This article is taken from the following background document:
Venkatesan Chakrapani, Ashok Row Kavi, L Ramki Ramakrishnan, Rajan Gupta, Claire Rappoport, Sai Subhasree Raghavan. HIV Prevention among Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) in India: Review of Current Scenario and Recommendations. Background paper prepared by Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection In India (SAATHII) working group on 'HIV prevention and care among Indian GLBT/Sexuality Minority communities', Revised Draft, April 2002.

The following description of 'identities'/'labels' are based on informal discussions and in-depth interviews with individual persons with different identities, and informal group discussions with persons with different identities (especially those in Chennai) by the first author. Thus, the following discussion represents the current views on some of the "Indian identities". If any person feels that a particular identity has been misrepresented or vital things of that identity are not expressed adequately, that is not intentional.

Language and terminology in the area of sexuality can be problematic. People's self-perceptions and self-identifications can vary widely from culture to culture, as well as within each culture.

Many women and men whose principal emotional-sexual attraction or conduct is towards people of the same sex will, for many reasons, not necessarily identify as ''lesbian'' or ''gay''. Some may identify with other analogous terms which are more meaningful in their particular cultural context. Others may not see their sexuality as a basis on which to construct an identity, or may find it difficult to apply a fixed label to their sexuality (Amnesty International, AI-index: ACT 79/003/1999).

Western typologies (in sexuality) are often not considered to be relevant in developing countries. Though no attempt has been made to 'box' an Indian identity into one of the 'western identities', occasionally however similarities and differences between certain 'Indian identities' and 'western identities' have been noted below.


(Note: The term 'Hijra' is used in North India, while the term 'Ali' is used in Tamil Nadu. Many NGOs/CBOs as well as health care providers commonly use the term 'Eunuch' to denote Hijras/Alis. Almost all Hijras/Alis call themselves only as Kothis.)

Hijras have been in India for centuries. In the ancient times, they occupied high political posts in the royal courts. They are believed to have special powers to bless or curse. They are organized into small visible communities (with their 'Guru' [spiritual leader or master] and other Chelas [disciples]) but they may live alone or with their male partners. Their traditional way of livelihood is by singing and dancing in festival occasions, marriages, birth of a male heir, etc. Also, sometimes they go for begging by clapping ("Thali") at market places and shops. Because of the gradual decline of income in these 'jobs' some are forced to enter into sex work.

Hijras are born as biological/anatomical males who reject their 'masculine' identity in due course of time to identify either as women, or not-men, or in-between man and woman, or neither man nor woman. There are no valid data to state how many intersexed persons ('hermaphrodites') are living in the Hijra community but they are likely to be extremely rare. According to Transpal Sentinel, a magazine for Indian crossdressers and transsexuals, intersexed persons may constitute a disproportionately small number, as small as one for 20 thousand or more. Hijras were regarded previously as cross-dressed homosexuals by some authors (cited by Serena Nanda, 1999) but Hijras are equivalent to the transgendered/transsexual persons.

Those persons who identify themselves with women often leave their birth families at a very young age and join the Hijra/Ali community. Lack of education, lack of other job opportunities and lack of economic/emotional support from their birth families compel many to enter into sex work for survival. Thus, Hijra/Ali community has mainly persons belonging to the lower socioeconomic status. There is no information about cross-gender identified males who belong to middle and upper class families. It is possible that such persons don't want to join the Hijra/Ali community because of various reasons (Transpal Sentinel, 1998).

Subgroups among Hijras:
The following classification is a slightly modified version from an article that appeared in a transgender magazine (Transpal Sentinel, 1998) in India.

1. Nirvan (Nirvan Kothi): Those who had undergone "Nirvana" (Salvation - as castration is known) i.e., removal of both testes and penis (voluntarily/willingly) and who are in woman's attire. These persons are usually known as "Nirvan Kothi(s)" or simply as "Nirvan(s)" with in the Hijra/Ali community. Traditionally, emasculation is done by a senior Hijra/Ali called 'Daima' (Hindi) or 'Thai Amma' (Tamil) which literally means 'mid-wife'. These days, many Hijras/Alis undergo emasculation operation by quack doctors (fake medical personnel).

