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The twilight gender

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 27.03.04, 12:00 AM

Once upon a time, I assumed gender roles were immutable. Men were men, women were women, and that was that, until the Internet wormed its way into our lives.

One of the first things I learned about online chat was that an identifiably female username or ‘handle’ led to an avalanche of unwanted attention. Whether I was trying to discuss books or animal rights or new technologies, life was a lot simpler if I used a gender-neutral or even identifiably male handle. That’s when I discovered that gender is as gender does; over a period of time, if enough people assumed I was male, my behavioural patterns changed imperceptibly until I could successfully “mimic” being a man. It required only a small switch in mental attitude to resume being a woman online.

If the Indian state had ever thought to pass a law declaring that virtual gender changes were now illegal, and that anyone who attempted to switch roles was to be treated as neither male nor female, I would have theoretically been disenfranchised, barred from marital relationships, divested of certain property rights, not allowed to adopt children.

You think the state wouldn’t go that far? But this is exactly the position that eunuchs have occupied for years. Because the state doesn’t recognise the existence of a third gender—there is no box marked ‘other’ next to the ones marked ‘male’ and ‘female’—to be a eunuch is to be less than human. Members of the third sex cannot vote, cannot legally marry, cannot adopt children and cannot inherit certain kinds of family property. It’s a high price to pay for choosing to be neither masculine nor feminine; as a hijra I know says bitterly, they are the living punchlines of the old joke about Sanskrit acknowledging the existence of three sexes: streeling, puling and mind-boggling.

The aravanis, or eunuchs, of Tamil Nadu want to change this. The courts recently ruled that eunuchs have a right to vote—but they must make a choice, ticking either the ‘male’ or the ‘female’ box. The aravanis aren’t satisfied: in a petition filed last week, they have asked the courts and the Indian state to recognise the existence of a third gender.

What the third sex wants is merely the rights most of us take for granted. They want the right to elect the leaders of our country. They want the right to have their partners recognised, arguing that if a marriage is considered the union of souls as well as bodies, then they certainly qualify. They want the right to adopt children: while they may lack the ability to give birth, they do not lack the ability to nurture and love children.

If the petition is accepted, then the decision to enfranchise eunuchs, to see “them” as “us”, as equal citizens, could open the door to many other groups. It could underline the growing awareness that gender and sexual choices are up for grabs, that instead of two genders, we might have a loose coalition of sexual tribes that differentiate themselves from each other by adopting different customs, choices and rituals.

But what reason is there for treating eunuchs as though they were not persons at all? In terms of intelligence, moral awareness, an ability to experience emotion, eunuchs do not differ from the rest of us. It may seem aberrant to the conservative that anyone would choose a third path that goes beyond the dualities of masculine and feminine. But it is monstrous that to make that choice is to be seen, legally, as something less than human.

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