Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
An Activist Transgender located in Kolkata
conducted by guest editor Subhash Chandra
Agniva Lahiri is the Executive Director of an NGO, located in Kolkata, called PLUS – KOLKATA (PEOPLE LIKE US – KOLKATA), an organisation which represents the experiences and realities of marginalised, vulnerable, adolescent and young transgender and gender variant men in India. PLUS – KOLKATA is a support group of young people, working for the promotion, protection and advancement of transgender men's health and rights, and for ensuring their meaningful participation in building perspectives and participating in decision-making at all levels. The Organisation works in the following areas:
Agniva Lahiri: Well my father was a Government servant, who has since retired and my mother was a teacher in a school and she, too, has retired now. She taught economics. I have two elder sisters, who are married. I am the youngest in the family.
SC: You must have some memories of your childhood and your upbringing. Would you like to share some of the more prominent ones with me?
AL: Talking of my early childhood, I recall, at the neighbourhood Nursery School, where I studied up to class IV, the teacher frowned at and objected when I behaved like a girl. She did not think, this was indicative of something deeper. She just thought it was another child trying to imitate the opposite gender. Nothing unusual. There are cases sometimes of girls imitating the mannerisms of boys. So, she scolded me lightly and forgot about it. I repeated the acts of femininity, but even then, she did not read any meaning into those acts.
At the Nursery school, up to the age of eight/nine (when I was in IV standard), I did not face any harassment. I was not aware of sexuality at that age.
From class V onwards, I studied in the Ramakrishna Mission Residential School, which is located on the outskirts of Kolkata. I mostly stayed at the hostel. I was feminine looking and my femininity was noticed. It specially attracted the attention of boys on the playground where I faced problems on account of my effeminacy. For example, I was not included in the games requiring physical strength. I felt left out and felt bad. Then I faced problems at the hostel, too. Generally, the juniors have a Big Brother at the hostels, who protects the juniors from other bullies and looks after them. I also acquired one. This boy was two years senior to me. He was a Houseboy. He was very kind to me. Because of him, I got a lot of benefits including protection from physical violence, ridicule or verbal harassment by others. I had a comfortable time because of him. I was in class VII at that time. Then he shifted to the senior section. Though we met at times, but we were not in constant touch. Later, he left the hostel, and perhaps also the city of Kolkata. I lost contact with him.
SC: At what stage/age did you clearly realise you were sexually different?
AL: It was at the hostel. I realised I was different from other boys, though I have the body of a male. At the hostel gender expression became a problem. That bothered me a lot. My classmates expected me to behave like a man.
SC: What were your feelings and how did you cope with this knowledge at your personal level? That is, how did you come to terms with it?
AL: Confusion, to begin with. I felt uneasy in the beginning, then angry when I had to confront rejection, hostility, and even violence. But all this changed, once I embraced my gender variance and sexuality.
Come to terms with it? It was not easy to start with. I disappointed my parents who, like all parents of a son, had a future outlined for me. I also caused disturbance among the relatives' circle. It made me feel bad. But then, I realised, I had done no wrong. It was the social thinking which was wrong, which dared not question itself.
SC: In what ways did your life change after that self-knowledge of your sexuality?
AL: I realised I was different. That society was not hospitable to gender variant and sexually marginalised people. And I soon came to know that I would have to fight back against the injustices done to me and that I would have to struggle for a space for myself. I am glad I have succeeded in all this to a large extent.
SC: Did you meet any other people like you?
AL: After I came back to the city from the hostel, I met two/three feminine persons. They introduced me to more people who are KOTI. We were like-minded people with whom socialising was easy for me. I felt at ease with them, because I could share my feelings and experiences with these boys who were like me. I could relate to them. I got to know that there were others like me. I was not strange, or unnatural. I was different, that is all. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself.
SC: Did things change for you after some time?