2. Aquwa(Aquwa/Ackwa Kothi): Those who wear women's or men's attire, but who have not yet undergone castration but may or may not want to undergo castration in the future. Many live as women under a Guru, while training in singing, dancing and other rites of the community, as they wait to attain Nirvana. Some of them are under "Gurus" who teach them about female mannerisms such as how to speak, sit and make gestures like woman. [This is equivalent to the 'real-life' experience/test in the western countries, during which the person who wish to have sex reassignment surgery has to live as a woman for about one or two years]

3. Zenana: Here even though they think of themselves as woman, these persons don't want to undergo 'castration' because they don't want to meddle with nature (i.e., mutilate themselves). These persons may be in men's or women's attire. (Currently this term is not in common use with in the Hijra/Ali community. These days, these persons also come under Aquwa Kothis)


  • The term "castration" is used here to mean removal of the penis as well as the testicles, even though it usually means removal of testicles only. The term 'emasculation' can also be used to mean the same.
  • The above classification is a simplified one and the description given for the subgroups may not be accepted universally by the Hijra/Kothi community.)

Some Hijras who are yet to be castrated or don't want to get castrated may be in the men's dress. These persons are more likely to be confused with feminine homo/bisexual males (see later). Also this led to the prior misconception that "pure passive" homosexuals exist, since these transgendered persons practiced only or mainly receptive anal/oral intercourse. i.e., there was (and is) confusion in differentiating between uncastrated transgendered persons (uncastrated Hijras) and feminine homo/bisexual males. 
(Thus, if we have to say in western terminology, Hijras/Alis are a heterogeneous group which include, but are not limited to, pre-operative transsexuals (in male or female dress), transsexuals in transition [under hormonal therapy], post-operative transsexuals and non-operative transsexuals)

It must be understood that even the Hijra community often considers the terms "Hijra/Hizda/Hijde" (or the term 'Ali' in Tamil) as derogatory and demeaning. That term is used here only for discussion purposes and should not be attached any other connotation. Hijras/Alis usually refer to themselves as "Kothi" only(both in North and South India) and refer to their [Hijra] community as "Kothi lowg" (means 'Kothi community' in Hindi). The term 'Hijra/Ali' itself is considered to be derogatory by many Hijras/Alis (Kamal Dhalla and Ruth Lor Malloy, 1997). Thus the terms ""Hijra/Hizda/Hijdes" and "Ali" are gradually becoming more of labels than identities. However, within their community certain derogatory words like - 'Pottai (Tamil language)', 'Ombodhu (Tamil language)', and even masculine pronouns are freely used to refer to other 'Alis'. Recently, some Ali activists in Tamil Nadu has coined the term "Aravani" to replace the term "Ali" (though the term "Aravani" is not widely known or used).

Though Hijras can be asexual, many do have sex with men. Some Hijras engage in commercial sex work for lack of other options and are willing to leave this work if they are given alternative jobs (Timothy et al, 1999). Those earning their living as commercial sex workers do practice high-risk sexual behavior with their clients, casual and steady partners (since they practice receptive anal and oral intercourse) (Venkatesan C et al, 1999a). Some Hijras get "married" to a man and cohabit with him. Hijras call that man (or any man who only penetrates) as "Panthi", which (according to them) means 'real man'. A Hijra remarked, "We call those men as 'Panthi' who penetrate us. If we came to know that he is being penetrated by others, we don't like him and don't want to have sex with him…because one day or other he will also become like us". They don't seem to know the fact that a man can penetrate as well as get penetrated but still regard himself as no lesser than other men. This may be due to the conventional 'Indian way' of thinking, i.e. viewing the penetrator as "man" and those who get penetrated as either female or those who have feminine tendencies. This also reflects the tendency to view the penetrated person as 'inferior'. This follows the simple "heterosexist logic": woman is inferior ? woman gets penetrated by man ? any man who is penetrated by other man = feminine nature predominates in the penetrated man ? anything feminine is inferior = penetrated man is inferior.

