Between Aid Conditionality and Identity Politics – The MSM-Transgender Divide and Normative Cartographies of Gender vs. Sexuality: Aniruddha Dutta
This guest post by ANIRUDDHA DUTTA continues a theme raised on Kafila by Rahul Rao
Late last year, the UK and US governments made announcements supporting the global propagation of LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) rights as human rights, suggesting that the future disbursal of aid might be made conditional on how LGBT-friendly recipient countries are perceived to be. The potential imposition of ‘gay conditionality’ on aid has been rightly critiqued for imposing a US/European model of sexual progress on ‘developing’ countries, which may justify covert geopolitical agendas and fail to actually benefit marginalized groups. But whatever form such conditionalities may take in the future, a more implicit and routine form of aid conditionality has been already at work, relatively unnoticed, for several years now – the presumption of distinct and enumerable minorities corresponding to categories like homosexual or transgender as target groups for aid in socio-cultural contexts where gender/sexual variance may not be reducible to such clear-cut categories or identities. Increasingly, community-based organizations (CBOs) working to gain gender/sexual rights or freedoms need to define themselves in accordance with dominant frameworks of gender-sexual identity to get funding both from foreign donors and the Indian state, creating identity-based divisions among CBOs and presenting existential challenges to communities that do not exactly fit these categories.
Through the past decade, India has seen a booming growth of NGOs working for ‘sexual minorities’, especially in the sector of HIV-prevention, funded both through the Indian state and foreign donors such as the UK’s DFID (Department for International Development). While this has facilitated the “coming out” of queerness in the media, civil society, and state policy, it has also created a normative script for identity and recognition through implicit and explicit aid conditionalities through which ‘sexual minorities’ get funded. Even as the Indian government has hesitated to support the decriminalization of same-sex relations, the Indian health ministry is actively involved in funding health-based interventions for gender-sexually variant people – especially for those born male (though not necessarily identifying as such), seen as being at high risk for HIV-AIDS. (Queer women and female-born transpersons are left out of HIV-AIDS funding, supposedly not at high risk – a problem that needs separate exposition elsewhere). This article will focus on a spectrum of male-born gender/sexually variant persons and communities for whom the health ministry and the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) mediate foreign aid for HIV-AIDS prevention, influencing not only whether their sexual/gender variance is to be decriminalized and politically recognized, but also how it is to be recognized.
A binary framework
What forms of identification are being legitimized through this process, and what forms of identity/behavior are not? While previously all funding for ‘sexual minorities’, including for ‘third gender’ hijras, was disbursed through interventions for ‘MSM’ (men-who-have-sex-with-men or males-who-have-sex-with-males), now the health ministry and NACO have started separating sexual health interventions into MSM and TG (male-to-female transgender) categories, as announced in the NGO world and mentioned in at least one media report. Herein lies a story, for both MSM and TG categories, in the way they are currently conceptualized, carry normative ideas of gender/sexual identity, ultimately based on a binary man-woman divide. The MSM-TG division may not only exclude people who do not ‘fit’ these labels, but also splinter existing marginalized communities of gender/sexually variant people into narrow identitarian groups. This particularly affects communities and community-based organizations in non-metropolitan and rural areas, which are more dependent on such funding than metropolitan middle class LGBT groups.
In the new funding regime that is increasingly getting standardized, the two broad legitimized categories for male-born people are MSM/gay/homosexual (men desiring men) on one side and male-to-female transgender on the other, where TG is commonly glossed as those identifying as or desiring to be women. Hijras are either seen as a subset of TG or a closely linked group (see this 2008 UNDP report for emerging MSM-TG divisions and this 2009 report for emerging definitions of TG). These reports mark a shift from common perceptions where homosexuality and gender variance have often been seen as closely related, if not the same thing – witness the widespread stereotyped equation between gayness and effeminacy in the media. This association was implicit in state policy as well; one of the primary sub-categories of MSM in India under the third phase of the National AIDS Control Program (NACP-III, 2007-12) was the ‘kothi’, a complex and ambiguously-bordered category used in lower class community networks and hijra groups, which NACO defines as “males who show varying degrees of femininity” (see document on high-risk groups available here). However, increasingly, the government, its funders and larger NGOs have become very interested in distinguishing exactly who among gender-sexually variant people are really ‘transgender’ (commonly defined as ‘female/women’ in a male body), and who are really ‘men having sex with men’ (increasingly narrowing MSM from its former inclusion of all biological maleness into a gendered category for ‘men’). While the MSM category focused mainly on sexual behavior, ‘transgender’ allows for gender identity and gender-based discrimination to be factored into funding policy: which is certainly a positive development. However, if MSM and TG are understood in simplistic terms as mutually exclusive and separable identities/communities (rather than flexibly overlapping terms), it creates a restrictive binary cartography or framework for identification in the same old societal mould that is being contested, involving the question of who is really a ‘man’ (albeit a same-sex desiring one), and who is really a (trans) ‘woman’.
