Bright saris and the sound of bangles jingling filled the room as some of the most beautifully dressed people I’ve seen entered to get ready for our discussion. There was a flurry of excitement and chatter that filled the air and I was so taken with all of the colours and sparkling jewellery. You would never have guessed that we were about to be having some very serious discussions. I was in a room filled with transgender women and they were all so well put together. Every detail was exquisite and it was clear they had spent much longer getting ready than I had in my simple jeans, t-shirt and no make-up look.
Transgender women in India are known as Hijras and they have a very long and interesting history within the country. They exist in a world where they are imbued with religious prowess yet are one of the most marginalised and stigmatized communities, at the same time. It’s a very interesting dichotomy that steers their lives in all manner of directions. From making money by blessing babies to walking the streets looking for their next client, Hijras, exist in a world that does not fully understand or accept them for who they are.
The question that kept playing on my mind when thinking about this was why would you choose to change gender roles when men are the dominant power in India? Why would you actively choose such a hard path?
This is a question of semantics.
What is power, after all? What does that word mean?
Is it the ability to navigate the world in a way that is based on social conventions or is it the ability to be exactly who you are? I was sitting in a room filled with TG’s who were true to themselves in the most real form. They had all chosen a hard road. One filled with dangers, taunts and difficulties at every turn. Yet, they were committed to being who they are in a world that is not always very accepting or kind. It was inspiring to listen to the very open stories about challenges they faced and the hardships they endure to be exactly who they are . They flaunt their femininity like it is the most coveted prize and one to be showcased actively. In this way they hold so much power in their ability to be true to themselves no matter what the broader society may think. All I could think when I was in that room was how much I could learn from these courageous human beings.
Having said that, the challenges for a transgender person in India are immense. When I think just about the health challenges this population faces, my brain starts to get tired. From HIV to emotional and physical abuse, the transgender population does not have an easy time being who they are. In fact, HIV prevalence is increasing within this population despite a large number of community based organisations and services catering specifically to transgenders. That’s why we were there. We wanted to know why this was so. What were the factors that were leading to an increase in HIV prevalence?
What we found was complex and complicated, as most of humanity is. Transgender communities are extremely structured and well organised but what this means is actually a loss of power for the average transgender member. In fact, all of those incredible and strong transgender women in the room with us that day, had to seek permission to be there from the heads of their communities. They have to seek permission to access healthcare and they do not always get to choose which type of healthcare they access.
It was obvious to me sitting in that room and listening to the stories of life as a transgender woman in India, that the complexities that govern their lives are an extremely important piece of the puzzle for health interventions to work. Taking the time to fully understand your intended audience is equally, if not more, important than the intervention itself. If you do not understand how these communities work then your interventions may just fall flat.
Out of all of this, the one thing that still struck me was the immense transformative power that is inherent in being yourself despite the difficulties the path may present. Despite the social structures, societies ideals and despite the hardships this community faces daily you could see the pride and joy that they felt in truly being who they are. You just have to take a look at their incredible dancing and singing to see the joy they have in celebrating being transgender and sharing that with those around them. I felt honoured to have been invited to participate in some dancing and it taught me that sometimes you just need to let go and embrace who you are; awful dance moves, limited makeup, a simple t-shirt and all.
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