As part of the workshop on ‘Science and Religion’, sexual minorities’ rights activist, A. Revathi, spoke to the participants after the screening of T. Jayashree’s documentary Many People, Many Desires.
Revathi started by expressing her aversion towards the stereotypical categorization of male and female as two different and exclusive boxes. The same body can exhibit different desires at different times. In her own words, “we might study science, geography and other subjects in school, but there is no textbook to understand the desires of the human body.” The need of the hour is non-heteronormative sex education.
Of late, there has been an increased awareness about sexual minorities, because many non-governmental organisations have been coming forward to document the lives of non-heterosexual people. But this is not a first. Revathi drew our attention to pre-modern India’s more tolerant attitude to differing sexualities. It was colonial rule that brought in the idea that a man and a woman must unite solely for the purpose of reproduction, thus legislating all sexual encounters outside of heterosexual relationships as criminal. This led to large-scale abuse of sexual minorities.
Revathi’s book The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story (2010), brings into the public space the lives of hijras, after being closeted from the mainstream gaze for a very long time. The hijra community has to constantly engage with their bodies, either by way of facing discrimination because of it, or because of their discomfort with their physical selves. India does not have adequate facilities for them to undergo sex transformation surgeries at affordable prices. Thus, the only available option for them is to undergo castration, coupled with self-prescribed hormones, which is injurious physically as well as psychologically. Faced with the non-acceptance of families, friends, the society at large, and abuse from policemen and rowdies alike, a large number of them waste away into depression and commit suicide.
Mentioning the gharana system in the Indian hijra community, Revathi expressed that, there, explicit discrimination based on caste or religion are absent. She says, “I pray to all gods, visit temples, churches and dargahs alike. My guru was a Christian; my guru’s guru was a Muslim. I was not forced to convert to either of the religions.” She added that she is not against any religion per se, but is against those religious acts that violate human lives. Though there are different practises among gharanas of different places, the gharana in general acts as a protective home for the hijras. Having been expelled from homes, and with no proper education to sustain a living, it is the members of the gharana who step forward to help each other in times of need.
Discussing her involvement with Sangama, an NGO based in Bangalore that fights for the rights of sexual minorities, Revathi talked about the protection offered to transgenders from abuse. She had been primarily involved in crisis intervention programmes and campaigning against discrimination.
Hijras in India do not have legal sanction to adopt children. If they want to adopt girl children, they are accused of trying to convert them into sex workers; if they attempt to adopt male children, they are refused on the basis of the mythic fear that hijras forcibly castrate male children. Most hijras thus adopt children of other sex workers or friends who die of AIDS.
Responding to a barrage of questions, Revathi narrated the legendary story from the Ramayana, where it is explained why hijras were sought after at births and weddings for their blessings. But, for Revathi, the hijra community needs no stories to justify their existence. They are alive and awake and all they need is acceptance.