The Third Gender


A. Revathi and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi in conversation with Vayu Naidu and Namita Gokhale
Presented by Zeloof Family

Sangeeta Bhagawati

Official JLF at Southbank Blogger


The Third Gender, or the Hijda community of India, is a sexually ambivalent community – usually treated with fear and misconception, and often marginalized or discriminated against as a result. In this very emotionally charged session led by A. Revathi and Jerry Pinto, a variety of ideas was explored, some of which were alien to conventional European academic gender theory, leadening to the broadening of ideas of gender and sexuality in both the East and the West.

From the onset, Jerry Pinto made it clear how different the sex-change process is for a transgender in India compared with the process in the West. In India, the transgender community undertakes this process in a very painful way, without the help of any modern medicine or healthcare system. In fact, this narrative of pain (both physical and intellectual) is ingrained in the Indian transgender experience. The life story of A. Revathi exemplifies this: the pain and struggle she had to encounter because of the rigid gender roles subscribed to her by Indian society, particularly due the class to which she belongs. She described how negotiating intersections of sexual fluidity was extremely difficult to do in this context, and certainly could not be equated with the transgender experience in the West.

Vayu Naidu pointed out that the desire to love and be loved in return was like a refrain in Revathi’s life and work. Revathi spoke movingly of unrequited love, and how she has stayed unfulfilled in her longing to be loved during this extremely tense and difficult life journey.She questioned several prevailing social and judicial prejudices in India, such as the way she was scorned as a man for having the ‘gestures’ of a woman, and later despised as a woman for having the ‘memory’ of a man’s body written all over her appearance.

Revathi went on to question the contradictory Indian judicial law,which recognises transgender as a ‘third gender,’ but won’t recognise any sexual freedom within that. Jerry Pinto pointed out that these examples highlighted the ambivalences present in the Indian psyche itself. He observed that the phalocentrism of Indian society, and ideas on which Indian masculinity is constructed meant that people could not understand how a transgender or a Hijda would choose to reject the “magic of the penis”.

Another Indian transgender was invited from the audience to join the panel to share her experience. She emphasised that the transgender community in India, coming out of its own cultural context and socially assigned roles as Hijdas, did not want to be labelled as ‘gay’ or even as a ‘third gender’. Becoming a woman was for them a way to seek ‘normality,’hence their wish to be identified as women and not as a Third Gender. This observation was followed by standing ovation from the audience. Revathi agreed that being assigned as a ‘Third Gender’ by others was discriminating, and she too chose to identify as a woman.

The talk shed fresh light on how ideas of sexual freedom and gender roles are perceived very differently by the Indian transgender community compared to their Western counterparts, and how idea of love and desire remains an ever-elusive mirage for those seeking an alternative gender identity within the Indian social context. As A. Revathi poetically conveyed, “the clay needs fire to cook and become a pot, so why can’t you see the fire of desire and love in me?”

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