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India's forgotten third sex

Those who identify neither as male or female deserve the same rights as all

  • Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad
  • India
  • March 19, 2014
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India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters, goes the opening line of the national pledge we would recite in school. Yet that very basic mantra leaves out a segment of our population – those who are neither male nor female, but who belong to the third sex.

We see them often at street crossings, clapping raucously asking for money or begging during weddings and other festivals – reviled, harassed and marginalized.

But they also appear in more socially acceptable professions, as designers and social workers who are outspoken about their exclusion. Now they have been denied the right to register as their chosen identity in the looming Indian elections, something that again brings into question their wider acceptance by Indian society.

Their contention is India’s failure to recognize them as a separate gender. Much to its credit, the Election Commission since 2012 has allowed for a person to be registered as neither male nor female, but as members of the “other” sex, making it the first national elections where this will be allowed.

But out of the 814 million registered voters above the age of 18, only 28,341 people chose to belong to the “other” sex, despite the most conservative estimates placing India’s third gender to be at least six million adults. A social worker friend thinks that the dismal number of third sex people opting to register to vote was likely came down to their objection to being categorized as “other” on electoral lists.

They object to the label because it denies them their true sexual identity as the third sex. “’Other’ is a derogatory term. Even Facebook has 56 explicit gender options,” the friend points out. It’s a big issue for the third sex community because this election could have been a milestone moment for India to see beyond the binary male and female sexes. 

Not included in any form of census or government mapping, they are often a hidden population, most vulnerable because they are treated as invisible and deprived of the fundamental rights available to the other two sexes. Furthermore, they are never assigned to any federal government department.

The upshot is that they are not part of either the welfare, economic, cultural or political decision process that every Indian should be part of.

Other segments of society, such as marginalized castes and tribes, and even women, have legally required quotas that will guarantee their wellbeing. The third sex is denied this. Some enlightened states like Tamil Nadu, however, have given the third sex an official status in identity cards and application forms for college education.

But this remains within the state and is of no consequence at the national level despite them having a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Currently, they are barred from receiving driver licenses, national tax system registration and ration cards.

A recent article in the Times of India explained how a group who identified as third sex from the eastern Indian state of Odisha were petitioning the Election Commission to get a three percent reservation for third sex people to contest polls, which they will unfortunately have to do under the "other" category.

“Society has always laughed at us. We are abandoned by our own families, harassed and beaten up by the police and ignored by the government,” a member of the group was quoted as saying. “We need scope to contest the election and address the plight of our community.”

In ancient India, the third sex included barren women, impotent men, eunuchs and hermaphrodites, or those born male who live and dress like women, having undergone sex reassignment surgery.

Known as hijras, they were once a firmly accepted group in Indian culture. The Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, recognize them with both male and female characteristics. During the Mughal period, they played an important role in the court administration and as royal guards.

However, their revered place in history drastically changed in the British colonial period and they were legally relegated to the margins of society, with limited access to healthcare, employment or education.

As a Catholic I tried to find out what my faith has to say about the third sex. The New Testament story about the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch came to mind. There was also a document from the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that said that sex-change procedures do not change a person’s gender in the eyes of the Church, for if the person was born a male, he remains male and if she was born female, she remains female.

That is why it is important that we learn from India’s traditional and historical sense of accepting male, female and third sex.

That is why the Election Commission not registering a third sex for this general election is missing a milestone moment by making the world just a little bit better, initiating a more inclusive society,  a society based on justice and the equality of sexes.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Hyderabad

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