India’s “Third Sex”

India is one of the only countries (the only?) to official recognize a “third sex.” Traditionally the term Hijra, originating in South India, is used by a person usually born male or intersex, but who uses the female pronoun and as dresses in feminine/women’s attire.

More commonly, the term Hijra includes intersexual Indians comprising transsexuals, transgender, eunuchs (castrated,) transvestites, bisexuals, and hermaphrodites.

Government Recognition

About 5 years ago, India’s government formally recognized the country’s third sex or an “independent identity.” For instance, the electoral commission allows India’s 714 million registered voters to tick “O” for “Other” in the gender category.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs also allows individuals to mark “E” for “Eunuch” on passport forms. Neither the “O” (“Other” is considered derogatory) or the “E” (which is eunuch specific and ignores other types of transgender people) are satisfactory to intersexual groups. However, both categories are seen as a huge step forward in officially recognizing this marginalized community.

Hijra Life

Living outside of mainstream society, many Hijar end up begging on the streets, becoming prostitutes or earning their livelihood by dancing at celebrations. (Interestingly, Hijar blessings at births, weddings and new business openings are seen as especially fortuitous.)

Dduring our first few weeks in India, we saw several intersex individuals. Once during a border crossing between states we saw transgender / transvestite prostitutes propositioning clients waiting in traffic. We also saw a Hijra providing blessings (hand clapping) for men in a parking lot.

Religious Roots

The concept of a third sex/gender has a long history in India and is seen extensively throughout the Hindu religion. Hindu deities offer many incarnations of gender transformation and diversity, including:

  • Deities that are hermaphrodite (half man, half woman)
  • Deities that manifest in all three genders
  • Male deities who become female, or female deities who become male
  • Male deities with female moods, or female deities with male moods
  • Deities born from two males, or from two females
  • Deities born from a single male, or from a single female
  • Deities who avoid the opposite sex, and
  • Deities with principal companions of the same gender

These examples demonstrate the full range of gender-variance found within the Hindu religion. In India, people of the third sex identify with these deities and worship them with great reverence and devotion. Third gender individuals are included in various religious ceremonies and viewed as auspicious symbols of peace, good fortune and culture.

I think it’s great that the Indian government recognizes persons of independent identities. More countries should take a more comprehensive view of sexuality and gender. India should be applauded for taking the first step in toward a more inclusive and equal society.

What do you think?

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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 21st, 2012 and is filed under Social Issues.

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