Note: This post is part of a series. Read more about the LGBTimeMachine series here.
By Sabeau Rea, Communications Department Intern
After an unusually smooth flight, the ship touches down, at our newest destination. By touches down I, of course, mean, slams itself against the ground like a toddler really in need of a four-hour nap. Some things are too good to be true.
I crane my neck behind me to both showcase the incredible dexterity of my C7 vertebra (I used Google to find out the name of this.) and to make sure you were ok in the descent. If we’re being honest, though, it was mostly to show off the vertebra. You, however, are nowhere to be found.
I call out for you as your name echoes through the ship. My attempts become increasingly fervent because I’m really beginning to fear you may have been accidently sucked out through a crack in the Time Glass (TM) encasing the ship. I heard it happened to my cousin Craig** but everyone in my family has refused to give me details. (Name has been changed to protect the identity of the cousin who so deeply embarrassingly got himself sucked out into space. What a nerd.) After ninety-four whole seconds of an unbearable suspense I will remember for the rest of my immortal life (Ahh! Did I say immortal? I meant completely normal human length time. Three-hundred years at most. A thousand, tops. I am completely human and will eventually die. Stop asking questions.), you emerge from the back of the ship– having clearly been tossed back during the landing.
You are not happy. I watch in vain as you wordlessly exit the ship, tossing a disparaging glance backwards to me for good measure. Outside the air hangs thick with the scent of heat and flowers as the atmosphere wafts over you with deft literary description…because I am an excellent writer.
We have found ourselves in India, somewhere approximately 4000 years ago.
“The northern hemisphere of the country to be exact,” I explain, following you out of the ship. “Northern India–along with Pakistan and Bangladesh–is home to one of the oldest third-gendered communities in history. Which is exactly why we’re here today.”
India’s Hijra community is among the oldest third-gendered communities in history. The group affirm that they are a community of individuals whose genders fall beautifully and authentically into a space outside the male and female binaries. Put simply, Hijras identify as “men born with the souls of women,” while being wholly, and happily, neither.
Jumping to a little closer to present day, in 2014, the Hijra community achieved something incredible, as they became a legally recognized third gender group by the Supreme Court of India. This is a step forward that many countries, including our own United States, have yet to even consider. Even more exciting is how the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh soon followed suit in passing similar legislation. Most incredible, however, is that along with these new laws came the implementation of crucial legal rights they had previously been denied due to their gender.
While this may already resonate as a large accomplishment, to fully understand its magnitude we need to look further back in the history of this community. There was a time when Hijras were not only accepted but in many ways revered in society.
Many Hijras were renowned and acclaimed musicians and dancers throughout the course of ancient history. Think dozens of third-gendered, Indian Beyonce’s, and you may have a grasp of how Hijra musicians were perceived in ancient India.
Hijras were not merely incredible performers, however. The community was also widely considered good luck. That’s right—people outside the binary are actually magic. 100% fact. Tell David Blaine to call me.
For the greater part of India’s history, Hijras were exalted as symbols of good luck and prosperity. Members of the community would be invited to weddings to sing, dance, and partake in the general–or should I say gender-role (Get it? Do you get it though? Ha.)–festivities in the hopes that their presence would generate a happy future for the marriage. Speaking from personal experience, genderqueers folks are also great with a wedding toast. There were literally no downsides to them crashing your wedding.
Alas, luck and fortune, as we will see, hold but their pallid ghostly tendrils in limp array twixt the vastest, and dopest, accolade of this community. (I am a literal literary artist. You can tell me nothing at this point. I’m Hemingway sans the viscerally rampant misogyny. Artiste.)
Are you ready to hear the most fantastic role Hijra’s had? Too bad. We have to set a backstory first. The Hijra community was also long-revered as a bridge between the binary genders. They were considered to have the (albeit outdated, but this is ancient history, and I didn’t say anything about these kids being forward thinking, just archaically pragmatic) physical strength of a man, and the perceived lack of romantic interest in women, of a woman (again, soooo 4000 years ago).
Okay, so now are you ready to find out? Let’s do it. Serendipitously, these qualities would have been culturally imperative for selecting a team of bodyguards to protect India’s most elite. Yes, brace yourselves: Hijras are the planet’s oldest celebrity bodyguards. Spectacular. The Hijra community members would possess lucrative careers as guardians of the wealthy and royal elite of the region from 1526, to roughly 1828, which, if you’re counting, would be almost the entirety of the Mughal Empire.
Furthermore, Hijras were so fantastic at this job that those who held the position also acquired the job of “Guardian of the Harem” (which also, coincidentally, is the title of the terrible Guardians of the Galaxy sequel). This not only made the group one of the most ancient sex worker-supportive communities, but an even more crucial aid to royalty who frequented harems about as much as…well, about as much as our modern day politicians seem to do, too.
Most prestigious by far was their role as revered members of Mughal courts, often acquiring high offices within them. At numerous points throughout their storied history, Hijras even became direct advisors to empire’s royalty.
“This sounds incredible, I don’t see any evidence of the stigmatization you mentioned earlier at all!” you may be protesting.
Unfortunately, this is where the awful part begins. For nearly 4000 years the Hijra community lived together in harmony; then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. No, wait, wrong aggressive colonizers…England. I meant England. Oops! In England’s aggressive colonization of India, the colonizers implemented policies and cultural mandates which eventually forced a community once held in reverence into outcast.
The imposition of the British penal code of 1860 forbade any “unnatural” sex (read: Hijras) on the grounds that it could cause “grievous hurt.” The law forcibly subjugated India’s cultural norms to slowly stigmatize themselves into invisibility as the country became increasingly indoctrinated (read: forced) into the British Empire. With these norms went the treatment of Hijras as a valid and honored identity.
Lest we end this article on a truly disheartening note however, may I remind you that after all this, India won its independence from England. If that isn’t cheering you up, also remember that after this, India legally recognized Hijras, with Pakistan and Bangladesh following suit, in pursuit of a future much like the accepting past they once held.
To close, I leave you with this question, “If history is ‘written by the victors,’ how many stories like those of the Hijra community remain tucked away because of it?”
Join us next time as we head west to discuss an ancient community who recognized the existence of more than two genders right here in our own country, the USA. See you there.
- Rehman, Zehra. “The Secret Language of South Asia’s Transgender Community.” Quartz India (India), April 15, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2016. https://qz.com/662917/the-secret-language-of-south-asias-transgender-community/.
- Roy, Jeff. “Music and India’s Hijra Community.” UCLA Center for the Study of Women (blog). Entry posted March 21, 2016. Accessed November 7, 2016. https://csw.ucla.edu/2016/03/21/music-indias-hijra-community/.
- Roy, Jeff. “The “Dancing Queens”: Negotiating Hijra Pehch?n from India’s Streets onto the Global Stage.” Ethnomusicology Review 20 (2015). Accessed October 13, 2016. http://ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/journal/volume/20/piece/872.
- Houdek, Lukáš. “Hijras: The Transgender Goddesses.” Huffington Post, June 6, 2016. Accessed October 23, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lukas-houdek/hijras-the-transgender-go_b_10313944.html.