AL: Yes, to a certain extent. Today I live more in my own way and this happened largely because I joined a support group, PRATYAY—the support group under PRAAJAK. The history of PRAAJAK begins in 1992, when there was a GAY support group called Counsel CLUb – an informal gay supporting space. Some members felt that it was an inadequate space and their perception of the gay rights was different from the organisation's. So, they started the NAZ Kolkata project in 1995. And in 1997 the Naz Kolkata project registered as an independent NGO named PRAAJAK. The organisation is involved in male sexual health work. In 1997 PRAAJAK received a grant from DFID (Department of Foreign International Development), U.K. for needs-assessment among MSM. While doing the survey PRAAJAK took the initiative to organise a support group for Kothis called Pratyay Later PRAAJAK became a development agency you can see their web page at praajak.org.
It was after I finished schooling and passed the class XII examination that I joined this support group. After being a member of the support group, I started understanding sexuality and gender performance and talking about gender variance more meaningfully and in a constructive way. You would be surprised how even the world of the 'gender variance' is stratified and closed. They have rigid definitions/perceptions of the categories within the transgender people. When I met Kothis I was not considered one of them because they told me 'You are not a pakka Kothi.' I did not fit into that identity, and hence I had to contest to redefine this identity.
The support group I had joined somehow shaped my life to a certain extent and gave it direction. I could not reconcile to just hanging around. I was keen to take up responsibility, to do advocacy of gender expression. It happened at college.
SC: Were things better at College?
AL; No, not much. The harassment continued even after I joined Asutosh College in Kolkata. In fact, the harassment was both inside and outside it. Some of my school-mates had also joined the same College and they spread the word around about me and then joined others in harassing me. The harassment was in the form of mocking, or passing snide remarks and, at times, even physical violence. I got used to those things. However, since I had by then joined the support group, it helped me in feeling a little more comfortable. At the same time I had begun to get restless and angry. I wanted to raise my voice against that injustice. There was no reason for that kind of physical and verbal abuse that was inflicted on me. I began to raise the issue in the Humanities classes and some of the College Professors were sympathetic and open-minded. They discussed this issue in the class and because of them I acquired a relatively comfortable space in the class. I began the publication of a magazine, called Pratyay Arshi Nagar to which my Professors also contributed articles on this issue.
It made only a small difference. The harassment and victimisation did not end completely. Sometimes I, along with some others, approached different agencies against this harassment. We tried all sources including the police and protested and wanted the police to put a stop to it. But it all came to nothing.
Then Agniva paused.
SC: Any particular incident of harassment or violence against you that you remember?
AL: In the year 2003, when I was publishing the Manashi paper in Bangla, on 7th December, goons who were a part of a mob attacked me. We went to the police. It was basically two goons who were inciting people to harass us. We protested against the attack. Initially no complaint was lodged. The police only put it in the Daily Diary, which does not make it incumbent on the police to investigate the complaint and take action on it. When we persisted and fought for lodging of an FIR (First Information Report), we succeeded. An FIR was lodged.
SC: Did the situation change when you started working?
AL: Yes and No. It did not change much in terms of harassment. It changed in the sense that at the work place, I began to retaliate to provocative remarks. It seemed that that was the solution. Whenever a nasty remark was hurled at me, I retorted back. They had not expected it. So, they were nonplussed, went quiet or became defensive. This made life a little easier at my work location.
SC: Now that you are grown up, and your gender identity is clear to your parents, how have they taken it?
AL: There were issues in the family. When my friends from my Organisation started coming home, my parents had problems vis-à-vis neighbours. I explained things to my parents. My friends also helped my parents understand the condition of being a transgender. My friends told me not to try and rush things with them. But the situation is changing. Now I do not have a strained relationship with my parents. They are more less O.K. with my sexuality and gender expression now. I am economically independent. They know I can sustain my own life. At this stage of my life I am away from Kolkata for most of the time. That is being away from the problem.
SC: How did your sisters get to know that you were a transgender? What was their attitude towards you when they learnt that you were sexually different?
