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The Indian Third Gender: Then and Now

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By Meghna

Now identified as the “third gender”, the transgenders have always been an oppressed and ostracized community in modern India.

courtesy: withfriendship.com
courtesy: withfriendship.com

The recent supreme court verdict has finally enabled them to take shots at the same opportunities provided to the non-transgender people. It has become an official step towards empowering them. But the third sex, according to the mythologies, enjoyed a better position.

The Mahabharata, which is considered to be a “historic epic”, tells us the story of Shikhandi, the older sibling of Draupadi. During the ninth and tenth days of the 18 day long war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, Krishna took the help of Shikhandi to defeat Bhisma, who was considered invincible as he had the power of deciding the time of his death. Shikhandi was born a girl and was raised as a boy by his father. His gender identity, thus being more inclined towards the masculine. It is said that the sages prophesied that her body will transform into that of a man later in life.

The reaction given by the Pandavas when Krishna told them about his plans of including Shikhandi in his attack on Bhisma, is almost similar to the reaction our society now gives, whenever the question of inclusion of transgenders in the same areas of work as the non-transgenders today.

“Shikhandi embodies all queer people – from gays to lesbians to Hijras to transgendered people to hermaphrodites to bisexuals. Like their stories, his story remains invisible. But the great author, Vyasa, located this story between the ninth night and the tenth day, right in the middle of the war, between the start and the finish. This was surely not accidental. It was a strategic pointer to things that belong neither here nor there. This is how the ancients gave voice to the non-heterosexual discourse,” says the author Devdutt Pattanaik, in his article ‘On Krishna’s chariot stands Shikhandi’.

In the medieval era, eunuchs and transgenders enjoyed a respected and accepted place in the society. They made the most trusted handmaidens and advisors to the queens and their presence in the society was not something that was sneered at.

It is believed that when Rama was exiled for 14 years, many men and women followed him into the forests. He, however, asked the men and women to go back to their respective lives. After the men and women had left, the eunuchs were left, and they refused to go back. Happy with their devotion, Rama blessed them with the power to confer blessings on during auspicious occasions such as childbirth, inauguration etc. The practice is still followed as many houses where babies are born are visited by eunuchs who sing, and dance and shower their blessings in exchange of money.

The Indian mythology also describes the androgynous deity, who is a composite form of Shiva and Parvati, called “Ardhanareeshwar”. This form is identified as a union of the powers and quite literally the bodies of Shiva and Parvati.

There are more instances in Mahabharata, other than the episode of Shikhandi. It is believed that Arjuna, after being cursed by the nymph Urvashi spent a year of his life as Brihanala who  taught music and dance to the princess Uttara.

Then there is also the episode of Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Chitrangada who was willingly sacrificed by Krishna in order to turn the tide in the favour of Pandavas and make them win the war. His last wish was to die a married man after fulfilling his lust. As no woman was ready to be married to a man who was fated to die very soon, Krishna took the form of Mohini and married him.

courtesy: flikr.com
courtesy: flikr.com

In Tamil Nadu, every year, this incident is celebrated as a festival called “Koothandavar”, where transgenders from the entire subcontinent assemble, participate in a ceremony where everyone is married to Aravan and then lament like Mohini did when on the 18th day of the festival, as Aravan died on the 18th day of Mahabharata and Mohini mourned him like a widow mourns her husband.

Even though India is easily dubbed as among the most conservative and religious countries in the world, the cultural and religious history of India tells a different tale altogether.The ancient Hindu society was, in fact, more accepting of the transgenders and also recognized the cases of people born into the bodies they didn’t identify with.

The laws incriminating the “queer” practices of LGBT, the much-despised section 377, was a creation of British Colonial rule. In fact, the discriminatory attitude towards the third gender which our society practices even now, is because of the influence of the societal norms laid down by the British Raj.

Thus, we should strive to be truer representatives of the “real” culture that India was- accepting, and not conservative as the British Raj made us.

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You’re Not Two-Spirit Unless You Are Familiar With Your Traditions

Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term

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L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy
L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache, and Vanessa Kristina (Salt River Pima), who all identify as two-spirited. VOA

Growing up, Timothy “Twix” Ward, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, thought he was “normal.” But his family recognized there was something “special” about him.

“It wasn’t until I got older that I knew who I was, that I was different from everyone else,” he said. Ward identifies not as a man or a woman, but both — and neither: Twix Ward is a Two-Spirit.

The term was first devised in Winnipeg, Canada, during a 1990 inter-tribal conference of Native American/First Nations gays and lesbians. Derived from the Ojibwe language, the term was deliberately chosen to serve as a “pan-Indian” term encompassing indigenous people who don’t fit into any normative gender role.

