- Paradigms of Thirdness: Analyzing the Past, Present, and Potential Futures of Gender and Sexual Meaning in India
As Gayle Rubin notes in her now classic essay “Thinking Sex,” “Texts are produced in particular historical, social, and cultural circumstances, and are part of discursive conglomerates that shift over time.”1 Drawing inspiration from this statement, this article uses a specific text—With Respect to Sex, the product of research I conducted among hijras2 in the South Indian city of Hyderabad—to chart material and discursive shifts in the terrain of gender and sexual meaning in India.3 The text is based on fieldwork I conducted in the mid-1990s, when questions of sexuality and processes of sexual subjectification in India were beginning to shift and crystallize in different ways, framed and prodded by processes of liberalization and minoritization, and the consolidation of religious nationalism. Drawing on this text (and the fieldwork on which it was premised), the present article traces a series of historical moments, from the mid-1990s to the present, consolidating a move away from marking sex/gender as an essence, and charting shifts in paradigms of thirdness from a more circumscribed and embodied asli/naqli (real/false or authentic/inauthentic) hijra paradigm, through its relationship with an indigenous kothi category and community, and more recently to the expansion of this terrain transnationally through its instantiation as transgender. Through these mappings, one can see the fraught and labile nature of sexual and gendered meaning and practice, the politics of self-and-other labeling, as well as the play of trans/national social movements in marking the legibility of hijras in legal and public domains. They also reveal the complex ways in which [End Page 48] normativity works to regulate selves, institutions, and categories; regulations that, as Jeff Roy notes in the introduction, the articles in this special issue reveal so profoundly. Consolidating a turn away from seeing sex/gender as an essence toward seeing it as a process, a performance, a doing, these articles eloquently showcase the ways in which selves are crafted complexly, within a field of possible positionings, relationships, and spaces, be it in the archive, on the street corner, within social movements, or the academy. Thus, this article provides a historical backdrop through and against which to frame these multiple and sometimes contradictory positionings of self and other beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present day.
Authenticity and the Gendered Hijra Body
Although there is evidence of a range of expressions and interpretations of gender and sexual difference in premodern India,4 the interpretation of such variance remains fraught. Nevertheless, what is clear is that representations of such difference were significantly truncated in the modern era, especially in British colonial contexts, which cast hijras—and other bodies (and their movements) that did not conform to the gendered logics of the British state—as legitimately under the purview of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.5 The dominant frame at this time was grounded in a binary and reductive model of “authentic” bodily difference—whether hijras were “born” or “made,” asli (real) or naqli (false) “eunuchs”—even as authenticity did not necessarily guarantee a positive representation. This framing—through embodied alterity often mapped on to pathology—continued in much of the early post-independence literature,6 with some variance in representations of hijra “perversions.”7 It was not until 1990, when Serena Nanda’s ethnography Neither Man Nor Woman was published, that this negative framing was firmly dislodged in favor of an explicit framing through gender and sexuality; hijras were represented, positively, as an “alternative gender,” with members of this community engaging in a range of asexual and sexual practices.8 Countenancing the view that Western binary sex/gender systems were neither innate nor universal, Nanda’s book set the stage for hijras instantiation as the quintessential “third gender,” a construction that inaugurated their inclusion as the authentic Indian “transgender native” in compendia of global sex/gender formations.9
The ensuing decade—framed and prodded by popular texts like Nanda’s, as well as broader social, economic, and political changes—was a period when processes of sexual subjectification were beginning to...