India is a vital location for sexuality scholars and activists, further confirmed by yesterday’s news that “India’s third gender gets own identity in voter rolls.” Partial text of this news story is quoted below:

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — Indian election authorities Thursday granted what they called an independent identity to intersex and transsexuals in the country’s voter lists.

Before, members of these groups — loosely called eunuchs in Indian English — were referred to as male or female in the voter rolls.

But now, they will have the choice to tick “O” — for others — when indicating their gender in voter forms, the Indian election commission said in a statement.

“Enumerators and booth-level officers (BLOs) shall be instructed to indicate the sex of eunuchs/transsexuals etc as ‘O’ if they so desire, while undertaking any house-to-house enumeration/verification of any application,” a statement from election authorities said.

India, home to more than 1 billion people, has 714 million registered voters.

Intersexual people are seen as a marginalized community in India. Many end up begging on the streets, becoming prostitutes or earning their livelihood by dancing at celebrations.

This news comes on the heels of a July ruling in India that decriminalized homosexual sex (discussed in a previous post comparing sexual rights movements in India and the U.S.). The comparable U.S. ruling to this came just six years ago with Lawrence V. Texas.

The story above uses the terms “intersexual,” eunuch,” and “transsexual” as interchangable identities. Perhaps in some contexts they may all be considered members of the same “third gender” category,  but it is also useful and important to clarify some basic differences between these terms and others. Below are some very short, shorthand definitions:

  • Eunuch: an historic English term for a man who has been castrated to perform special social functions.
  • Intersexual: a term referring to people who are born with a mixture of both “male” and “female” hormonal, chromosomal, and/or genital characteristics (historically referred to as “hermaphrodite.”) (See the work of biologist Anne Fausto Sterling.)
  • Hijra: A term originating in South India referring to a person usually born male or intersex, but who uses female pronouns as dresses in feminine/”women’s” attire.
  • Transsexual: a term referring to someone who changes their sex through medical (surgical and/or hormonal) procedures.
  • Transgendered: a term referring to someone whose gender identity is different from the one traditionally assigned to their sex category. (People are born into sex categories of male and female; many but not all then become gendered masculine or feminine and into “men” and “women.”) Thus a transgendered person born in the female sex category may identify with the gender category “man” or “boi.” This may or may not involve surgical or hormonal alteration (in other words, it can simply be a social agreement).
  • Drag: a term that comes out of gay culture, involving someone temporarily “performing” a gender not usually associated with their sex (through dress, gestures, and so on). Ironic humor and extravagant campiness often involved.
  • Transvestite/cross-dresser: These are older terms with many meanings and histories — and often the term has been used in a derogatory fashion. In terms of practice though, “cross dressers” are often not gay, but “straight” men who simply enjoy dressing up as “women.”

These definitions are not meant to be comprehensive, but simply an entry point for those unfamiliar with these terms. There are also dozens of other terms associated with specific cultures and histories. (Readers, feel free to share other definitions, links, or references!)

Ok, now on to the topic at hand. Whenever I discuss the idea of recognizing more than two sexes/genders with my students, they inevitably claim that “society” will never let more than two sexes exist. Where would “they” go to the bathroom?!” they cry. Well, now we finally have a case where a “society” did allow more than two sexes to exist. Officially exist. Like in the Census Bureau. Then again, the concept of a third sex/gender has a long history in India (Reddy 2005).

Three things fascinate me about this new development in India:

  • 1) the social/activist process by which a third sex/gender became legally recognized (if readers have information on this I’d love to hear about how this worked in India),
  • 2) the acceptance of a third gender category based on either Social identity (people who simply feel and dress as a different sex/gender) and/or Biological identity (people who possess hormonal, chromosomal, and/or genital characteristics of more than one sex). As a result, this category applies to people who are intersexual, people who undergo surgical or hormonal treatment, and/or people who simply identify with a gender category not typically associated with their sex. This recognition of a third sex/gender free from the limitations of  a dichotomous sex category system, opens up all sorts of interesting questions. (E.g., in the U.S., the underlying premise of the gay marriage debate is that there are only two sexes: Male and Female, and two basic types of sexuality: Gay and Straight. If a third sex/gender person wanted to get married in the US system, what kind of marriage would it be?)
  • 3) Finally, I am intrigued by the implications of politically enfranchising this socially/politically marginalized group. (I am thinking here of how in the U.S., millions of marginalized Americans are barred from voting by simply denying felons the right to vote). Keep in mind here that a large proportion of Hijra are sex workers, and that sex workers in India are already quite well organized. Like the gay rights activism of ACT UP a significant amount sex worker activism in India is linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic (e.g., SANGRAM and the Sonagachi Project). How will the newly enfranchised Hijra will impact the movement for sex workers rights, gay rights, intersexual/third gender rights, and HIV/AIDS interventions? What will they say about ongoing controversies around intersexual athletes (such as the Indian runner, Santhi Soundarajan)? I will be watching with great interest!

(Thanks to Melissa Embser-Herbert for the story tip).

Some recommended books on “third gender” related issues:

  • Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Eds). 1997. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. University of Illinois Press.
  • Manalansan, Martin. 2003. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Namaste, Viviane. 2000. Invisible Lives: The erasure of transsexual and transgendered people. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Preves, Sharon. 2003. Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self. Rutgers University Press.
  • Reddy, Gayatri. 2005. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stryker, Susan and Stephen Whittle, (Eds). 2006. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.