- A Queer Romance with the Hijra
Some societies have three genders—men, women, and berdaches or hijras or xaniths. Berdaches, hijras and xaniths are biological males who behave, dress, and work, and are treated in most respects as social women.—Judith Lorber (1995)
The Hijras of India are a group of unique and interesting people. The group focuses on beliefs that are very different from the beliefs of many other (cultures).— Jasmonae Chisel (2011)
The two quotes that begin this article are by a sociologist of gender and an undergraduate student writing an essay for an introductory feminist class, respectively. The quotes are representative of the opaque and specific ways in which the term hijra stands in for a potentially liberatory gender formation. As these quotes reveal, in contemporary feminist and queer discourses the term hijra has acquired a talismanic quality, signifying specialist knowledge of a particular South Asian phenomenon and an epistemic weapon that destabilizes Western sex/gender norms. Decontextualized invocations of the hijra are widespread in the feminist classroom; many introductory texts include at least one reading that references a non-Western gender formation that disrupts dimorphic sex/gender categories. [End Page 18]
This article centers on the epistemological significance of the hijra in contemporary feminist and queer studies at a historical moment when transgender subjects have come into greater social visibility and signaled the fragility of Western gender binaries. Why does this South Asian category crop up in the U.S. feminist classroom? What routes does the hijra traverse to arrive in this space? Who authorizes the presence of the hijra and for what purposes? These are some of the questions I explore in this article. The presence of the hijra in feminist and queer classrooms signals how knowledge about/from South Asia is produced, deployed, and consumed within a given set of power relations. This article is part of a larger endeavor to unpack the cultural politics of knowledge production in the West, especially in the feminist classroom. I sketch a cautionary tale highlighting the mixed results of queer theory’s turn to the hijra within the academy. Queer theory clears the space to recuperate and reclaim previously pathologized categories of gender variance. However, the transnational travels of these categories produce different local effects. In the West, the textual-rhetorical presence of the hijra is often productive in generating progressive gender politics. In India, this reclamation project has given greater visibility to gender variant communities, even as the celebratory rhetoric has provided ballast to Hindu fundamentalist discourse of Indian exceptionalism.1 It is this doubled and contradictory set of effects that impel the cautions I signal in this article.
Like many colleagues, in my introductory feminist classes I employ readings by biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling or historian of science Thomas Laqueur to help rupture the sex binary.2 Often, though, these ideas become more concrete for students when texts point out the possibilities for societies to go beyond the sex binary by highlighting the existence of two-spirit people, xanith, hijra, and others.3 This passing reference to other modes of organizing society leaves a mark on students, who often end up conducting research on some non-Western gender destabilizing formation. These accounts seek to demonstrate that non-Western societies are more accommodating of erotic diversity and gender variation than the West. Strikingly, students engage with a significant body of scholarship on transgender movements, experiences, and theories. Yet my students end up replicating a larger corpus of work wherein the hijra sets the stage for celebrating non-Western societies while disparaging Western ones. Is this a simple appropriative, co-optive process? What is the cultural work conducted by this highly mobile transnational category?
My intent here is not to dismiss the sincerity of these projects. Rather, I think through why these students as well as writers as varied as Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg each turn to the non-West to buttress the argument that Western binary gender systems are neither universal nor innate.4 This article stems from the seductive power of this “third gender” in non-Western spaces. What [End Page 19] is entailed in turning to the non-West for...