Bad Hijras vs Good Trans and the Delusional Trans Utopia

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Satya Rai Nagpaul’s article “Promised Empowerment of trans people and the new dealers of a false liberty” moves along two tracks. The first is a critique of the NGOisation of trans politics, especially in the context of new global funding and the other is an argument about the need to “reimagine foundational ideas of gender and sex.” The two tracks barely meet in the article. The move from one to the other is marked by the seemingly innocent phrase at the beginning of a paragraph -“In the meantime.”

There is a false dichotomy in these two tracks which I address in two ways. I argue a) that the “trans utopia” where we are asked to “re-imagine foundational ideas of gender and sex” is as much a part of the NGOisation process (and its lingo) that is criticised in the article and b) that the understanding of sex, gender and sexuality in this trans utopia is not just wrong-headed, it is dystopic (rather than utopic) in its disavowal of both psyche and history. Further, Nagpaul creates another dichotomy between hijras and trans people, with both adversarial and counterproductive results.

Bad Hijras vs. Radical Trans

Let’s begin with the last point. The “In the meantime” is not innocent because it sets up a good trans people vs. bad NGO/ill-informed, duped hijra community dichotomy. Hijras are being used by NGOs, they lack agency altogether in Nagpaul’s account. Hijras are merely third gender while trans are radical people who believe in the self-identification of gender and de-linking of sex and gender. Hijras are holding up and blocking this radical transformation ushered in by trans people. They, and the government (in the same breath), are asked to “acknowledge the different genealogies and ontologies of transmasculine, non-traditional trans feminine and intersex lives”, or “we (who is this we?) stand to lose a political moment of freeing up both gender and sex from their conventional burdens.”

This deeply insensitive account of hijras – the denial of their agency, of their own belief (not self-appointedly radical) in self-identification or the de-linking of sex and gender, the blaming of them for blocking the trans utopia and finally the placing of the onus on them to suspend their extremely difficult lives and understand the “genealogies and ontologies” (never mind of these two ill-digested theoretical terms contradict each other) of the lives of other minorities within minorities that they are apparently suppressing – is nothing short of shameful.

Class/caste privileged trans

This brings me back to my first point. Who are these minorities within minorities? What is their class/caste origin? Where do they get their language from? It is clear that these are upper-class, upper-caste English-speaking, US-watching trans people.

The very word ‘trans’ comes from there. How are these people different from the NGOs who use this language to make their money? All the terminologies used by Nagpaul come from the US and have percolated down to us from NGOs and US-based social media. How is this looking down on hijras any different from NGOs who use them for their own ends?

Urban, upper class, upper caste trans activists have been grafting this US language, US concerns and US arrogance onto the LGBT movement here for some time now. Their privilege allows them disproportionate amounts of space and their articulations are abrasive and deeply insensitive. A good example of this is whose name gets on the Standing Committee on the Transgender Bill – an upper class, upper caste trans person and not any of the hijras who also deposed before it.

The delusional trans utopia

Which leads to my second point. What is this trans utopia? Where does the naivete of thinking one is the sole author of one’s own sex, gender, identity, identification and sex come from, if not from the “neoliberal capitalist” US times we live in, that Nagpaul claims to critique? The very idea of “choice”, a free market idea if ever there was one, that we “have a right to the social gender of our choice” is delusional and denies both psychic formation and the historical.

Identification, an idea from psychology and particularly psychoanalysis is not a matter of simple free will or choice. We are all bound in larger structures that prefigure and constitute our identifications. The very fancy, if lumbering, terms that Nagpaul uses – transmasculine, non-traditional transfeminine and intersex – are all caught in the very binaries that trans politics is said to miraculously and utopically escape. Freedom from foundational ideas of sex and gender is not achieved by a sleight of hand or the wand of linguistic fiat.

Gender dysphoria may be real but it is also historical and not only trans people suffer it. All of us work with the categories given to us by history and experience them disjunctively, whether gay or lesbian, bisexual or the much-maligned, mythical category cis, whether woman or man. We may exceed these categories, they may not speak to us clearly given our colonial histories and locations and we are often much less than these categories. Gender categories and gender dysphoria have histories and we are part of them in indelible ways.

The way forward

The first step is to acknowledge that history and its power over us, acknowledge the Symbolic and its categories and their power over us. Then, we slowly battle the sedimentations history, the Symbolic and its categories seek to impose on us all. We battle these sedimentations with the possibilities that that very history, that very Symbolic, those very categories also open up for us. The Symbolic is not written in stone yet escaping it is not simply deciding that one has escaped it. It is slow, hard work and the first step is to acknowledge our implications in that history, those categories.

Hijras are the best examples of an honest recognition of history and complicity in psychic formation with categories that throttle us. Nagpaul’s desire to free trans people from them and balloon into the sky of foundational reimaginings may say more about trans anxieties and gendered self-hatred than anything else.

The fantasy of a self-defined and freely chosen gender world is the product of a neoliberal, US imagination. It produces grist for academia, the NGO world and other markets and mills, both in the US and globally, given that the US is the global hegemon. But it is a fantasy and building one’s sense of self and one’s politics out of it is foolish.

We (and the we and us of this article is everyone, but especially those disadvantaged by the Symbolic and its graded hierarchies) have to fight the altogether more mundane and every day and violent and terrifying fights with our own psychic investments and against those who deny us dignity, fights that hijras and many others, including trans people, fight daily.

Creating hierarchies of minorities within minorities is not helpful. Seeing how others are trapped and struggling against the gendered formations we are all in; seeing, more importantly, how we cleave and lean on these formations ourselves, often precisely as we disavow them, will show us solidarity, contradiction and complicity, things we are made of. We have to fight that fight together, not play the game of competing marginalities and disavowals of who we are historically and psychically based on fantasies of our own radicalism and supposed freedom to be who we are.

Ashley Tellis

Ashley Tellis is an LGBT rights activist and an academic