"I want to be able to live my life": An Indian-American trans woman on identity, tradition and India's "third gender"

Trans Lifeline co-founder Nina Chaubal says her organization is hearing cries for help from trans women in India

Published May 17, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

Nina Chaubal
Nina Chaubal

Last week, it became clear that the U.S. State Department faces a glaring problem it has no official means of handling -- a problem it is perfectly aware of, and that will only continue to grow.

A department spokesperson confirmed that the United States cannot process an international visa request unless the corresponding passport identifies an individual as either male or female. This might not sound like a huge problem in a country such as the U.S., which only officially recognizes two gender identities in the first place. In reality, though, the State Department’s binary-dependent process could further marginalize transgender people around the world, all because of other countries’ efforts to include them.

In recent years, a number of nations have made moves to increase representation and legal protections for transgender individuals by creating a third gender designation -- often “T” for “transgender” -- which people can use on official state documents, including passports. Last month, India joined Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh in establishing a third gender group, effectively increasing the number of trans individuals identifying as an “alternative” gender to nearly 1.5 billion globally. The U.S., however, literally can’t process their existence -- and it highlights just one of the many hurdles the country faces to becoming safer for and more welcoming to trans people.

Of course, offering an alternative gender identification doesn’t absolve other countries of their problems with transgender discrimination, nor will it make all of those problems go away. While the U.S. approach marginalizes the trans community and effectively condones discrimination, the third gender category in India, for example, poses its own limitations for trans individuals -- limitations that spring from deep cultural roots.

A key factor in India’s decision to expand beyond a gender binary is the longtime recognition of the hijra community -- people who are trans, intersex or eunuchs. Historically, hijras have had a place in Indian culture, if not in Indian society; the group has consistently faced acute prejudice and discrimination, violence and harassment. Theoretically, the third gender ruling -- which will introduce quotas for hijras in government jobs, for instance -- should curb mistreatment and open opportunities for India’s trans community.

Still, there are boundaries to the social, economic and political freedom that might finally be afforded the country’s trans community. For starters, the role of hijra has strong religious connotations; although the existence of a prescribed role might be better than nothing, the spiritual association can still pigeonhole trans people. Additionally, for many transgender Indians, having an “alternative” gender marked on official records is still not the same as being recognized as the gender with which they identify.

Nina Chaubal, an Indian trans woman who co-founded the transgender crisis hotline Trans Lifeline, has become familiar with these challenges, particularly through exposure to stories straight from India. Chaubal told Salon that Trans Lifeline has received an influx of calls from transgender Indians struggling with cultural limitations and persistent stigmatization, despite the country’s progression. But she also knows from personal experience just what that stigma looks like, and how it differs from trans struggles in the West.

Chaubal spoke with Salon by phone recently about the ramifications of India’s recent ruling for the country’s trans community, how preconceived notions of hijras can erase individual experience, and the challenges she’s faced transitioning in the U.S. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

[Salon News Editor David Ferguson] told me about your story and he told me in the context of the NPR story on India. I do want to get your thoughts on that piece specifically, but also I’m very curious about your experience.

I’m originally from Mumbai and I moved to the U.S. in 2009 for college. I subsequently transitioned after I graduated. When I was still in Mumbai, I was just looking for stories that talked about trans culture in India, and a lot of that culture is based on the hijra community. One of the things with that community is it’s a specific trans identity; it’s primarily people assigned male at birth, transitioning to female. It’s a socially acceptable trans identity, but it has a role. I didn’t necessarily identify with that role. I’m a trans woman -- I was assigned male at birth, and living as a female now, which is very similar to most of the people in the hijra community. But I want to be able to live my life and express my gender without my identity having a religious or cultural connotation of some kind.

When I was still in India, with the exception of a few people whom I would read about in the news, my exposure to the trans community was seeing people from the hijra community around. That conflicted with my own identity, in that I did not want to have to change all my circumstances just so that I can be who I am. I wanted to transition and I wanted to keep my life and have opportunities. That’s not to say that trans people here have a lot of opportunities, because we are discriminated against in the United States as well. But there are more opportunities for trans people here than there are back in India.

So some of the things that I’m hearing from people who reach out to us on Trans Lifeline from India have similar issues. They are talking about, “Well, we want to transition but if we transition, our options are limited to that community.” When I talk to these people, I’m telling them, “Well, I left the country to transition and I’m privileged to have that opportunity and not everybody does.”

That’s one of the things that strikes me as really interesting; even though there might be this community that is carved out and, in a way, socially accepted or respected, there’s still this element of choicelessness. I’m wondering if you could speak to that, the ways that choicelessness may be carried over in the United States, how it’s the same or how it’s different? Now with this ruling, this third gender, can you speak to that and how it puts limitations?

I think it’s awesome that India passed this ruling to allow people to have a third gender marker. There are people who are non-binary and people who are a-gender, and having that option is really awesome for people who are non-binary. But when you think about trans people, there are a lot of people under the trans umbrella who are very much binary in their view of their own gender -- like me, for instance. I want my passport to say I’m female, I don’t want my passport to say I’m third gender. I think I’m not alone in that.

One of the things that happens in India is, because all trans identities are conflated with the hijra identity, when I came out to my parents as a trans woman, they’re not thinking of me as a woman, they’re thinking of me as third gender because that’s what they know. That’s what they have seen in society around them. I feel like that kind of comes in the way of people in that society, in Indian society, accepting trans people the way some of us want to be accepted. I just want to be accepted as a woman and not as somebody who is a third gender. I think a lot of Indian trans people who are reaching out to us on the line have a similar position. Their identities, the way they define their own identities, is similar to some of the definitions we use here than some of the definitions that they use back home. The whole thing where people are dumped into that third gender bucket, it erases a lot of trans identities.

