It’s not about sexuality, it’s all about human rights : Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a journey from invisibility to visibility
In India, the hijra (transgender) community is often seen as a bad omen. In the minds of most Indians, a hijra is an annoyance; a man with long hair, typically dressed in a sari, who seems to always and miraculously arrives just in time to beg when a child is born or a wedding is taking place; and if you don’t comply, you will be cursed. People give money to hijra’s because they are scared of the curse; now that’s the only way hijras can survive—by saying, ‘Give me money, otherwise I’ll curse you.’ That clap, which scares people, has become their identity. In a way, they use myths and misconceptions for their own survival.
Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years in India. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, hijras face severe harassment and discrimination from every direction. Over the past two centuries, they have become one of the country’s most misunderstood and marginalized communities. They have very limited opportunities for employment and hence forced into a path of high risk behavior. The combination of high risk behaviors with limited prevention alternatives has resulted in the increased vulnerability of hijras to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
We are the sexual minority that is visible, and yet we are treated as the invisible. I believe I was never invisible. I thought, I’m the face in the crowd, not the crowd.
However, in recent years one hijra, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, has tried to change the onlookers mindset about her community and has made it her mission to bring out the revolution. As India began to grapple with HIV in the 1990s, she was one of the early activists to demand that the government’s anti-AIDS program should include hijras as a distinct category.
She was the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the United Nations and has represented her community and India on several international platforms including the World AIDS conference in Toronto. Her nonprofit, Astitva, aims to support and empower hijras in her home city Thane, just outside Mumbai. In 2012, she published an autobiography in Marathi; its English translation (Me Hijra, Me Laxmi) was released in February of 2015.
I think, as every society is evolving, even mine should evolve with education, work, respect, and access to technology.
She wasn’t an activist to begin with, but seeing her friends die needlessly of HIV turned her into one. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi became part of Asia’s first community based HIV program, the Dai Welfare Society. In 2012, Laxmi attended a Maharashtra ministerial meeting and eventually became part of the drafting committee of women’s policy.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi also played a key role in the movement in India to recognize transgender people as members of a third gender on official government documents. In 2014, India’s Supreme Court has recognized transgender people as a third gender, in a landmark ruling. In India’s most recent federal elections, hijras and other transgender people were permitted to publicly declare their gender identities when voting.
That was a wonderful judgment which gave me back my dignity. I feel so proud to be part of this landmark ruling. I think my story really helped the court understand the issues Transgenders face.
While most ‘hijras’ are being abandoned by their parents, who feel shame and struggle to accept their own children, laxmi expresses inexplicable gratitude to her parents who accepted her with her anomalies. Her mission is to advocate her community to get an education, to fight for their rights and for their dignity.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi may belong to a largely ostracized group, but years of chasing the limelight on television shows and dogged activism on HIV had turned her into a celebrity. Within the community, she is an exception. She travels, she has starred in films that have screened at international film festivals, she dances at shows abroad. She experienced resentment from other hijras who don’t have these opportunities. There have been situations when she has been about to be killed by a gang of hijras who really hated her, and she had to change her clan, from Bombay to Delhi. She has been stared at and faced hatred and more agony than normal hijras, but she believes she is true to herself, and her truthfulness has brought her where she is today.
Nobody will come and give you your rights. Hijras have to get their own right. They should know to expand it, should know to demand it.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is extremely happy that the Indian Supreme Court has ordered the Indian government to provide quotas in jobs and education for transgender people, like other minority groups. However, she feels there is still a long way to go, the long struggle for equal rights for all has only just begun. She strongly proposes transgender issues to be a part of our education system to make people aware of the community. It will take a lot of effort on her part to make hijras mainstream in today’s society; a lot of advocacy to be done, the mindset of the people needs to be changed.
Image credit: guernicamag