Yet hijras, and their counterparts in other Asian societies, remain on society’s margins.As Anjaann Joshii of SPACE puts it: “You can sing, dance, bless, curse—but that’s it.”The linguistic roots of the word hijra convey a sense of leaving one’s tribe.Many hijras find life in a new community, usually called a dera, run by a guru-mother.Yet such protection comes at a cost.Three of the five hijras whom Banyan met in Old Delhi had been castrated.In modern practice, the surgical element of a sex change takes place at the very end of a careful process of counselling, hormone therapy and plastic surgery.
But for many hijras, surgery would be too grand a term for the removal of the testicles and penis and the insertion of a silver pin into the urethra, with no anaesthetic but alcohol and marijuana.Worse, many gurus are mafia bosses running rackets in defined territories.They pocket four-fifths of hijras’ earnings.Any hijra setting up as a guru herself risks murder.And running away to another dera, even if to the far end of the country, will be reported back to the guru.It is, in effect, a system of bonded labour.And when you die, say the hijras, your guru won’t even come to claim your corpse—unless there is gold to strip off it.
There is even less protection for those who sell sex or beg.Mehak, a trans beggar, faces violence in male shelters and is refused entry to female ones, so she sleeps in a park each night.Every few days, young thugs steal her paltry takings at knifepoint.Although the courts in some Asian countries are beginning to uphold transgender rights, laws are often confused and enforcement rare.
In 2014 India’s Supreme Court recognised a third gender, yet the British-era penal code still criminalises sexual activities against the “order of nature”.The current draft of a bill working its way through Parliament enshrines transgender rights by mandating inclusive education for trans children, and special employment and health provisions.Yet it denies individuals the right to “self-identify” —ie, choose their own gender, a key desire.That would be left to “experts” instead.Trans activists are lobbying to have that changed.
Elsewhere in the region, the law is an ass.Several Pacific nations ban cross-dressing (another hand-me-down from prudish Victorians) .Even in Thailand, supposedly tolerant to cross-dressingmen, vagrancy laws are used to harass transwomen.In Cambodia police conduct regular round-ups of trans women under public-safety laws and demand bribes to let them go.Many countries still define transsexualism as a mental illness.Trans people adopting children is illegal in most Asian countries.Activist groups like SPACE have made strides in a few short years.But they are baby steps for what needs to come.