Ramblings & ephemera

India’s transgendered folks

From Henry Chu’s “Bullied by the Eunuchs” (Los Angeles Times: 7 June 2006):

I was being hit up for a handout by one of this country’s many hijras.

They are eunuchs or otherwise transgendered people by birth, accident or choice. Something between male and female, they are shunned by Indian society as unclean. Many make a rough living through prostitution or by crashing weddings, birthday parties and other festive occasions, threatening to disrupt the celebrations with vulgar behavior and to bring bad luck unless they are paid off. …

India has somewhere between half a million and a million eunuchs. The estimates are very approximate, because the hijras live in a secretive, shadowy world they’ve created for themselves away from the abuse and persecution of general society.

They gather in public in large numbers only at their annual conventions, which always attract media attention for the skillful dancing, the raucous atmosphere and the sight of gaudy clothing draped around burly shoulders and dainty jewels hanging off overly thick wrists.

In antiquity, India’s eunuchs dressed as men, and a few were granted royal jobs — for example, as guardians of harems. But today’s hijras make themselves up as women. In the West, they would probably be identified as something between a cross-dresser and a transsexual; in India, they often describe themselves as a third sex, and refer to themselves as “she.” …

Only a handful of outsiders have managed to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the hijra community. The writer William Dalrymple, in his book “City of Djinns,” describes an often well-ordered sisterhood divided geographically into local “parishes” whose members, overseen by den mothers, diligently work their beat. …

The short one continued to appeal to me directly, gazing at me meaningfully and sprinkling her Hindi with unmistakable English phrases like “a thousand rupees” (about $22). At one point she knelt down and touched my feet in a sign of obeisance or importunity. Then, growing frustrated by my stinginess, she drew up the hem of her sari, perhaps to warn me that she was ready to flash her mutilated parts, a common tactic among eunuchs to hurry horrified partygoers into forking over cash to get their uninvited guests to leave.

How the hijras come by their condition varies. Some are born hermaphrodites, considered by many Indians to be a terrible curse. Others feel as though they are feminine souls trapped in masculine bodies and undergo voluntary castration — the luckier, better-off ones through chemicals or by trained surgeons, the poorer ones in dangerous back-alley operations involving little more than booze and a dirty knife. There are also hushed stories of boys being kidnapped and mutilated against their will.

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