Transgender is a complex term that can mean many things. A trans woman - someone born male who identifies as a woman - is transgender. A trans man - someone born female who identifies as a man - is also transgender.
So is a person who doesn't identify as exclusively masculine or feminine. Sometimes these people feel that they belong to a third gender, neither male nor female.
Transgender is not a sexual orientation, like being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It's about how you feel, not who you're attracted to. A transgender person may be attracted to men, women, or both.
Transgender is not a style. If a man chooses to wear women’s clothes, that doesn’t mean he’s transgender or a hijra – some people like wearing clothes associated with the opposite gender, but they don’t identify as that gender.
There have been transgender people in every culture, throughout history. Transgender people usually dress and behave like the gender they identify with, or an extreme version of it.
Transgender covers a wide range of identities and behaviours, especially in India where the hijra is such a well-known social figure. This is only a very short introduction to the complexity of the transgender world. For more information, you can contact the organisations listed below.
- The Humsafar Trust, an NGO promoting LGBT rights.
- Transgender India, an online forum to support and help transgender community.
- Saathi, a charitable trust working on HIV prevention.
A transsexual is a transgender person who decides to permanently transition to the gender they identify with. They may have surgery or hormone treatment to change their bodies to match the gender they identify with. This process of transitioning usually takes several years.
Many transgender or transsexual people identify as male or female. But others see themselves as distinct from both, and belong to a third gender.
There are many references to a third gender in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religious texts, and in Indian culture more generally – even in the Kama Sutra.
India is one of the first countries to legally recognise this third gender in a 2014 court ruling. Transgender people and hijras can now choose to be third gender, rather than male or female, on their passports and other official documents.
However, the legal recognition of a third gender is not a solution to the everyday discrimination that hijra, transgender, and third gender people in India face. Some people who identify as third gender choose not to change their legal gender status because it results in further discrimination in employment as well as marriage and property rights.
Hijras have been part of Indian society for over a thousand years. A hijra is someone who was born male but identifies as female or third gender.
Not all trans people in India identify as hijras, however, and some resent the assumption that being transsexual makes them a hijra. The two identities are very different.
Many hijras live together in communities. They dress in an extremely feminine way. Traditionally, some hijras renounced sexuality altogether and saw their role in society as a sacred one.
Today, hijras in India experience a lot of discrimination, and many work as sex workers because no other employment is available to them. They often experience abuse at the hands of the law or while seeking health care.
For more information about the hijra community and the challenges they face, click here!
Transgender and the law
In recent years there have been important advances in legal rights for transgender people in India. Transgender people in India can now choose whether they identify as male, female, or third gender, and this is recognised in their official documents.
In 2014 the supreme court recognised transgender or third gender as an identity and called for action to address the challenges trans people face in accessing education, work, health care accommodation, and other basic rights.
This law is currently being redrafted to criminalise violence and abuse against transgender people. At the same time, some regional governments are taking steps to make sure that transgender people benefit from social welfare schemes.