I’m not confused, I’m just well mixed. – Robert Frost
It’s 2021, and it’s Pride Month again. A recent Madras High Court judgement typed out a bunch of guidelines which lucidly tell government organisations how to respond to individuals who belong to the community, and also spoke out against dangerous and harmful procedures like conversion therapy which try to “cure” people. It was very warm, and accepting, and a step in the right direction.
The judgement comes right in time for Pride, and is long overdue. It is unfortunate that our society, one that’s rich with a very diverse cultural heritage, is only now being accepting of people who don’t conform with conventional gender norms. And that is what this article is all about. I’m going to go back to before the British came along, and show you how beautiful and ethereal and rich it was to be Indian.
What is masculinity? What is femininity? And how is it different from the terms male or female?
While the latter is based on pure biology, the former is a lot more nuanced, and has more to do with a person’s innate nature. I’ll try to define it for you, except, I’d like to do so by first disclaiming that what I’m going to say these terms mean is largely driven by what history and social conventions have chosen to perceive these terms as.
Masculinity is physical strength, and anger, and big billowing muscles and military generals and every other emotion that these words evoke. At the same time, femininity is gentle, and soft, and caring, and motherly, etc. While being masculine is to hide pain, and not cry and be strong, femininity is to let your emotions flow from you like a river that does not stand still.
We often confuse what we wish for with what is. – Neil Gaiman
We’ve all grown up in a society which has chosen to tie what these two words mean to the sex you’re assigned at birth. They tell you it’s fixed, and unchangeable, and so we have a ruinous spate of words that associate femininity with weakness and fragility, labels that tell you that you’re crying like a girl, while masculinity is associated with a certain toxic rigidity that labels you and tells you to man up.
All of these stereotypes are narrow, and problematic.
I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman
All of us feel things. And sometimes we choose to hide them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some situations demand that we behave in a masculine way, while others allow us more freedom to feel. We’re all embodied by some certain combination of the two terms. Unfortunately society has picked us up and dropped us into boxes, out of which we find it hard to climb.
When the British ships first washed ashore, India had a very progressive (ironical, yes) conception of what sexuality meant, which is with whom you would involve yourself romantically, and what gender identity meant, which is what you identify with yourself. If I am born a man, but identify as a woman, it does not necessarily mean I am transgender, it simply means I am more comfortable identifying as a woman.
In the exact same manner, you could identify as neither, or as both at the same time. All of these varied forms of gender identity were an integral part of Indian culture and heritage, and today there is a recognised gender identity for these gender non-conforming people, termed non-binary or genderqueer. We have references like Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, or the Quran itself, along with various sources of Urdu poetry. Hindu stories from 4000 BC speak of both sexual relations as well as gender identity being fluid. Shiva’s Ardhanarishvara form is one example. Similarly, there are stories of men who would express their love for Krishna with explicit eroticism. The Khajuraho temples have very clear sculptures of homosexual relationships. Additionally, contrary to popular opinion, hijras and eunuchs, had high positions in society, with some of them in Mughal courts acting as emissaries between men and women. History tells us of male Rajputs who would dress up in feminine clothing, to embrace their femininity. Arjuna in the Mahabharata was widely considered to be gender-fluid as well. Or even Vishnu’s feminine embodiment as Mohini.
And then, there were the British.
With the dual and binary perception of their society, they found it hard to reconcile with the fluid gender expansiveness of the Indian peninsula, and they enacted legislation to curtail it. It started with the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 which marked all hijras, which could broadly include transgender people, intersex people, as well as gender non-conforming individuals as criminal. Similar laws followed, and somewhere along the way, we internalised these perceptions, rejecting what we once were to imitate our once colonial masters.
I was just stock in the middle, vague and undefined. – Sarah Dessen
We’re slowly finding our way back, but it’s taking time. It’s taking a lot longer than it should. While in urban settings it’s still a little easier to embrace your queerness, or to see that there’s more to the conversation, it’s not the same everywhere else.
I could grow out my hair, and be called a girl, and not have a problem with it because I’m comfortable being this version of myself, hovering in between, but the very fact that I have the opportunity as well as the seclusion to explore my identity indicates a certain privilege that only some small tiny percentage of the country have. For various people in corners of our nation, it’s impossible to understand why they’re feeling things that others don’t. Most of them choose to simply shut down these thoughts. The ones that embrace them, are ridiculed, more often than not by social exclusion.
I am here; and here is nowhere in particular.– William Golding
But as I said earlier, we’re slowly moving closer to finding ourselves again – embracing and being accepted in a society that’s slowly moving away from its colonial legacy, finding our way back home. Happy Pride!
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*