By Boshika Gupta

There is a constant struggle to find dignity in death as in life in a eunuch’s world, explains Salma Khan, an idealistic 42-year-old activist, who agreed to meet me and offer me a glimpse into the lives of her highly stigmatized community in Mumbai, India.

Khan, with flowers in her hair, hennaed hands, and teardrop earrings, smiled easily at me, offering me refreshments on a rainy afternoon in July in a slum area nestled deep inside Ghatkopar. She runs the Kinnar Maa Trust from her office there, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of eunuchs in Mumbai.

“No one takes care of them,” said Khan, referring to the estimated six million eunuchs (also called hijras) in India. While most of them choose to opt for the lifestyle because they don’t feel like they belong, a select few are born as eunuchs. Families are generally scandalized by the turn of events and prefer to drive away the hijra once she comes of age, preferring to avoid associating themselves with her.  Even their funerals are held in the dark, away from prying eyes.

Photo by Whitney Lauren

In 2014, the Supreme Court in India passed a ruling that officially granted people from the transgender community legal status. This meant that a eunuch would be allowed to tick off a box that said the third gender instead of being forced to be identified as a woman or a man. This step had already been taken by other South Asian countries including Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

However, legal rights aside, there is a lot of prejudice attached to the community. Having a eunuch in the house is considered shameful and humiliating, a widespread truth that forces most eunuchs to leave home once they’re young adults, opting for a safety net among their own kind.

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Perhaps the mother is the hardest hit in the situation. She begs, pleads among her family members and makes a case for her child in most cases. Khan’s own mother shed countless tears as she realized one of her kids belonged to the world vastly different from the one she was raised in.  Born a eunuch, Khan grew up dancing and playing with members of the hijra community.

Her project, Kinnar Maa was started in 1999.  They work from a tiny office which has newspaper clippings on the wall, a portrait of an old patron who’s no more – she died of HIV years ago, a few tables and chairs, several photo albums and a prominent picture of well-known Indian transgender activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.

After the 2014 Supreme Court ruling, debates connected to the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in India surfaced. As of now, the divisive section 377 of the Indian penal code still exists, effectively criminalising “sex against the order of nature”, which is widely understood as gay sex in this context.  This is very much at odds with the transgender judgment that seeks to respect the rights of people from a marginalized community, allowing everyone to choose their own gender and identities. It however doesn’t grant the same freedom and respect to those coming out with a less common sexual orientation, causing a constitutional mess of sorts.

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In Singapore, gay sex is prohibited by law as well. As recently as July this year, LGBT activists held the annual Pink Dot rally with a significant difference. Only citizens and permanent residents were permitted to be at the event, which has seen more limitations. Foreigners were barred from voicing their support at the rally and couldn’t participate.

It is important to note that in India, the sexual orientation of eunuchs is mostly considered by the general public to be homosexual. In reality, a eunuch could subscribe to any sexual orientation and isn’t limited to any specific rule.  However, many eunuchs are forced to turn to prostitution to make a living – and this market is visibly dominated by men in India. Everything is thus essentially interconnected and chaotic.

Hijras in Mumbai have closely-knit groups scattered all over the city. According to Khan, many of them live in squalid conditions and are forced to share tiny homes among themselves with barely any space to breathe.  I asked Khan about the perpetual fight against the spread of HIV in the community. She acknowledged it as a pressing issue, adding that her volunteers offer counselling and insights into high-risk behaviour, distributing advice on condoms. She shared a dark murky truth – there are many instances of rape when a eunuch doesn’t have a choice, a moment to ask her attacker(s) to put on a condom and save herself from further harm.

Khan was accompanied by three other eunuchs from her organization that afternoon. One of them, Avannya, with kind eyes and a calm demeanour, spoke fluent English. One of the pet peeves that many people have with eunuchs is that they harass people for alms. Avannya said that when they even attempt to get a decent education that would serve as a gateway to good jobs; they must confront a host of challenges. At the forefront is bullying and being teased endlessly in schools and colleges for being who they are, being called names and cast away as outcasts.

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Khan got lucky when nuns took her in and encouraged her to finish her education. After a few hiccups and with a lot of grit, she went on to receive her master’s degree in social work.  However, the major game changer in her life was an accidental meeting with a battered eunuch who approached Khan for help on the streets. She got her abusers arrested but was forced to confront the reality of their situation when the cops suspiciously questioned the abused eunuch as well.

She went on to work for a number of organizations such as Dai Welfare Society and Humsafar Trust before helming Kinnar Maa, wanting to reach out on her own, have one on one sessions with hapless eunuchs and raise them up.  The name, Kinnar Maa is inspired from Khan’s equation with her own mother, who passed away decades ago, as an everlasting tribute.

Her story highlights an important, pressing point that’s often neglected. No matter our sexual orientation or gender identities, we deserve to be treated fairly – both by law and society. Dignity must be a fundamental right, and it shouldn’t come at a heavy price.