What Trans Women Think About India’s Third Gender

While activists in the West fight to introduce transness to the mainstream, India’s trans women face a different task: replacing centuries-old classifications.

Michaela Stone Cross

September 12, 2019

What Trans Women Think About India’s Third Gender
Mahi, 26, a former hijra, now works as a waitress in Navi Mumbai. When asked if she identifies as a man or a woman she responds: "Neither, only human." (Michaela Stone Cross)

Tanvi Raj was a few months into her male-to-female transition when she bumped into someone at an LGBT party. The person was hijra — a member of India’s third-gender community — and she was saying something Raj couldn’t understand. After a few attempts, the hijra gave up, merely smiling mysteriously, giving Raj a peck on her cheek. 

“She was asking where you ‘pan,’’’ translated one of Raj’s friends later, a crossdresser familiar with the community. “You know. Where you do ‘business.’” In other words, sex work. The hijra had been speaking in a secret language known only to other hijras. Raj, a motion designer at one of Bombay’s biggest production houses, hadn’t realized it: “I thought she was asking where I got my makeup.”

While trans men and women in the West are fighting to be part of the mainstream, trans women of South Asia face an entirely different task: replacing centuries-old classifications. Throughout the country, the terms ‘hijra’ and ‘transgender’ are used synonymously, leading to confusion both on a social and legislative level. Just recently a new transgender bill was introduced to Parliament, one that would force many trans people into the “traditional” third gender category: “T.G.”