Such an MSM-TG division can have wide-ranging and divisive effects on organizations and communities that in practice have been flexibly overlapping. It threatens to split marginalized communities and networks into separately funded, competing groups – communities where, as a PhD student/researcher, I have observed a complex spectrum of ‘masculine’ to ‘feminine’ identified people. This could include people who identify as (trans)women or hijra, people who identify as feminine males (using terms like kothi, dhurani, gay), people who switch between identities and gender presentations, people who don’t identify as anything at all but still participate in such networks/communities, people who identify only during specific occupations such as dancing at festivals or sex work, and so on. However, to fall into the ambit of government-funded AIDS interventions now, one has to be classified as either MSM or TG. Moreover, it is sometimes stipulated that a single community-based organization (CBO) cannot have both MSM and TG people, as seen below in an empanelment call for CBOs by the State AIDS Control Society in Bengal in 2011, which asked for TG-exclusive CBOs:
Fig.1 WBSAPCS Empanelment Call (excerpts)
Like the above call for CBO empanelment, several national coalitions of NGOs too increasingly ask member organizations to identify as working with either MSM or TG communities, or at least to sub-divide their population into precisely enumerated ‘MSM’ and ‘TG’ sub-groups. To many small non-metropolitan CBOs, this has posed problems. Working with a complex community spectrum ranging from ‘feminine’ males to transwomen, they have to now classify themselves as either MSM or TG to the state, and/or have to sub-divide their population into this binary framework for other foreign-funded projects such as the Global Fund-aided Project Pehchan. This causes confusion regarding the ‘correct’ term to identify with, and anxiety about the potential to miss out on funding if the representation is not consistent. In some cases, the process of arriving at a ‘correct’ and acceptable representation for the state has caused delays in achieving funding, even as people died for lack of HIV-AIDS related services in the area. For instance, Sangram, a CBO in mid-North Bengal, was not able to get HIV funding for several years between 2006 and 2011, despite an estimated nine AIDS-related deaths in their district during the period. First told that they did not have enough sexual minority population in the area, there was further delay over whether they were to be empanelled as a TG organization or as an MSM one. CBO representatives even wondered whether they were expected to put on particular attire or present themselves in a particular way (either more or less ‘feminine’) in order to be perceived as ‘authentically’ TG or MSM by representatives of the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society. Finally, after being empanelled during the TG empanelment process, they were given an MSM project. Meanwhile, at least two people with AIDS died in the area.
These hurdles of representation further worsen the bureaucratic hassles with funding that routinely hamper state-funded MSM/TG intervention projects – including long gaps between funding cycles, months-long delays in getting staff salaries, and corruption or misappropriation of funds at higher administrative levels of state AIDS control bodies (as exposed by this report from West Bengal). Just as importantly, the imposition of identity stipulations also adds to a hierarchical, exploitative system where community-level workers (especially peer educators, the foot soldiers of HIV-AIDS prevention) are paid less than minimum wage salaries (usually ‘honoraria’ of less than Rs. 2000 per month), as this report from Karnataka attests. Meanwhile, their ‘partners’ in metropolitan NGOs and funding organizations enjoy far more generous salaries and commensurate social recognition, further exacerbating class and experiential divides.