AL: Well, at home, sometimes I wrapped a towel around me to give expression to the gender feminine I felt I was. I also used their cosmetics, at times. That gave them the idea. However, they were not shocked or anything. In fact, they were quite understanding. They had a great influence on me. They are the ones who taught me what grace is by being graceful themselves. I have an easy relationship with both the sisters even now, though both of them are married. Occasionally, they participate in my events, that is, events concerning my activism in this field.
SC: What is your educational level? Has it helped you in any way?
AL: Yes, it has certainly. After Ausothosh college, I completed my Masters in Bengali Literature from the University of Calcutta and later I did a Masters in Sociology at Nagarjuna University, Kolkata—as I opted to enter the development profession. Education does empower in several ways. One becomes more articulate and assertive. Being educated, of course, has given me advantages. I can express myself. I have more confidence in myself. I stopped hiding what I am. For example, I worked at UNICEF in 2001–02, in their Regional Office, which dealt with Child Welfare. Here, I attracted focus, but I never hid myself as a gender a variant.
Earlier, when I was young, I did not know how to react when I was mocked or humiliated. Now, having attained my Masters, I understand myself better, I understand the reasons for the society's hostility towards me and people like me. They do not want us because we challenge their entrenched notions of gender and sexuality. Generally, people are afraid of the unknown. And because of the fear of the unknown, they do not want to know. This breeds a vicious circle. The ignorance continues and, therefore, the fear continues and the gender variant and 'sexually marginalised' are sought to be erased from the social fabric, as also from the language and official categorisation of human beings. Forms of various types do not have a column other than male/female. The census also does not provide for the counting of the sexually different: transsexuals, lesbians, gays, kothis, panthis, hijras. So, nobody knows how many of us there are and what we are. Because the society cannot physically exterminate us (though I don't put past some families, eliminating such children at birth, on the sly), they make fun of us, degrade us into permanent silence. My education has enabled me to do self-reflection, seek out people like myself, has made me shed the feeling that I am degraded compared to the so-called 'normal' men and women. And above all, my education has given me the courage to 'come out' as I am. I do not hide myself now. I do not closet my identity. More and more of us should come out. That would not only swell our numbers, but also give strength to others who are closeted. It is important for us to make ourselves visible.
Most importantly, my education has taken me out of the rut many poor young transgender fall into. I could get a job and become economically independent. A large majority of transgenders are caught in the vicious cycle of poverty. They were poor and so could not get good education. Therefore, they did not get a good job. Sometimes, they did not get any jobs because of their visible effeminacy. It may sound strange: a woman can get a job, so can a man, but a womanly man cannot! These young fellows were left with no alternative except to become a hijra. That was the obvious choice for them, for survival. They had to survive. And they did not have any options available to them. So becoming a hijra and joining a dancing and singing group, were their only means of living. On the other hand, I had the option of getting education. My parents could not only afford it but insisted on my completing my graduation and post graduation. I never, therefore, thought of the option of becoming a hijra.
SC: What kind of job are you employed in?
AL: Currently I am the Coordinator of a Youth Project: Network of Asia Pacific Youth. Nineteen Asia Pacific Countries are members of this Organisation. I am also the Executive Director of PLUS – KOLKATA, as I said earlier. PLUS – KOLKATA runs a shelter-home, PROTHOMA. I also worked for some other organisations. They dealt with trafficking and unsafe migration. In these organisations also I revealed myself as a transgender. Initially, there was a hush hush talk about me at these places. I was different. My relationship with my women colleagues was an easy one. They took me for granted.
SC: Please tell me about PROTHOMA.
AL: PROTHOMA helps those transgenders who are in distress because of violence against them. They are provided shelter for a period ranging from fifteen days to three months, depending upon their need. Often these victims are poor and helpless feminine/transgender persons who come to Kolkata from the outlying towns and villages of West Bengal, while migrating to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to work in drama troupes as luanda dancers (folk entertainers within the drama troupes). Being poor, alone, confused and helpless, in an alien city, they do not know what to do or where to go. They need protection and shelter. PROTHOMA provides shelter to them.