Some Hijras get married to a female before joining the Hijra/Ali community and may also have children from that marriage.

The emphasis of the sexual role - 'penetrator and person who gets penetrated' - is more likely only to reaffirm their gender identity as woman. It is also very likely that for the same reason Hijras tend to have multiple male (man) sexual partners. Thus getting into sex work serves a double purpose - not only does it solve the problem of money but it also gives Hijras a psychological satisfaction since Hijras feel that men are coming to them since these men consider them [Hijras] as women.

If you think that since Hijras think of themselves as woman they don't penetrate, you could be wrong!. Ashok Row Kavi says, "We came to know that in some parts of Mumbai Hijras in sex work are getting more money from truck drivers than the female sex workers. On enquiry, much to our surprise, we found that these [uncastrated] Hijras penetrate [the anus of] the truck drivers and that is why they are given more money". If Hijras identify themselves with females and only consider those who penetrate as 'real man', then how come that they penetrate other 'man'!. Vatsyayana, in KamaSutra, while describing the virile behavior in women [purushayita], notes that certain women mount their male partner [upasripta] and sodomizes him [purushapasripta] (Alain Danielou, 1994). If women can penetrate and still regard themselves as woman, then there is no surprise if Hijras penetrate but still regard themselves as 'woman".

Bairupi or Bairupiya ('Fake Hijras')
In North India, some males mimic Hijras by wearing female dress and go for begging by clapping (so as to make easy money). Hijras claim that these fake Hijras (Bairupi), by their indecent behavior in public spaces and trains, spoil the name of Hijras.

"DOUBLE-DECKER" (the exact term used by Kothis/Hijras)

This refers to persons who get penetrated as well as penetrate, and those who may also have sex with women. It is because these persons get penetrated as well as penetrate other, Kothis classify these persons as a separate category - "Double-deckers". Since the term being a 'English' one, it means that this term has been only recently coined by the Kothi/Hijra community. The feminine mannerisms in Double-deckers are often overlooked, as they may be very subtle even though in some it would be obvious to any body. Some of these persons usually identify themselves only as 'Kothis' rather than 'Double-deckers' even though they 'accept' that they are 'Double-deckers' if questioned directly (Like - "Yes, that is how sometimes other Kothis call me"). Thus Kothi and Double-decker may not necessarily be mutually exclusive categories. It also may mean that sometimes 'Double-decker' is more of a label than an identity but it could be regarded as a subcategory of 'Kothis'. However, some may not call themselves as 'Kothis' but still accept the label 'Double-decker' (probably because they might think that calling themselves as 'Double-decker' is more prestigious than calling themselves as 'Kothi', since the latter means 'effeminate and being passive'). Almost all Double-deckers eventually get married to a female.


Unlike the western identities like 'Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual' that have some 'standard' definitions, there are no pre-existing definitions for the "Indian identities". Consequently, whatever a person thinks about his/her identity becomes the true essence of that identity to that person and whatever any other persons have to say about that identity becomes wrong. In other words, everybody (researchers as well as the community members) thinks that they are correct and others are wrong.

Many researchers/authors think in their own ways and their description of "Indian identities" is likely to be influenced by many factors like -

  • Through whom and by what methods have the information about various identities been collected (Eg: Whether the researcher really had discussions with persons with different identities or was the information collected through 'key informants'? Or whether the respondents were recruited through 'snowballing' method? - since that means persons are more likely to identify with others sharing similar views about that identity [not necessarily] and thus the sample is more likely to be 'homogeneous')
  • The conscious or sub-conscious influence of the knowledge the researcher has about western identities.
  • The censorship (by the researcher or the community members) of certain issues which may pose certain risks to both the community members with a particular identity as well as the researcher.
  • The meanings attached to the Indian identities, like any other field, changes over time. This means description of 'Indian identities' this year may be 'outdated' a few years later. Even if one thinks that identities are immutable, the meanings attached to those identities are not.