The arrival of transgender
This is not to deny the importance of the entry of transgender into policy, which was a necessary development. There is not enough space here to offer a detailed history of how TG became a funded category. But briefly, one way in which TG entered state and funders’ policy was due to activists’ demands to revise the funding regime to address gender issues more effectively – as shown during national and regional consultations among NGO leaders conducted by UNDP (the United Nations Development Programme) in 2008 and 2009. The third phase of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP-III) designed targeted interventions for ‘MSM’, and marked MSM/TG as a singular entity. The subsumption of all groups under the epidemiological and behavioral label MSM neglected gender-based discrimination and violence, and marked sexual health as the overarching issue. Thus all male-born ‘sexual minorities’ were reductively seen as biological males (though not necessarily ‘men’), and interventions primarily addressed the risks of unprotected male-male sexual behavior. Quite justifiably, activists demanded that interventions should recognize those not identifying as males, and criticized MSM interventions for failing to address gender issues and discrimination. TG emerged as the umbrella term to accommodate gender variance, and newer NGO networks such as the Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal sought to explicitly deal with gender discrimination: again, a laudable development. This was parallel to the political demand to add ‘other’ as an option in the census and other government documentation, opening up the parameters of official identity beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ – also an urgent and necessary demand.
However, rather than the reform and expansion of existing MSM interventions to better accommodate the gender variance of their target communities and address gender discrimination, TG soon became conceptualized as a separate identity and a competing funded group. This separation creates a new problem where the recognition of gender variance is effectively reduced to the sex-gender binary of male/female (homosexual males vs. transwomen). Indeed, ‘gender’ (transgender) and ‘sexuality’ (homosexuality) themselves become conceptualized separately, with gender variance becoming primarily the province of TG identity/activism (as David Valentine has argued about the gay-transgender divide in the US context). This does not address gender variance within existing MSM interventions – making MSM itself into a narrowly gendered term – and confines gender-based anti-discrimination work to TG projects/interventions. Moreover, once TG is opposed to MSM as a separate identity, rather than seen as an overlapping category that can be strategically used to address gender-related issues affecting a variety of persons, its scope is reduced to cover only a very narrow script of transgender identity. As I describe below, for male-born people, TG often gets circumscribed as per conformity with cultural femininity and may establish what Ricki Wilchins has called a ‘hierarchy of legitimacy’ where some are more ‘authentically’ TG than others. And of course, there is no mention of caste/class issues in both the older and newer funding regimes, even though MSM-TG communities who rely on such funding are often lower-middle to lower class, which is crucial to understanding and mobilizing from their social situation.
The dangers of unitary identification
Although the MSM/TG divide now exists on paper and within funding mechanisms, in practice attempts to produce a separate, clearly demarcated or unified transgender identity have run into problems and not resulted in any consensus. A news article in Bangalore claims that most TGs want to be identified as ‘female’ (and not ‘other’ or ‘transgender’) on official forms. But another Hyderabad-based report states that some TG-identified people complain about being forced to identify as ‘female’, and indeed want to identify as ‘other’. While in the first case an NGO activist claims that the ‘majority of TGs’ want to be women-identified, in the second case the local NGO is disappointed with those identifying as ‘female’, and politically favors that TGs should identify as ‘other’. Both the articles want to seek out a majority and a singular definition of TG – which risks marginalizing any ‘minority’ section that does not fit whatever the ‘right’ definition of ‘transgender’ is supposed to be in that particular NGO or community. The absurdity of the attempt is compounded by the fact that ‘transgender’ is a relatively new term even in English, and is obviously unfamiliar to a lot of lower or lower/middle class gender-sexually variant communities.
The dangers of basing official recognition or service provision on unitary identities is well demonstrated by the case of gender variant people who have encountered life-threatening problems due to having a combination of ‘male’ and ‘female’ listed on different forms – like the case of Bini, a hijra community member who couldn’t get easily admitted to hospitals in Kolkata because of having her sex listed differently in different forms (see this report in the Bengali media). Proposing ‘female’ or ‘other’ as a unitary identity for all ‘transgenders’ might not solve but actually compound this problem, given that many community members already have ‘female’ or ‘male’ on different forms, and unless they change all forms of identification to achieve one consistent identity, they might still be denied services on account of not being ‘properly’ transgender, unambiguously ‘other’. The demand for unitary and consistent identity, associated with middle class civil society and citizenship, might therefore be detrimental to communities lower down societal and organizational rungs. A better strategy seems to be to dissociate essential governmental and health services from sex-gender unless it is medically relevant, and/or to promote and permit flexible identification on a personal and case-by-case basis – which is challenging on a logistical level, yet perhaps crucial for long-term change.