This is a question that both seems to have an obvious answer and no answer at all, but why is it that there’s this need to create a separate category?

I was mentioning earlier that the hijra community has a cultural and religious significance in Indian society. I think the way that community is culturally defined uses that third gender terminology. Personally, I think it’s good to have that option for people who do identify as third gender. Actually, India does have a way for a trans woman to have her gender marker be changed to female. Some of the laws are a little more archaic than here. They require you to have had gender affirming surgery in order to have your gender marker changed and stuff like that. That’s an evolving thing. That option legally exists. I think it’s more of a societal thing, where people conflate trans identities, and especially trans women’s identities as a third gender, and the creation of that third gender marker in the first place. I think some of that happens here, too. I think it comes from a place of people treating trans people as something different. We’re just regular people.

I’m curious about the specifics of your transition. I know that you said you transitioned here. Are your parents still in India?

Yes, they are.

What has that been like and how has that process been?

I first came out to my brother and my sister-in-law. They were initially supportive of my identity and my decision to transition, and then they somehow, especially my brother, for some reason, felt that he would have some say in my transition.

Why do you think that was?

I don’t really know. I wish I could ask him that specific question. I was telling him that I needed to come out to my parents and he wanted me to do so on his terms, which doesn’t really make sense, since it’s me who’s coming out to my parents. He pretty much hasn’t talked to me since I came out to my parents.

My dad did this thing where shortly after I came out to him he would call me regularly to talk about my gender and that I had come out to him. But that talk was actually a lot of him talking at me rather than talking to me. He invoked religion at one point, he talked about why I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. At one point he was trying to get me to talk to a therapist that he had picked. He picked a therapist in Mumbai and scheduled us to talk over the phone, and I decided to not do that. Because if that was the first thing he had done, if the first thing he had done was to tell me that he wanted me to talk to a therapist whom he picks, I would have probably done it. But the fact that it came after all this invalidation of my identity suggested that the therapist he had picked was probably just going to push his point of view on me. My mom has been a little bit better about stuff than my dad has been. She’s been a little bit better than my dad and definitely less aggressive towards me.

Do you mean in trying to push her view on you, or just more moderate in her opinions?

In that she hasn’t tried to have somebody else talk me out of transitioning or some of the stuff that my dad did. She’s visited me a few times since I came out to her, and I just get the feeling that the way she interacts with me, she’s respecting me less than she used to. My conversations with either of them have just not been as comfortable as they once were.

Maybe I’m projecting and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I would imagine that living closeted, you always experienced an element of discomfort in your conversations with them before transitioning. Now, I get the sense that the discomfort must come more from their end. I guess I’m curious about the tradeoff there.

I think a lot of the conversations that I had with them when I was closeted and a lot of things I did, like I would go out of my way to act the way they wanted me to act or say the things that they wanted me to say. When I say that, I’m not saying that they would command me to do something, but I’m saying more from the point of me doing or saying something because that’s how I am expected to be, as opposed to who I am. So those conversations while I did have a lot of discomfort with my gender identity, those conversations did not have a lot of conflict. Even when they had conflict, the intensity of that conflict wasn’t significant.

Since I’ve come out to them, a lot of our conversations have been them just sitting there at the table being grumpy. I had an entire meal with both of them in which the only way my dad communicated with me was by talking to my mom and my mom would talk to me. So every time I talk to them, it’s like there’s a wall between us of some kind.

I know you said that you can’t speak too much to the other experiences, but in other cases have you heard something similar?

So, trans people lose their families a lot, at a disproportionate level, I would say. A lot of the people who are calling us in general, I’m usually the statistics person and I usually have statistics about stuff going on at the line, but content of calls is something that I don’t have statistics on. But a lot of trans people who are calling in and a lot of trans people whom I’ve interacted with in general, there are a good number of trans people whose families are accepting and whose families are perfectly ok with them being trans and everything is fine. But a lot of us lose families. In some ways, we might not lose everyone, we might lose a few people. Stuff like that happens and among trans people who haven’t come out yet, I often hear a fear of that loss. That is perfectly justified, because we are told that our families are supposed to unconditionally love us, but there is no way to really know if that’s true. When you’re about to come out to your family, you really don’t know how they're going to take it.

It seems like there might be this double-edged sword. While the hijra community or the third gender designation can feel like being pigeonholed, it also seems to foster a built-in community. I’m curious if that is the dynamic that you get the sense of, that even when there is so often this loss of family, that there can still be a built-in community and what the benefits of that might be?

I think queer people in general and trans people, we tend to lean on our communities a lot. A lot of people I know, whether or not their biological families are accepting of them, they have chosen families from within the community. While I can’t speak specifically of the hijra community, because I’m not a part of it, I feel that a lot of the community dynamics there are very similar. It has the same community dynamic, I think, as the trans community here. Here’s this group of people who understand you and who aren’t going to reject you for who you are because they have similar experiences. I think that is powerful, I think it’s powerful that we can have a group of people that becomes our family because we don’t necessarily have biological families that are still willing to have us.

By Jenny Kutner

MORE FROM Jenny Kutner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hijra India Lgbt Nina Chaubal Trans Issues Trans Lifeline Transgender Transgender Discrimination