India, along with a host of other South Asian nations, is home to a group of transgender people called “hijras,” who have long served as culturally significant ritual performers.
Hijras commonly live in communes and traditionally undergo an extensive initiation process, including a ritualistic and crude castration. For centuries, they have regularly performed at weddings and childbirths in exchange for payment.
According to religious folklore, hijras have the power to both bless one with fertility and also assign curses.
Because of this “power,” for much of Indian history, hijras garnered significant respect as an important group of ascetic people.
But in today’s India, the hijras are largely stigmatized, often functioning as an institutionalized third gender for whom access to education, jobs, and good housing are scarce. Over the years, with increased ostracism, Hijras have often been relegated to a life of begging, prostitution and extortion.
It’s a trend that began during the British colonization of India, which in 1860 brought about the India Penal Code, including Section 377:
Their biological families have had complex relationships with the issue. Some reject their children for their self-identification as a third gender, and some accept them without much question. This love or rejection has nothing to do with class. During my journey to India, I met with people who are from the highest class, known as the Brahman, to the lowest class called the untouchables. All received love and acceptance from their biological families — though the journey towards that was different. Each journey has its own turmoil.
Equally surprising was how many aspects of Indian society took on the issue and promoted it as part of their role in incorporating this change. Most impressive is an ad campaign by Red Label tea company. They worked with a band, Six Pack Band, to lead a series of ads with songs that ask for acceptance of all diverse people. Many HR departments in various Indian companies began questioning their own policies, in order to create a more inclusive and accepting work space for third-gender employees.