Separation and overlap
On the level of organized HIV prevention and human rights work, an MSM-TG separation would make some sense where communities have formed along a masculinized gay identity (men-desiring-men), encouraged by the ubermasculine culture of gay porn which has little space for gender variance, or by the online culture of popular gay dating sites in India like www.planetromeo.com where injunctions like “no feminine guys please” are common on many personal profiles. Such communities, organized around a normatively masculine gay identity (partially in response or reaction to the effeminate gay stereotype), would indeed not have much space for gender variance and for femme, genderqueer, transgender, kothi, male-to-female transsexual (etc.) people. (For instance, certain well-known urban gay groups have been known to explicitly forbid cross-dressing in their events.) In such contexts, it is not my aim to advocate some anodyne homosexual-transgender unity (such as that signified by increasingly commoditized and banal images like the ‘rainbow’ LGBT flag), which would only serve to disguise the privilege and all-too-common transphobia of many masculine men-who-have-sex-with-men, whether gay-identified or not. Such a plastic ‘queer’ or LGBT unity might prevent rather than create the proverbial ‘safe space’ for those who really need it.
However, in most small towns and villages in Eastern India where I have worked over the last five years, networks and communities have not grown around such a rigid gay vs. transgender identity split, perhaps partly because it is not conventionally masculine-identified people who have been at the core of such spaces. Rather, there is a spectrum of gender variant persons spread between formal hijra gharanas (clans/groups) on one end, and loose cruising (sexual) networks on the other. In response to social stigma or abuse, such persons come together at cruising spots, parks, roadside haunts, and slowly with institutionalization, CBO offices. There are also occupational networks among people who do sex work (khajra), beg in trains (chhalla), or perform as launda dancers (cross-dressed dancing during festivals or marriages, primarily in UP/Bihar). There is a range of terms used to describe gender/sexually variant persons in these networks – kothi, dhurani, moga, launda, and of course, hijra – which describe a gender spectrum that cannot be neatly divided into the two sides of gay/homosexual men vs. male-to-female transgender. During NACP-III, NACO tried to designate these complex community networks under the MSM sub-group kothi, reductively defining kothi as ‘feminine’ males who take the penetrated position in sex, even while noting there are ‘varying degrees of femininity’ among them.
But even while the NACO and HIV interventions tried to stabilize this definition of the kothi, subcultural usages have remained more internally varied and flexible. Kothi is often locally translated and allied to terms like dhurani, meyeli purush (feminine male), and launda (in Bihar and UP). People might switch between labels or have ambivalent//plural identities across seasons or life stages – like many male-attired dhurani/kothis who cross-dress as laundas or transition to hijras – and moreover, there is no strict segregation between different kinds of people. There are some who cross-dress only occupationally, and talk of themselves as ‘effeminate males’, while others might see themselves as women all through, using metaphors like women-in-male-body – all within the same community without a strict spatial demarcation separating the (‘feminine’) males from the (trans) women. Metaphors like being a ‘woman inside’ which designate fixed identities co-exist with behavior-based classifications like ‘pon’ – tonnapon (masculine-behaved), niharinipon (feminine-behaved) – which permit transitions. This is not queer utopia – much of the fluidity is prompted by survival and occupational needs, and there might be tensions between those who are more fluid (e.g. laundas, sex workers) and those who have a more fixed identity (e.g. senior hijra gurus). However, there are also many friendships and kinships (e.g. sisterhood) among different people, facilitating identity switches and overlaps. (To an extent, this is true even in metropolitan communities where the aforementioned gay-TG divide is clearer). But instead of encouraging friendships and already existent kinship structures, the MSM-TG separation tends to divide community networks and build upon tensions.
