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  • Unpacking Solidarities of the Oppressed:Notes on Trans Struggles in India
  • Gee Imaan Semmalar (bio)

Thirty-seven years after our black feminist sisters wrote the Combahee River Collective Statement, here I am, a Savarna, middle-class, undocumented trans man in India writing about the possibilities and impossibilities of certain solidarities. I draw strength from the resilient political courage of black sisters like Harriet Tubman and Miss Major, from anti-caste leaders like Jotirao and Savitribai Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. The questions raised by the Combahee River Collective Statement still resonate with the struggles of black and Dalit sisters, and they have been able to organize themselves through perseverance and stubborn determination, overcoming several attempts at exclusion and co-optation. As a trans man, I write about the structural exclusions, the institutional violence, the individual assaults on dignity and selfhood, the struggle for self-determination of gender of my community and what solidarity means to us.

In the struggle against class, caste, race, gender, and heterosexist patriarchy, trans people, because of lack of resources and blatant exclusions in existing struggles, seem to be the least politically organized. The individual oppressions of trans persons, of course, vary according to particular positions of class, gender, race, and the geographical area that we occupy, but collectively, trans communities face exclusions of such enormous proportions that most of us find it reason enough to celebrate that we are alive.

Trans communities in India are diverse and have local terms of reference that include hijra, thirunangai, kinnar, mangalamukhi, Aravani, kothi, jogappas, shiv shaktis, thirunambis, bhaiyya, and paiyyan. In India, trans women have historically organized themselves into gharanas (houses). [End Page 286] There are seven major gharanas spread across India that act as support systems for the hijra community. The guru-chela (mother-daughter) relationship in hijra communities is set up to provide mutual care. Young trans women who face intense familial and public violence in childhood leave their homes and live in hijra houses after choosing their gurus and being accepted by them as chelas. Our trans sisters have admirably organized themselves so they have their own internal legal system called Jamaats, where senior hijras play the role of judges and solve disputes between them. I will be unable to go into a long description of the hijra system for several reasons, among which is the complexity of the system, not easily explained, but more importantly, out of respect for the system as something that is internal to the trans community and that I see no reason to be made more legible to the outside world. It is only to contextualize trans politics and communities in India as radically different from those in the West that I felt the need for this short introduction.

Trans women in India live, work, and occupy public space together. This is a strategy for survival arrived upon out of a deep understanding of public violence, discrimination, and vulnerability. Most trans people in India come from poor families (one of the reasons for this may be that trans people who are from economically well-off families might be concerned about inheritance issues and losing out on financial support if they were to assert their gender openly), or if they are not from poor families, they become economically, socially, and politically dispossessed as a result of their trans identity. Dalit trans activist and artist Living Smile Vidya talks about transphobia as a type of brahmanism, with the hijra becoming the untouchable subject. Because of transphobia, even hijras and trans men who come from well-off, Savarna families are unable to pursue their education or procure jobs. It is only in Dalit colonies that trans people are able to rent out houses. This might be the result not of an acceptance of our trans identity but rather of the economic necessity of the poorer house owner to rent out his or her house. The fact that there is more visibility of hijras in Dalit colonies has to a certain extent normalized their presence, though they are still ridiculed on an everyday basis. Heteropatriarchal boxes of acceptable gender categories are disrupted by our very presence. Unlike sexuality, which can be a private identity that...