SC: How does PROTHOMA help them during their stay there?
AL: By providing them emotional and moral support. We make sure they travel safely to their destination and during their stay we provide all the maintenance.
SC: Do you have any counselling system for these victims of violence? I am sure they must feel traumatised after what they have gone through.
AL: Yes, we have two expert counsellors who specialise in Applied Psychology. They are available five days a week. In addition to that, we have two peer counsellors, who are residential and are available 24/7. In fact, the shelter is open at all times for the victims in need of help. These counsellors effect emotional rehabilitation, teach them about sexuality, and attempt to make them shed the feeling of self-loathing, generated by their internalising of heterosexist stereotypes. This is one of the most important things that activism in this field needs to do. In the growing years, one is confused about one's sexuality, and is vulnerable to assimilating the negative self-images, which are current in mainstream society.
SC: Does PROTHOMA help them in any other ways?
AL: Yes. For those transsexual people who want to undergo surgery for sex change, wWe create awareness about safe hormonal therapy and SRS instead of contraceptive pills and castration. We do not have resources for providing hormonal therapy but sometimes we connect clients with the right doctors and advocate for support. Several poor people lead tortured lives because of their femininity, which is enclosed in their male bodies. They want to change their sex, but do not have the resources, or the requisite knowledge how to go about it in a safe way. PROTHOMA helps them in this. Additionally, we provide legal aid to the victims, when needed, interact with the police, on their behalf, lodge an FIR for physical violence, if necessary.
SC: Do you think transgenderism is inherent? I mean essentially biological?
AL: In today's context, it is a different funda. Gender activists consider gender identity as a concept of social and behavioural construction. Gender is regarded as role-playing. I have seen people shift their roles according to the contexts. Foucault's social constructivism is held forth to posit gender/sex/sexuality as political and fluid. But it is not as simple as that. Of course, there are instincts, which give you your gender/sex orientation. Therefore, I somehow believe in balancing the situation. I do not subscribe to the either/or polarity of essentialism and anti-essentialism when it comes to gender identity. It is a bit of both, perhaps.
SC: Do you use feminine clothes, and/or feminine beauty aids?
AL: Of course, I use more of women things. It is not that I wear sari or salwar and shirt all the time. Mostly, I wear kurta and jeans, at times a T - shirt and jeans. I wear lipstick, and other cosmetics, but not as a matter of compulsion. However, I do feel feminine and look visibly feminine in my attire.
SC: How do you look at transgender identity in the Indian context?
AL: Transgender is an umbrella term. But in the Indian perspective, transgender is a problematic category. There is for example a lot of problem with hijras. Anyone can become a hijra if he wants to be one. Hijras have a male body, male voice and hair on the face and the body. But they feel feminine and they want to be treated as feminine. They refer to themselves as 'she.' In fact, they have been struggling for a feminine identity. National policy on hijra is not clear. They are erased totally from the category of gender in the census and in other surveys on males and females.
SC: How did you think of starting the forum Kolkata PLUS, with PROTHOMA as a shelter?
AL: I was a young researcher with UNFPA in New York and I bought myself a formal dress. Even at the higher level, you are not treated as other colleagues are. Even though I was a complete professional, my identity was not taken seriously. I was not treated equally with other equally qualified people. Being a transgender you lose the edge.
In 2002, I was on a Radio Communication Panel for a session on sex workers. I was the focal person of Asia and the Pacific. I noted that nobody talked about male sex workers, as nobody was interested in their problems. I started mingling with them from 2002 onwards. I attended the Festival of Pleasure, organized in Trivandrum. It is the national event for sex workers—predominately for the female sex workers organised by the National Network of Sex Workers; this event functions for them as a source of networking. I approached the UNAIDS (joint United Nations AIDS Program) and I got four lakh rupees as grant to work for transgenders. This was the first time that male and transgender sex workers had been brought into the forum by us. I held a meeting, which was attended by 42 people from districts of India and Nepal. Then we organized a separate meeting of male sex workers in India. The outcome was: The Indian Network of Male Sex Workers, with 22 other branches in 14 states.
