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  • Writer's pictureMultilogue Collective

Making Sense of the Self - Beyond the Binary-II

Labeling theory highlights societal reactions to deviance from the norm, whereby transgender persons are considered a disruptive force that alters a carefully manicured society. Such labels often construct the identity and behaviours of those individuals for whom such terms and labels are used to describe and classify them. It is therefore interesting to try and understand the impact of labels and categories society ascribes to individuals, and the response it generates. Labelling individuals not only alters their self-concept but also the tangible aspects of social exclusion. There is evidence that supports the notion that the stigmatization of labels can exclude individuals from mainstream opportunities such as education and employment, thereby multiplying the effects of social exclusion.

In the case of transgender individuals, they are labelled as 'chakkas' or 'hijras' from a very young age. This labelling is done by members of the society in many different ways and on numerous occasions. The label of a hijra, intrigues the individual as much as it insults them. The perception they form of themselves is heavily influenced by the perception that the society holds of them and subsequently how society expresses it. This expression informs not only their behaviour, but also has a deep impact on their aspirations. Further, the interaction these individuals have within and outside their community helps form their identity and further validates it. For instance, constantly being taunted and accused of being a hijra (an identity conferred upon with a negative connotation), from a very young age, can compel individuals to identify themselves as hijras. This may be despite them simply being transgender (not associated to the community of hijras), or in some cases, males who identify as females. Such labelling, in fact becomes one of the most compelling factors that lead transgender individuals, especially those from a poor socio-economic background to join the community of Hijras. It is only over time that transgender individuals realize that it is the only social community that provides them acceptance. It leads to a feeling that the hijra community is the only place where they would not be condemned for expressing who they really are. This community subsequently provides many other opportunities and the emotional support that these individuals have longed for their entire life.

One of the participants of my research spoke about her misunderstood childhood and the failure of her parents to provide the acceptance that she required in a time, where she was struggling to make sense of herself.

On being asked whether she always wanted to become a 'hijra', she looked at me and smiled, almost as if she wanted me to know that the answer was no, and replied with a wavering yes.

…Maine apne dil ke armaan, aise poore kiye (I realized my heart's true desire by joining the hijra community). …I used to think that the society did not allow me to live the way I wanted. Everyone used to taunt me and put me down constantly. They used to tell my family “look at the way your son walks and talks, he always hangs around with girls, he is definitely a hijra, you should send him to them, he will become like them). For a long time, I could not find a way to cope, until I joined this community.

Now when I go home, everyone knows, even my family does. Now noone says anything to me anymore. I send my family everything I earn and that is also one of the reasons why they have stopped objecting. Even the people in my village say that it was a good thing that I went to the Hijras. Now, its difficult for me to return to my home.

…You see what happens when one identifies as a hijra ('transgender') is that, if they decide to stay at home while being associated with a gender non-conforming identity, an identity that is not understood at all is that, they have to face a lot of humiliation not just from the society but also their own family. When this happens, where does the person go? What choice are they left with? They are only left with two options. They can either join the hijra community, away from one's family so that they can never return (once an individual joins the hijra community, it is believed that all ties with the biological family are severed and it is considered a taboo to return to them) or do something to end their life. This is the kind of compulsion we have to face…

The lack of acceptance in society, displayed in the form of a frown of disagreement, ridicule or gossip among many other sanctions, is used to control day-to-day deviance such that people build and re-form their identities and self-concept through ongoing interactions with the society. Herein, the 'identity' of a person is profoundly shaped by the ways in which others identify and react to the labelled individuals. This not only perpetuates stigmatization of those considered to have the deviant label but also causes individuals to take on the deviant identity more, than if they had not been so labelled. Labelling possesses the ability to stigmatize individuals in ways that pushes them further away from conventional society and negatively impact the individual's available choices. Therefore, it can be both powerful and consequential in forming one’s identity.

Self-narratives can be seen as a way people use story-telling to give meaning to themselves. I believe these stories inform and strengthen the formation of our identities. In the case of transgenders, they use self-narratives as a means to establish their identity as individuals with a differently gendered 'true self'.

One of the most significant aspects of their narratives as told to me, was that hijras felt a need to communicate and establish the understanding of their own location in the gender continuum. For this, they had to look beyond their natural bodies as it was a site that was conflicted, clearly open to multiple interpretations, and bore the stigma of 'difference'. Transgenders look for evidence beyond their natural body to find signs of their true self and as was found from my research, the first place they look is their own past. They recall past events, beginning from their childhood, to convey the signs they first noticed and which helped them understand themselves as 'different'. The narratives of the participants of this research began by recalling their childhood characteristics as being 'girly'. The male-to-female transgenders felt like they were girls born in a wrong-sexed body and as a result, could never truly identify as a boy. They believed that the identity given to them at birth never captured their 'true self'. In order to be sure and secure of expressing their female true selves, they invoked evidence from their past. In a sense, they re-interpreted their past experiences as evidence of their transgendered identity. This would include early memories of ‘doing’ their assigned gender in an unconventional manner. Childhood was seen by them as a time when their innate impulses were not restricted by gender boundaries. Through the narratives, it became evident that they used certain collective strategies to establish their identities. It included evoking past events, using disinterest in sports and engaging in household chores as metaphors for disrupting masculinity to emphasize their feminine sides. Such accounts also seemed to be powerful resources for constructing their identity. In a sense, such individuals legitimize their true identity by emphasizing that their behaviour came 'naturally' to them.

… I only walked and spoke the way I did because that was the only way I knew how. Slowly, my parent's came to realize that it was truly not my fault. Neither was it theirs because they tried to raise me like a boy, but it failed… (excerpt from a narrative of a transgender)

What comes across through many of the narratives I encountered is a strong sense of hijra personhood and identity, which may not have been intended to challenge any norms or necessarily even be caught in the binary. However, the complexity of this identity is not captured in the politics of representation. Even though there is a sense of oneness within the hijra community, self-narratives point to individual voices and the heterogenous nature of the community.

When asked about their identity, these individuals firmly said that if given a choice, they would not change their transgender status and be born again outside the gender binary. However, they would definitely like to have other means to express their individual identities and survive in the society, rather than having to resort to joining the hijra community. This is because they believe that the community comes with its own limitations and stigma that does not necessarily permit them to express their individuality as a gender non-conforming member of the society. The respondents also expressed that if the society begins to accept transgender identities and recognize such identities as individuals, such an exclusive hijra community may even cease to exist.


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