Kothis are a heterogeneous group. It is unrealistic to expect that a single 'definition' of Kothi-identity will fit everyone with that identity. The meanings attached to Kothi-identity vary according to the region, language, age group, socioeconomic status, educational status, degree of involvement in Kothi community and even from one Kothi-identified person to another. Having said this, one can justify the diverse opinions held by different individuals and CBOs on Kothi-identity.

Traditionally, the 'definition' for 'Kothi' is - "males who show obvious feminine mannerisms and who involve mainly, if not only, in receptive anal/receptive oral intercourse with men". However, most of these feminine homo/bisexual males who identify themselves as 'Kothis' get penetrated as well as penetrate (Note: Sometimes the term 'Khada Kothi' is used in North India to denote some Kothi-identified feminine homo/bisexual persons who cross-dress and penetrate their male partners). Also, a significant proportion of them have bisexual behavior and many also eventually get married to a woman.

Most of the Kothi-identified males show varying degree of feminine mannerisms/behavior and also cross-dress occasionally. These persons are akin to "queens"/"drag queens" in western countries. If Kothis do have "feelings of a woman" and female mannerisms/behaviors, why don't they consider themselves as Hijras/Alis? This is a complex issue and may have more than one possible answer. This could be because the degree to which they identify themselves with woman may not be sufficient to warrant the 'Hijra'/'Ali' label.

As mentioned earlier, most (if not all) Hijras/Alis prefer to call themselves only as 'Kothi'. Thus there are two groups which share the Kothi-identity. One group is persons with Kothi-identity but those who don't think of themselves as Hijras/Alis. For the purpose of discussion, let us call these persons as 'simple' Kothis. Another group is the Hijra/Ali community, whose members identify themselves only as 'Kothis'.

The 'simple' Kothis don't cross-dress publicly except when soliciting sex work or in the Kootandavar festival in Tamil Nadu (But they are careful not to let their birth families know that they cross-dress). Many don't have an urge to undergo emasculation even though they cross-dress. But some do undergo emasculation and later may cross-dress part-time or full time. They are more likely to be living with their birth families or living with their wives. Some 'simple' Kothis don't socialize well with the Hijras/alis while some may mingle freely with them. Some of these 'simple' Kothis also consider themselves as 'Aquwa Kothi' since they are not emasculated (or don't want emasculation). Some do take female hormones for breast development though they don't want emasculation. In Tamil Nadu, 'simple' Kothis differentiate themselves from the Alis by saying -"Avanga romba patchaiya irupanga" (which means - "there are more patchai". Note: In Tamil language, the term "patchai" literally means 'green'). What they actually want to convey is - Alis are those persons who show obvious feminine mannerisms, puts on female make-up, are in women's dress most of the time, and who may or may not be castrated.

(Thus, in western terminology, 'simple' Kothis include, but are not limited to, 'drag queens', feminine gay/bisexual men [who might never cross-dress], male-to-female transgendered persons, pre-operative transsexuals, non-operative transsexuals and male-to-female transsexuals in transition, i.e., taking female hormones)

In contrast, Hijras/Alis are more likely to be in female dress almost all time, and more likely to have either undergone emasculation or have resolved to undergo in the near future. They are more likely to have left their birth families (or left their wives, if married prior to joining Hijra community) and living with other Hijras/Alis. Most Hijras/Alis consider 'simple' Kothis as "Aquwa Kothis in male dress and/or Kothis who don't want to undergo emasculation".

Some educated feminine homo/bisexual males who have "Kothi' identity alsoidentify themselves as "gay". They have learnt this English term through the organizations that work for Kothis and Hijras, or through their friends. Likewise, some self-identified gay men prefer mainly (if not only) getting penetrated. Some proportion of them, who socialize with Kothis, thus also identify themselves as "Kothis" because of their behavior. Thus one can see "dual identities" in India.

