By Rupal Ramesh Shah
Sumi Das is from the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, in India. They started Moitrisanjog Society in 2009, a nonprofit organization devoted to affirming the rights of marginalized people, such as trans people, effeminate men, and hijras, “a complex intersectional identity based on aspects of a person that extend beyond the categories of gender and sexuality,” according to Gayatri Reddy, author of With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India.
“It is difficult to define my identity. When I was a young boy, I felt like a girl. These days they identify me as transgender. Identity labels put us into categories that restrict us at times and serve political purposes at other times. Even then, people like me are not recognized in this country nor given appropriate legal rights,” said Das in Hindi, one of the many languages spoken in India.
The identity labels that society expects us to abide by are something with which I am also familiar. I often find myself struggling to identify as a Tanzanian, an Indian, or an American. In talking with Das, I understand that the question of identity is too complex to be explained in a single conversation, and that the issues they face are similar to the ones LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. face.
Before starting Moitrisanjog Society, Das had no idea what a nonprofit was, nor did they have much money to run the organization. When I asked for the reasons they started Moitrisanjog Society, Das said, “A place for everyone to open their hearts, feel at home, and live in a community.” Since its inception, the organization has supported close to 250 people that identify as transgender and hijra. According to Das, anyone who is looking for a family is welcome in their group. “When I was young, I felt alone. I thought there was no one in the world like me,” Das said. It is because of that feeling that they started the organization – to address loneliness among people who feel differently about their gender and the bodies they grow up in.
In addition to serving as a shelter for those in need, the Moitrisanjog Society also provides courses centered on achieving financial security and learning the art of cosmetology. At the end of the courses, they give participants certificates to acknowledge their completion. People who are a part of the transgender and hijra community work in different professions. Some utilize the skills from the courses. Others provide entertainment, as dancers, during weddings and large festivals.
“We must do everything for ourselves, because the law doesn’t recognize us or provide any means of livelihood for us.” In 1860, when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted, section 377 criminalized sexual activities considered to be against the order of nature. It is that law that has discriminated the transgender and hijra community in India for years. “We don’t have bathrooms. At hospitals, they do not welcome us in the wards designated for women or men.”
Navigating a system in which a specific group is not even recognized to exist is challenging. It was not until 2014 that transgender people and hijras gained official recognition as a third gender – which is inherently discriminatory, as this places them behind first and second genders. In 2018, section 377 of the IPC was decriminalized, allowing for consensual sex among adults, irrespective of their gender. According to Das, these are big achievements, but this is just a start. Much more needs to be done in terms of gaining recognition in the mainstream community.
The healthcare challenges faced by the transgender and hijra community have become far more evident during this pandemic. “We were already stigmatized before the pandemic. During the pandemic, we must continue to advocate for our rights even more, especially in terms of healthcare,” Das said. This strong and compassionate activist is nothing but positive when it comes to dealing with adversity, and perhaps that is the quality that is going to get them through this pandemic.
My conversation with Das leaves me to wonder about the rest of the people in this world who are at the intersection of identities and at the crossroads of communities. Will COVID-19 teach us to open our communities and world to everyone, especially those who are different from us? Will COVID-19 cultivate in us empathy for those who are further marginalized due to the disease? During this pandemic, I hope we will think about those who are outside our circles and communities and ways we can support them.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager.