Here There Be Dragons
There was a big kerfuffle last week - perhaps you heard - where a prominent online feminist, perturbed over a call out about what her blog does and doesn’t cover, suggested it was responsibility of all the rest of us to “fill the gaps”. Now there were a lot of problematic things about her statement, and those have all been discussed elsewhere. But the one I’ve been thinking about the most (long before she wrote her post about it), and that’s received the least discussion, is the idea that “gaps” apparently exist only to be “filled”.
A few weeks back it occurred to me that I’d never seen a blog from an Indian trans* person. In fact, I almost never see any personal trans* narratives outside of North America and Europe…what I refer to as the online “trans community” is almost entirely comprised of western voices and stories. So with laptop in lap, laying in bed with cat curled up around my feet, I decided to rectify that. I decided I was going to “fill that gap”.
I spent maybe a couple hours on Google, searching out info about the Indian trans community. I found a couple personal blogs, mostly in disuse, from self-identified crossdressers. I found some news pieces about a prominent trans actress, whose story seemed very much like those of most western trans women I know. I found a couple community support sites, full of statistics and information, but no “voices” so to speak. And I found a lurid povertyporn pictorial depicting the lives of several hijras in Mumbai.
It was this last site that discomfited me. My first reaction was, of course, shock and dismay. Poor hijras! They live in terrible conditions and make their livings through sex work, and don’t even have the internet! Here was a gap I could fill. All I had to do was click on the little share widget in my bookmarks toolbar and I could disseminate these images across all of Tumblr (with attendant trigger warning of course because, you know, shocking!). I could probably gets hundreds of reblogs with all sorts of sensitive commentary like “oh how terrible” or “this is heartbreaking”.
I closed the window and put my computer aside, suddenly aware that hijras in Mumbai probably weren’t going to benefit from or care much about increased Tumblr exposure, no matter how many little hearts got clicked or how deeply sympathetic the reblogs. For starters, I couldn’t even trust these pictures; while I have no doubt the life of hijras is hard, what I was seeing was just a fraction of those lives…a series of photos the point of which was to evoke the reaction I was having. More importantly, I hadn’t been invited to this place. These were people’s lives and I was spying on them…plotting ways to insert myself into their narrative.
Is it too early to bring up the word colonialism? When I say (or type) it, I imagine a foppish Renaissance-era white dude pointing to a big blank spot on a map and saying “let’s find out what’s there and share it with the world!”* It’s hard to reconcile that image with myself - a slouchy woman in her pajamas with a laptop and a sleeping cat - but what else could you call what I was doing?
(* The key word here being “share”, because you can’t share something you don’t possess.)
As luck would have it, I have an even better example than my own personal experience, though. Because last week the USian sitcom Outsourced (which I do not watch but hear terrible things about) introduced a hijra character into the storyline. And, of course, the USian LGTBQI watchdog group GLAAD had a few things to say. A few really fucked up things.
While it may not have been an ideal depiction*, the show’s introduction of hijra to a US audience at least opens the door for American audiences to learn more about a long-historied Indian cultural phenomenon and a vulnerable minority group fighting for legal recognition and protections in their home country**.
(* A less than “ideal depiction” of a western trans character would normally raise eyebrows and voices. I guess hijras are deserving of less outrage because they are exotic and mysterious and USians have to learn about them first before granting them dignity?)
(** Why exactly do we have to “learn more”?)
The Hindi word hijra refers to an identity that we would know as transgender in the West*, though that identity has a number of other names depending what language is being spoken.
* Is it really that simple? Thousands (not hundreds, as asserted by GLAAD)) of years of cultural identity is the equivalent of “transgender”, a word that’s been around a couple of decades?
…hijra are often believed to possess spiritual connections that bring good luck or allow them to bestow blessings upon occasions such as weddings or the birth of a child. This is somewhat parallel to the “two-spirit” identity that has been historically recognized by some Native American tribes*.
(* Seriously, we’re going to mash the cultures of two people together - even though they exist halfway around the world from each other - and pretend it’s not because of the color of their skin? Two-spirit is an identity barely known by those outside the cultures they exist in…this is like an infinite recursive feedback loop of othering.)
As you can see in this recent news report, the Indian media has started using the term transgender when referring the community, many of whom have adopted the same terminology*.
(* Clearly people aren’t allowed to have their own words. Such quaint traditions have no place in the world of seriousness! Everyone must all use the white, western (and often English) words for everything.)
This is by no means the definitive summary of hijra (or the Indian trangender community), who share a centuries old history and modern day political struggle which we encourage you to learn about further*.
(* Because having this knowledge will make you a better person, and will somehow make the lives of hijras better too. Once they figure out what words to use and whatnot, which only we can teach, obviously.)
I have no doubt that what Outsourced did was god awful. That GLAAD veritably praises them for creating a teachable moment is terrible. That they then went on to “fill the gap” with misinformation, overly simplistic reductions of hijra identity, and the superimposing and privileging of western ideology and language over that of ‘native’ people is, to my mind, recklessly malicious.
This is how we fill the gaps. We are decidedly uncomfortable with blank spaces on maps; we feel the irresistible need to rush in and paint those spaces, forgetting that the only brushes we have are our own. We social justice folks sometimes say things like “we need to make space for others” but the truth is, that space already exists…we don’t make anything - and believing that we do is incredibly privileged! - or even just leave it “as is”…we insert ourselves into it…we write over it…we make it ours.
We colonise it.