Discussion with A. Revathi

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On Friday 8th November, 2013, the writer and Hijra activist Revathi came to the Manipal Centre for Humanities for a book discussion on her last work, The Truth about Me (Penguin, 2010). It was meant as an informal exchange with students and teachers. Answering a question posed by Michael, an American exchange student, Revathi confirmed that the hijra community in India draws upon a completely different socio-cultural history than the LGBT community in the west. She said that the hijras are usually working class people, who chose to join the hijra community and adopt an articulation of sexuality in the mode that is set forth by the elders in the community. This trajectory is distinct from the performance and articulation of gender by lesbian or gay men in the west, wherein there are able to go unnoticed at offices, because they do not dress “drag” all the time. In the case of hijras, by joining their milieu, one is joining a community where there is an alternate system of housing, working (sex work and begging) and living (gharana system). In the west, individual queer people can exist by themselves, after having procured the rights to do so over the years. In India, some of the working class people, who are ousted from their families for their inclination to perform a gender other than what is prescribed for them by the larger hetero-normative society, do not have the documents or papers (ration card, train ticket, passport) to live and earn money by themselves.

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The upper class queer people of India, on the other hand, both within and outside of Sangama (a Bangalore based NGO that campaigns for the rights of hijras and other sexual minorities), have access to libraries, and feminist discourse, which lets them articulate and perform their gender along the trajectory of the LGBT movement in the west. This means that the upper class people are able to organize themselves better in some ways in metropolitan cities, they can campaign for rights legally and procure work so that they can live by themselves. Thus, one can conclude that these two socio-cultural trajectories are not mutually exclusive; they are happening simultaneously in the same city spaces but have been cleaved apart by the axis of class. The documentary that we watched before the start of the book discussion showed how upper class English speaking gays in India are able to merge into hetero-normative roles at their workplace and family, even as they retain the space to carry on their gay life in other circuits (gay bars and NGO’s like Good as You). These gays spoke of hijras as being a community in a far stronger sense (they live, breathe and eat together under the same roofs) than the voluntary support groups that these upper class gays had in places such as Good as You. Hence it is certain that transgender and hijra are not innocent synonyms: they are delineated differently by the classes they belong to in the Indian milieu. However, as Revathi elaborated later in the book discussion, there is a need for both these classes of queer people to come together under the queer umbrella (hijras and LGBTs) to campaign for rights by pooling their resources (legal aid, vocational training, queer libraries). Revathi said that the Delhi High court amendment of Section 377 of the IPC was a prime example of the manner in which the Naz foundation procured rights for all queer people (hijras and the LGBT community); this was an instance of all the sexual minorities fighting for their rights by coming together under non hetero-normative umbrella. For Revathi, writing her autobiography was an act of activism for change in the attitude of people towards hijras and other sexual minorities, in the hope that daily torture by the police, as well as rapes and murders of queer people in India by their homophobic, hetero-normative public and the state, could be stopped.

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