Shanoor Seervai interviews Laxmi Narayan Tripathi on “the ancient legacy and contemporary struggles of hijras” in Guernica:
In the minds of most Indians, a hijra is an annoyance. A man with long hair, typically dressed in a sari, who seems to always and miraculously know when a child is being born or a wedding taking place. A hijra arrives just in time to beg, and if you don’t acquiesce, you will be cursed. The same hijra waits at traffic lights and peers into the windows of stopped cars, once again to ask for money. Hijras, who can be trans, intersex, or eunuchs, were historically revered in ancient India, but over the past two centuries, have become one of the country’s most misunderstood and marginalized communities. Other Indians often won’t speak to them, but will instead pass on a string of unsubstantiated myths relating to the group, spawning prejudice generation after generation. Anthropologists have tried in the last few decades to study hijras, but there is almost no literature about the community from within.
In recent years, however, one hijra, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, has made it her mission to fill this silence. As India began to grapple with HIV in the 1990s, she was one of the earliest activists to demand that the government’s anti-AIDS program include hijras as a distinct category. Tripathi first traveled outside India in 2006 to attend the World AIDS Conference in Toronto and has since become a familiar face at the UN and other international forums on HIV. Her nonprofit, Astitva, aims to support and empower hijras in her home city of Thane, just outside Mumbai. And in 2012, she published an autobiography in Marathi; its English translation was released in February of 2015. The title, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, is meaningful in both languages—me, pronounced “mee,” is Marathi for “I am.”
Tripathi also played a key role in the movement in India to recognize transgender people as members of a third gender on official government documents. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that “it is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” granting legal sanctity to a gender classification that is neither male nor female, but a neutral third category. In India’s most recent federal elections, hijras and other transgender people were permitted to publicly declare their gender identities when voting.