It must be understand that even though feminine homo/bisexual males may call themselves "Kothis" many persons are quick to point out that they are not "Hijras/Alis". Also, the very act of including "Kothis" under the transgender umbrella is resisted quickly by some educated feminine homo/bisexual males, as they don't consider themselves as 'transgender' (English term). On the other hand, many Hijras/Alis consider the term "Hijras/hizdas (or Alis)" as synonymous with "Kothis" even though they mostly prefer to call themselves "Kothis". These days, those Hijras who have access to NGOs/CBOs working with GLBT communities know the English term "transgender" and proudly call themselves "transgender" even though they might not have fully understood the meaning of that term.

NGOs/CBOs that work with MSM reach mainly "Kothis' and "Hijras" since they can be easily identified and approached in the community. Thus these organizations are 'missing' the majority of "men who have sex with men" who look "normal" ('straight-looking'), those who don't have a self-conscious identity, and those who don't cruise. Thus a major segment of MSM remains invisible and hard to reach.

Kothi/Kowdi bashai (Tamil) or Kothi/Kowdi basha (Hindi) 
This refers to the code language that is used by the Kothis to refer to certain things (mainly sexual acts). Actually this is not a 'language' as such since only certain things are given code words. These code words have been developed so that exchange of information can occur freely in the public spaces without other persons understanding. Usually the code words that are used by 'simple' Kothis are essentially the same as that used by Hijras/Alis (who also call themselves Kothis). These code words vary from state to state in India.


The term 'Panthis' is used by Kothis/Hijras to refer to those persons who are 'real men' - in the sense those who only penetrate. Though it may also refer to rough and tough appearing men, a man who shows subtle feminine mannerisms may still be regarded as 'Panthi' if he only penetrates. These days, the term Panthi is used more loosely by Kothis/Hijras to denote heterosexual persons as well as any man who is masculine and who also has sex with women. This term is also used to denote the steady person (or 'special boy friend') of a Hijra/Kothi or the 'husband' of the Hijra. Some times the 'husband' or the steady partner is referred to simply as '(your) mard' [means man, in Hindi].

The sexual orientation of 'Panthis' is usually believed to be 'heterosexual' in orientation but fluid enough to have sex with Kothis/Hijras. There is a belief that 'Panthis' basically get attracted only to the feminine nature of Kothis/Alis and they don't have a homosexual orientation. But it is also possible that Panthis have homo/bisexual orientation but feel intimidated to have sex with other masculine males and thus prefer to have sex with Kothis/Alis who are feminine.

'Panthi' is more of a label than an identity since 'Panthis' came to know of that term only through Kothis/Hijras and they themselves don't take that term seriously. Some times calling oneself 'Panthi' is a matter of prestige since those who are penetrated are considered inferior. While it is possible that Panthi is only a penetrator because he is "lacking interest in experimenting in reciprocal sexual activities" as suggested by some authors (Asthana and Oostvogels, 2001), it is more likely due to the stigma attached to being a receptive partner. Some times a self-conscious homosexual (who might penetrate as well as receive) prefers the term 'Panthi' rather than the term 'Kothi'. Thus for sexual role playing some body has to take the Panthi role (penetrator) and somebody has to take the Kothi role (penetratee). Even a self-identified 'gay' man who socializes with Kothis has to say he is a 'Panthi' if he wants to have sex with a Kothi-identified person.

Panthis are either married to a female or eventually will get married to a female. Some of these 'Panthis' also have sex with other men (of any sexual identity) and may also penetrate as well as get penetrated (oral or anal). Though there is a general assumption that Kothis/Hijras may not accept their 'Panthis' if they know that their Panthis get penetrated as well, in reality as long as he behaves in a 'masculine' manner with Hijras/Kothis they are not rejected (however, this is not always the case).

Some Hijras/Kothis get 'married' to 'Panthi' even though that Panthi might have been already married to a female. Some may get 'married' to a Panthi and may also accept these Panthis wanting to get married to a female while other Hijras/Kothis may be possessive and may not easily be willing to 'share' their husbands).

Thus, in general, a combination of the following things can be used to find out whether a person is Panthi or not. Kothis/Alis generally believe that: A Panthi -

  • is masculine in appearance
  • only inserts and never becomes a receptive partner to any one.
  • does not even touch the male genitalia (if not emasculated) of the Kothi/Ali.
  • only gets attracted to Kothis/Alis and not to other masculine males.
  • mainly gets attracted to females and thus has every right to have sex with females and to get married to a female (though some Kothis/Alis are very possessive).

