* Image above, hijras in Chennai, India, by Maciej Dakowicz.
I took my first full tour of the Global Village at the AIDS Conference here in Mexico City on Tuesday and truly found myself in a “global” community: Activists and organizers and artists from all corners of the world were manning booths, sitting in on talks and discussions, socializing, selling hand-made artisan jewelry, and drinking free little shots of tequila. On the stoop of a booth a few lovely Indian women in bright saris and make-up sat resting. I sat down and struck up a conversation. They were transgendered women, representing the culture of the hijra, or India's “third sex.”
“The main profession of the transgendered community in India is sex work, predominantly sex work,” said Agniva Lahiri, executive director of People Like Us, a shelter in Calcutta. “Imgaine a guy who is feminine in gender, from a very low income background, in India, highly populated, with very small job options, without any skills, education, so the available options for them, either go for sex work, or go for other cultural spaces.”
People Like Us provides HIV prevention and anti-discrimination support, said Lahiri, who studied English in Australia. Transgendered herself, she's been involved in HIV/AIDS-related work for a decade. “Most of these young boys, they're castrated. It's self-castration,” Lahiri told me. “It's a very cruel process.” They're a mystique around hijra, she added. They bless children, “give money,” and the mystique in many ways gives the women a unique social role in Indian society.
The women around her chatted among themselves in Bengali, talking eagerly about their first plane trip and their first trip to Latin America. They said their only other previous connection to Mexico was tequila. “It's really expensive” in India, Lahiri said.