“Two-spirited people are not LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Gender Queer], although some two-spirited people are LGBTQ,” said Ward, narrowing the definition. “You’re not two-spirit unless you are familiar with your cultural identity and your traditions.”

Shown is Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving.
Shown is Timothy “Twix” Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving. VOA

Ward lives year-round in a traditional Apache house. He participates in traditional ceremonies. He is also a basket weaver and seamstress, specializing in basketry and making dresses for young Navajo women’s coming-of-age ceremonies.

“I try to teach the girls what the dress is for, the meaning behind it in their ceremony,” Ward said.

But not everyone in the community accepts him, and he admits to loneliness.

“I still carry the traditional [two-spirit] face markings, the traditional attire,” he said. “Some people that claim to be traditional are upset with me because they think I’m acting like I know more than them.”

A ca. 1886 photograph of We'wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman"), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - 523798
A ca. 1886 photograph of We’wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman”), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration – 523798. VOA

This year, the tribal council blocked him from using their facilities to hold a second annual “Miss Apache Diva” beauty contest.

Balancing the male and female

Thirteen hundred miles away in South Dakota, Kellie Bingen also identifies as a two-spirit bisexual. Born on the Lower Brule Reservation, she now lives in Sioux Falls, which makes her an “urban Indian,” serving on the board of the Sioux Falls Two Spirit and Allies group.

“Two-spirits are people who can balance both their male and their female sides,” she said. “I’ve been a ‘tomboy’ my whole life. Dad taught us girls to do anything that a man can do, so we learned how to install sheetrock and to roof, and to fix our own cars.”

But she said she still has a “girlie” side. “I can wear heels and a dress, put makeup on, and go out and be pretty.”

Like Ward, Bingen believes only Natives who are in touch with their traditions can claim two-spirit identity — and the term should never be co-opted by non-Natives.

New York City musician and activist Tony Enos offers a slightly different interpretation.

“Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term for Native people who identify as gender queer, gender non-conforming, gender fluid,” he said.

Born to a biracial family and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he identifies as two-spirit based on paternal Cherokee ancestry.

This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota
This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, VOA

“Before colonization, we were balance-keepers. We were the only ones that could move between the men’s and women’s camps. There was a special role for these gender queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming tribal individuals who had this special medicine, this blessing to be able to see life through male and female eyes.”

And that’s what the two-spirit movement is all about, he said — reclaiming the special role two-spirits held in pre-colonial tribal societies.

But is that even possible?

Decolonizing the ‘berdache’

"Employments of the Hermaphrodites," an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead.
“Employments of the Hermaphrodites,” an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead. VOA

Much of what is known about historic two-spirits comes from accounts written by Western missionaries, adventurers and ethnographers, who referred to anyone who deviated gender norms by the derogatory term “berdache,” derived from the Arabic for slaves or kept boys.

Tribes had their own terms for third (if men) and forth (if women) genders — “like a girl,” “manly-hearted woman,“ “both man and woman,” “fake,” “supernatural” or “instructed by the moon.”

In some tribes, two-spirits were considered sacred and were honored as healers, seers, name-givers, or in the case of the Yokuts and Mono of California, gravediggers, as they were believed to be guided by the dead.

“But not all tribes honored them,” said Wesley K. Thomas, a Navajo anthropologist, professor and graduate dean of the Navajo Technical University School of Graduate Studies and Research. He believes two-spirits tended to be honored only in matrilineal tribes like the Navajo, where descendancy is traced from the mother’s line.

In other tribes, they were merely tolerated.

“There were even some patrilineal tribal societies who committed infanticide of such children [early on] or later in life,” he said.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
VOA

Whatever their status, the subjugation and Christianization of Indians by Europeans ensured that two-spirits were stamped out.

“As the country is gradually being filled with the Missions, these detestable people will be eradicated and that this most abominable of vices will be exterminated,” wrote Spanish missionary to California Francisco Palou in 1777.

By the mid-20th century, gay Native Americans, facing homophobia and ostracism within their own communities, began to flock to urban centers for safe haven.

“But there, they found themselves marginalized by non-Native LGBTQ communities,” said Thomas. Hence the need to name themselves.

Thomas isn’t critical of the two-spirit movement, which in his words “gives them a sense of belonging, of identity, self-affirmation.”

That said, Thomas doesn’t believe they will ever recover any honor given to them in the past.

San Francisco, California's two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
San Francisco, California’s two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
VOA

Also read: LGBT activists in London call for decriminalisation of homosexuality

“It’s not possible,” he said. “We have been distanced too much from our traditional ways and cultures.” (VOA)