continues to flow back into Rajasthan to support her family. Last year, she suffered a slipped disc while dancing tables, and couldn’t work. The injury set her family’s finances back eight full months.

H.’s transition was a much more painful one, and therefore emblematic of what most transgendered women endure growing up in Indian families. The youngest of three sons, she dressed in female clothing when her brothers were out playing cricket. She found other boys her age attractive, but didn’t tell them about it out of fear. And because of her relative youth, and natural effeminate nature, she was given feminine nicknames by her family. Her mother even tacitly supported her feminine side at first through playful teasing and signs of favouritism.

But as an 11-year-old boy, H. saw a program on Discovery Channel India about transgendered women, and that’s when a sense of urgency overtook her behaviour. She fought to wear female clothing to school, an inclination that her mother and father stopped and disciplined against with angry repetition. She stashed female clothing, only to have it thrown away or stolen from her by family members. While in high school, she tried to run away from home three times. On her fourth try she gathered enough money to take a train to Jaipur, and left for good.

In Jaipur, the 16-year-old H. lived on and off the streets for the better part of a year. Good times were spent on the couches of new friends she met there. Harder times were spent living in Jaipur’s Railway Station, where she subsisted primarily off of packets of Kurkure. H. started working in body massage parlours in Jaipur, earning 4000 rupees per month, dressed as a girl. She saved that money for her transition, and an eventual move to Mumbai.

H. decided to check in with her mother a year after leaving her with a phone call. Both shed tears. Her mother pleaded with H. to come home, but she replied that she couldn’t. She was female now, and she could never be her son again.

H. has since undergone hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery. She recently reduced her level of hormones, concerned that it was making her put on weight. One advantage of sexual reassignment surgery is that the body’s primary supply of testosterone is removed. Reducing the intake of hormones in such a case won’t have as dramatic an effect on her appearance as it otherwise might.

She has since reconciled with her family. Only now, over half a decade since she first ran away from home, have her mother and father come to terms with the fact that she’s a woman. Her father, the most resistant to accept H.’s gender, still occasionally refers to her as a “him”, a slip of the tongue that infuriates his new daughter.

H. and R. share an apartment in the Navi Mumbai neighborhood of Vashi, and consider themselves transgendered women, rather than hijras, or anything else you might read in a Western newspaper report. Every few months, one or the other returns to Jodhpur to see family and friends while the other keeps the rent paid by dancing at the bar. On a given night they can make anywhere from a hundred to a few thousand rupees doing that work, although the lower sums are more frequent. On bad nights, they risk losing money on the cab rides back and forth to the bar.

The dance-bar doesn’t pay a salary, so anything they make comes from the generosity of the patrons, most of whom come there by way of the large scale industrial plants that sit ominously on the road that leads up to the bar, looking like shadowy set pieces from a David Lynch movie.

The most generous givers are the men who develop a particular fondness for one girl or the other. Both H. and R. have regular fans, and none of them know that they’re transgendered.

At the bar, the girls wear Western clothing that reveals nothing particularly shocking – at least to my eyes. Physical contact is forbidden. The best show of the night comes when R. shows off why she was nicknamed “the storm”, dancing wildly to a house remix of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”, a 90’s Bollywood classic, or her personal favorite, Shakira’s “Wherever Whenever”.

“It’s not a very nice place to work,” H. confided to me, while I was watching a dance.

When I visited H. and R. at their bar this April, it was a slow Wednesday afternoon, and the waiters pulled me back and forth between tables, hoping to get the runoff of my tip money. When H. and R. sat at my table to talk, a mustachioed manager urged them to buy expensive drinks to help in running up my tab.

Regarding April’s Supreme Court Ruling, or the reinforcement of Section 377, life will go on as it always has for H. and R., they said. They plan on voting in the upcoming election, and registering as transgendered. Regarding India’s ban on gay sex, R. quipped, “there’s no freedom in this country for people like us.”

Talk of 377 was barely urgent enough to get H. to look up from her smartphone. Playing with mobile phones is more common an activity for the bargirls than actual dancing, and to anyone who visits the bar for the purpose of holding a conversation rather than seeking out a dry, fleeting moment of sexual arousal, the environment can appear downright tedious at times.

H. considers herself female. So by her estimation, a gay sex law shouldn’t concern her. But a female appearance, and even female genitalia aren’t enough to give everyone around H. the same degree of conviction about her gender. Her most recent boyfriend dumped her, and then humiliated her on Facebook with public messages, because, in her words, “I could give him everything he wanted, but I couldn’t give him a baby”.

H. brightened up when discussing her classes. She’s training to be a flight attendant nowadays, and has the pictures on her phone to prove it. “It’s a dream I’ve had for a long time,” she explained. The photos she showed me at the dance bar were a stark contrast to the sleazy atmosphere around us. They were of H. with other young women. Many of them were group selfies, and everyone looked happy together, taking breaks from their training course. She hopes to work with an airline within a year, and leave the bar behind for good.

But much like the situation at her current employer, not everyone at airline school knows that she’s transgendered, and she doesn’t want them to find out. I asked R. what would happen if the customers and employees at the bar discovered that they were transgendered. She gestured for me to lower my volume.

“Don’t say anything,” R. pleaded, softly. “You don’t want to know what they’ll say.”