[Note: Previously, the 'real man who only penetrates' used to be called 'Kowriya' or 'Giriya' in the 'simple' Kothi language and 'Panthi' in the Hijra language. These days, mainly the term 'Panthi' is used by Kothis/Hijras though the term "Kowriya" is still in usage in North India]

DANGA (this term is used mainly in Chennai, Tamil Nadu)

The term Danga is used mainly by the NGOs/CBOs to refer to Kothi. Even some researchers (Asthana and Oostvogels, 2001) have used the term 'Danga' rather then the term 'Kothi' while describing the different identities in Tamil Nadu. But 'Danga' is actually more of a label than an identity. Only a few Kothis (especially those who work in NGOs/CBOs) know that the term 'Danga' is used to mean 'Kothi'. Some mistakenly believe that 'Danga' is the English translation for 'Kothi' or officially Kothi is known as 'Danga'. A related term 'Saree Clad Danga' is also used by the NGOs/CBOs in Tamil Nadu to refer to Kothis who crossdress as well as to Aquwa Kothis (Alis) who cross-dress. The term Danga is not widely used or known to the Kothi community.


Sexual health outreach should attempt as far as possible, to respect the identities chosen by individuals and not attempt to force upon them western constructs such as gay or transgender. These days, the term "males who have sex with males" is used to indicate those biological males who have sex with other biological males. Then, in a strict sense, it includes Hijras (uncastrated and castrated), Kothis and other "men who have sex with men". Working definitions such as 'males who have sex with males' are appropriate for outreach as long as these are treated as behavioral categories which may include people with any of the above identities, males who don't identify as any of the above, as well as males who may subscribe to constructs such as gay and bisexual. However, due respect should be given to the sexual identity assumed by any male who has sex with other males.


The term 'gay' essentially has the same meanings as that in Western countries for the educated self-identified homosexual males belonging to the middle and upper class. But for some self-identified homosexual males the meaning attached to the word 'gay' may be sometimes quite different.

While some well-educated persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, may have never heard the term 'gay', other well-educated self-identified homosexual persons eventually do find a name to identify with - the English term 'gay'. They learn this term either while searching the library to find more information about their 'condition' or through other 'gay' friends. Thus the term 'gay' is not a familiar term even for well-educated persons, whereas the terms 'homosexuals', 'homosex' and 'homo' are usually very familiar. Even these terms may be sometimes confused with different things (The first author had personally heard a male patient saying - "I had homosex". Only after some time was it recognized that he was actually referring to masturbation as 'homosex').

The less-educated self-identified homosexual persons, who have access to NGOs/CBOs that serve MSM, eventually and inevitably come to know about the English terms - "Gay, Bisexual and Transgender". As these terms are not properly explained to them, these terms are used by these persons with their own personal definitions and they also experiment in equating the western identities with the Indian identities. For example: - the term 'gay' is used to mean all persons who are attracted to same-sex partners regardless of the gender identity of the persons. Thus eventually almost all the Indian identities like - Kothis, Hijra, Panthi, Double-decker, etc. comes under this term 'gay'. However the Hijras (especially those who are always in woman's dress irrespective of the castration status) are usually given the label 'transgender' (English term). Kothi-identified feminine homo/bisexual males are, however, quick to protest that they are not "Transgender". This is not because they fully understand this term but because it has become synonymous only with Hijras. The English term 'gay' has been 'translated' by some as "English Kothi"! (Some persons call English-speaking Kothi-identified persons as 'English Kothis'). Or alternatively some times 'translation' of Kothi results in 'Gay'. A Kothi-identified person said, "So what do you call 'Kothi' in English - Gay!".

(Note: In some CBOs, where gay-identified persons may socialize with Kothi-identified persons, gay-identified persons may say that they are 'Panthis' since these 'gays' don't want the Kothis to call them 'Kothis'.)

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