I then thought of setting up an organisation, which would protect and promote the rights of young transgender and gender variant men and sex workers in India. This was the process of the birth of PLUS – (People Like Us) KOLKATA, which was established in January 2000. This organisation was registerd in March 2003 but it had been unofficially working with the trans population since 2001.
SC: Has PLUS – KOLKATA had any exposure in the Media? And what has been their attitude to the issue of transgenderism?
AL: Oh, in Kolkata, the English print media does a really good job of covering and engaging the issue of transgenderism. I have some friends in the print media, and they are empathetic towards the cause PLUS – KOLKATA promotes. The electronic English media is also reasonably good. They are objective and open-minded. But the local electronic media, that is, the Bengali electronic media, is really bad. They are hostile and perpetuate the heterosexual view of the sexually different. Since, the local media is watched by a large number of people, it makes our task difficult to a certain extent, when it comes to disseminating alternate perceptions of transgenders. It is important for us that the media take an informed stand.
SC: One last question. How do you like to be addressed – I mean as Mr. or Miss or Ms?
AL: To answer your question, well first of all, I am a Bengali and in my native language, Bengali, we do not use gender for male and female operational Bengali is quite gender-neutral, although while travelling when I have to use English I do not have any preference. As people perceive me by my performance they themselves decide how to address me. In most of the cases, it is 'she'. Instead of the politically correct ZE or HIR (the traditional Trans word) I prefer to use 'she' while writing – as S/He. The best way to address me is Agniva by my name.
 The interview was conducted through long distance phone conversations over a long period of time in several sessions.
 The kothi is a feminised male identity, which is adopted by some people in the Indian subcontinent and is marked by gender non-conformity. A kothi, though biologically male, adopts feminine modes of dressing, speech and behaviour and would look for a male partner who performs masculine modes of behaviour, speech and dress. Most kothis also identify as non-English-speaking and coming from middle, lower-income, and working- class backgrounds. See People's Union of Civil Liberties, Report: Human Rights Violations against Sexual Minorities in India, A Case Study of Bangalore, A Report of PUCL-Karnataka (February 2001), online: http:// http://sangama.org/files/sexual-minorities.pdf, accessed 22 July 09.
 Pratyay means determination, but here Pratyay is the name of the kothi support group that later became the Pratyay Gender Trust Organization. In the name of the magazine, Pratyay aarshinagar means Pratyay In-house Magazine.
 Manush in Bangla means man; manushi means woman.
 Panthis are men who have sex with kothis, dress and act like 'real men' and perform the role of husbands to their kothis (feminised men). See 'Men who sell sex,' in Samabhavana Society Website, 2008, online: http://www.samabhavanasociety.org/men_who_sell_sex_page3.html, accessed 31 July 09.
 As a community, Hijras represent an existing Indian tradition which clearly contests any hetero-normative understandings of gender, sexuality and the body. Hijras include men who go in for hormonal treatment, those who undergo sex-change operations and those who are born as hermaphrodites. The community has its own culture and ways of living, including its own festivals and gods and goddesses. Hijras divide themselves into gharanas or houses and the strength of the hijra community lies in its close-knit relationships, their sole source of support against the social ostracism they face in mainstream society. See People's Union of Civil Liberties, Report: Human Rights Violations against Sexual Minorities in India, A Case Study of Bangalore, A Report of PUCL-Karnataka (February 2001), pp. 6, 7, 10.
 Prothoma is a Bengali word. In English it means 'the first of its kind.'
 On this point see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, New York Pantheon, 1976 rpt. 1978.
 A loose nether feminine garment with several folds
 A loose shirt generally worn by males, but is now worn by females also.