India's 'third sex': Ridiculed, persecuted, shunned

A poignant portrayal of the travails of India's eunuchs.

Revati, clad in a yellow sari with long black tresses left untied and standing tall at five foot eight inches, is like any other woman.
“I want to have my family, I want to give birth to a child but…” her voice falters, and her eyes are brimming over.

Similar to women, but somehow alien, Revati is not treated equally within Indian society or even in her own family because she is a eunuch.

“I am rejected by my family because they are ashamed of me. They called me a burden,” says Revati.

“We don’t need you to love us, or give us anything to eat, just treat us like human beings,” adds Kajol, her friend.

Revati and Kajol are not aliens. They are part of this society, but are not fortunate enough to have been born either male or female. They are eunuchs, the people of the "third sex."

Indian society rewards this fact with a series of unenviable titles for them, like: "chhakka," "double deckers," or "hijra."

Why are they known as the "third sex?

Did they sin in their last life, while males and females were virtuous?

An absurd question perhaps, but ones that need to be asked in the face of so little reasoning behind a country's refusal to accept them.

Such people never gain the affection or support of their families, a desire that for many will remain just another dream for them.

Parents, who should be models of truth and affection lie to them about their gender and try to contradict the truth of their sexuality.

Revati was told by her parents that she was a man. At the age of 12, she experienced unusual physical and mental changes.

Suffering from a sexual identity crisis and physical deformities, she could not talk to anyone in her family and was labeled a "sinner" for behaving like a girl.

Because she acknowledged her sexuality, she was beaten and abandoned by her family.

Closed group

As outcasts who have suffered the ultimate rejection at the hands of their families, eunuchs are united in that they share a common destiny of misfortune.

They live amongst themselves in a separate world called the hamaam (bathhouse). Here, there are no hostile glares, no violence, and no ridicule or contempt.

Not able to fulfill the basic emotive needs of a human being, to love and to be loved, they develop deep emotional ties among themselves.

They are the mothers, sisters and friends of each other.

“We feel the same as any woman does and satisfy one another’s emotional yearnings,” Revati says.

Living in a group of eight or more, with one guru (mother) in the hamaam, they share each others' pain and realise their suppressed desires.

The guru (senior most member of the group) takes care of her chelas (followers) as a mother would, and they obey her as if they were her daughters.

Somehow they manage to look after their emotional urges. But materialistic needs like food and clothing still remain a big problem because their sexual identity poses a big hurdle in obtaining either education or employment.

Forced into sex

There was a time when eunuchs were invited to sing, dance and bless occasions like marriages and birth ceremonies.

However, this culture is now slowly being abandoned. “To fulfil our needs, we now have to either beg or become sex workers,” laments Revati.

Here, too, they face several problems. Eunuchs often infuriate the beggar community, who enjoy a defined sexual identity that makes them more powerful. Beggars exercise their power by beating eunuchs, cutting their hair off and torturing them in many other ways.

The flesh trade, the second option, fetches more money for eunuchs, because “respected, single-sex” people often use them to live out their desires. However, according to the Indian Penal Code 377 and the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act of 1986, the flesh trade is a criminal offence whose subjects are liable to prosecution.

The police - who rarely fail to arrest any eunuch they spot working the streets - seldom arrest the individuals who indulge in sexual activities with them, and often during interrogation, eunuchs are subjected to inhuman sexual acts whilst in detention.

“Eunuchs are stripped, their private parts are probed with sticks on the pretext of determining their sexual identity,” says Revati. "And if the police are not convinced, eunuchs are raped."

Such forthright methods of interrogation may certainly clear any doubts, but serve to further darken the appalling manner in which one of India's social groups thinks it can treat another: and there are many more instances.

The treatment of eunuchs in India questions our conscience.

Isn’t social ostracism a crime against humanity? Does this lack of sexual identity justify such deplorable treatment? Do we consider eunuchs as lesser Indians with fewer or no rights?

Society here must accept them for being what they are entitle them to equal opportunities, now.