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.
WHY IS THERE ALWAYS CONSIDERABLE CONTROVERSY OVER THE DESCRIPTION OF CERTAIN "INDIAN IDENTITIES"?
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.