Ghettoization and transphobia
Just as the emerging gay/TG divide in urban communities, stricter than their previous loose overlap, discourages boundary-crossings and perpetuates femme-phobia and transphobia, the identity politics around MSM-TG separation, linked to aid conditionality, might have similar effects in non-metropolitan communities. For instance, in West Bengal there have been intra-community allegations about cross-dressers not being encouraged in some MSM CBOs. Conversely, as I observed in emerging TG interventions/projects, there may be pressures to fit into a normative idea of being TG in order to access organizational spaces and services. At a new TG intervention near Kolkata, I saw that too ‘MSM’ behavior was not encouraged, since it must look like a TG CBO (i.e. participants should look as much like women as possible). Derided by a peer for being actually MSM, a kothi who was not really TG, one young community member said s/he would go in for laser facial hair removal, which is probably not something that s/he could easily afford. Thus, evolving ideas of proper TG-ness based on ideals of femininity has potentially adverse mental health impacts on those who do not fit, just as gayness increasingly valorizes a normative masculinity with exclusive effects. Can chhallawali kothis (cross-dressed train beggars outside hijra gharanas) or laundas who often switch between public gender roles pass as ‘properly’ TG or ‘properly’ MSM? TG loses its radical potential for addressing gender variance among male-born persons once it is opposed to ‘MSM’ and aligned with some normative idea of being feminine, which simply cannot be afforded by many poorer community members. Moreover, instead of TG empowerment, such separation might result in a ghettoization of TG issues, such that MSM interventions could refuse to deal with the needs of gender variant people in their local community, which more often than not would have a gender spectrum including TG-identified people and hijras. This defeats the purpose of transgender activism by actually further preventing services for gender variant people, and by making CBOs accountable only to narrowly defined identities rather than the complex communities from which they have arisen. This is also dangerous as not all areas have both MSM and TG interventions. For example, a recent case concerns Sujata (name changed), an hijra living with HIV who is being looked after by a TG organization after being disowned by her hijra gharana, and thus can no longer move out of the TG organization’s area for occupational needs or demand services of MSM organizations elsewhere. Such divisions along gender lines also cancel potential class/caste solidarity among the spectrum of differently-gendered people.
Since many non-metropolitan communities did not form according to a gendered either/or binary between gay men/MSM and TGs, many CBOs are unsure about how to fit into this new identity politics. Often the MSM/TG division is locally understood as one between different kinds of kothis or dhuranis, rather than separate identities per se. Attempts to categorize these terms into the MSM-TG cartography have resulted in inevitable ironies – kothi is mapped as TG by a 2009 UNDP-funded report, but as MSM in interventions by NACO and Project Pehchan. While policy documents do not acknowledge this overlap explicitly, it exposes the absurdity of the assumption that one has to be either MSM or TG, or that MSM and TG can be neatly separated and demarcated. As one kothi-identified person remarked to me, “kothis not only get fucked but fuck too, so it is a controversial term”, gesturing at the crossover of feminized receptive roles and more ‘masculine’ penetrative ones within these communities. A narrow sense of TG thus might perform a restrictive representation of gender variant people that fails to address the complexity and internal variety of such communities.
Fig.2 Mapping ‘primary identities’ like kothi into the MSM-TG-hijra cartography (Operational toolkit for interventions under Project Pehchan)
To conclude, transgender is a strategically important category that directs HIV-AIDS funding for male-born gender variant people to political organizing, and corrects the narrowly epidemiological focus of MSM on sexual behavior – but only if it is kept open as a strategic umbrella term and not reduced to a bounded identity mutually exclusive with MSM. Overcoming such aid conditionality would necessitate solidarities across gay-kothi-launda-dhurani-moga-TG-hijra-etc. categories, including and beyond identifications such as ‘woman-in-male-body’ or ‘man-desiring-man’: flexible friendships and/or sisterhood against patriarchy open to both more ‘masculine’ folks who are part of gender variant networks on one hand, and hijras and transsexuals on the other.
Aniruddha Dutta is a PhD candidate in Feminist Studies and Development Studies at the University of Minnesota.