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!
Shemale is a term used to describe trans women – whose assigned sex at birth was male but who identifies as a woman – who still have male genitalia but have acquired secondary female sexual characteristics like breasts through hormonal therapies or surgery. Since such a person has both male and female sexual body parts, ‘she-male’ was one of the primitive terms used to refer to them.
Curiously, the term can be traced back to the mid-19th century, and up until the mid-1970s, it was used to describe assertive, ‘bossy’ women. It was toward the early 1990s that the term took on sexual connotations, and was used to describe a specific section of trans women.
However, it is considered extremely derogatory and offensive, as the term has been commonly associated with pornography and sex trade in the past. So, by calling a trans woman shemale, you’re effectively implying that they are part of the flesh trade industry.
The use of this term akin to using the word ‘faggot’ to refer to a gay person. It’s deeply hurtful and hateful. In a world of gender fluidity, the matter of identities can sometimes be too complex and dynamic to understand, especially if you’re a cisgender straight person raised in a society that boxes sexes into watertight segments.
The best recourse is to stick to socially acceptable terms – trans woman, in this case – to avoid demeaning someone, even if inadvertently.
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.
The law was being redrafted since then to criminalise violence and abuse against transgender people and to help social, economic and educational empowerment of transgender persons in India.
In November 2019, a new bill was approved by the parliament.
The bill has been strongly opposed by the trans community and activists in India for the following reasons:
1. The bill requires trans people to be 'certified' by a district magistrate. Only then will their identity be recognised. Though the word stripping has not been mentioned in the bill, it is very much a possibility under this requirement.
2. Moreover, if a person is to change their preferred gender to male or female, they would need to prove that they have undergone a sex reassignment surgery (SRS). This clause only takes into account physical aspects of trans identity (limits it to the body). Trans rights activists (including the WHO) believe that the trans identity is not just biological.
3. The bill groups intersex people under the definition of transgender, despite the distinction in identity and experiences between the two, confusing sex with gender.
4. The bill requires a court order to decide where a trans child will live — either with biological family or the community family.
5. The bill does not provide an organised protocol guiding the medical community on healthcare for the transgender community. The medical aspects of the bill only focus on HIV and SRS, ignoring the rights of a trans person with regard to their fertility, whether through artificial fertilisation or surrogacy.
6. The bill provides for a National Council for Transgender Persons but it lacks any kind of independence to carry out functions. The National Council which is composed of at least 30 persons, has a mere representation of five persons from the transgender community.
7. The bill does not provide transpeople with any significant protection against discrimination as it does not provide for an enforcing authority, any remedial measures (such as compensation for the survivor or any other means) and it does not spell any punitive measures to be taken against the violator. The bill also provides for only a maximum sentence of two years for endangering a trans person’s life.