Recently, I attended the 2015 Philadelphia Trans Health Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, PA. Sponsored by the Mazzoni Center, the conference is an annual gathering of transgender people, service providers, activists, and allies. Organizers anticipated a turnout of roughly 5,000 attendees this year, according to the Philadelphia Gay News.
I had the pleasure of manning a table on behalf of my workplace this year, as I did in 2014. At a time when transphobia is very much alive, especially among the Religious Right, it gladdens me that welcoming spaces exist for the transgender community.
The conference was a veritable United Nations of transgender persons and allies. People of all ages and races walked the halls of the convention center, and visitors from the U.S., Thailand, India, and South Africa were in attendance.
When not tabling or wolfing down great food at the Reading Terminal Market, I attended some of the many workshops offered at the conference. Healing Our Communities: The Residential School Experience and Intergenerational Trauma discussed the experiences of Two-Spirit children at Indian residential schools. Sadé Ali (Heart of the Hawk), treasurer of the East Coast Two Spirit Society and senior associate at the Altarum Institute, provided an overview of the history of Indian residential schools in the U.S. and Canada.*
At many residential schools, staff subjected Native American children to systematic ethnocide, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and forced labor, the effects of which reverberated through the children's lives and their descendants' lives. Residential school staff also forced Two-Spirit children, who occupied a place of honor in their native cultures, to suppress their gender identities.
After Ali spoke, a woman described her own experiences with one of the last Indian residential schools, including her two years in the LDS Indian Placement Program. Before the workshop, I didn't know that the LDS church had fostered Native youth in a (rather manipulative) effort to bring them into Mormonism.
I also attended two workshops on India's hijra community, Lives of HIV-Positive Transgender in India and Beyond the Gender Binary. Through the workshops, I learned a great deal about the struggles of India's transgender and hijra communities, as well as the trans-inclusive efforts of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance.
The former workshop shared the following NDTV news story on hijras and kothis to give attendees a snapshot into India's gender diversity.
The latter workshop shared a segment from the Indian talk show Satyamev Jayate, in which host Aamir Khan interviews a hijra named Simran Shaikh. The interview takes place from the 46:05 mark to the 55:30 mark and features English subtitles.
In India, not all transgender women are hijras, I learned. Rather, a hijra is a transgender woman who lives in community with other hijras under a guru and takes part in that community's ceremonies and traditions. Some transgender women choose to join the hijra community, while others do not.
Despite their long history in India and their status as bestowers of blessings, hijras still endure ostracization, discrimination, and violence due to transphobia. Some engage in prostitution to survive, since education and employment opportunities are often closed to them. However, many transgender and hijra Indians are striving for equality, determined to take part in the educational system, the work force, and politics.
One hijra in attendance shared a harrowing story from her youth, in which she was raped by her uncle and beaten by her father when she disclosed the abuse. When she sought medical care after the assault, the hospital turned her away, and the police insulted her and refused to file a report. She finally received medical treatment at a private medical facility, where she was forced to pay far more for care than she would have at the hospital.
Soon thereafter, she joined a hijra community under the authority of a guru, although she kept in touch with her mother through a shopkeeper who knew her family. When her mother urged her to seek higher education, her guru flatly refused, insisting that hijras are only supposed to dance, sing, and give blessings. Many hijra gurus are cherished mentors and friends, but this particular guru ostracized the speaker when she sought an advanced education. The speaker eventually finished her education and found a satisfying career, and she concluded her talk by passionately defending the fundamental dignity of transgender and hijra persons.
Despite ubiquitous transphobia, transgender persons across the globe continue to demonstrate resilience and live their own truth. That resilience was on display at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, where attendees called for equality in their own voices. Slowly, beautifully, these voices are shouting down the voices of hate.
* To learn more about the legacy of Indian boarding schools, visit the websites of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Our Spirits Don't Speak English is a heartbreaking documentary featuring interviews with residential school survivors.
To learn more about Two-Spirit persons in Native American and First Nations cultures, two useful books on the subject are Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality and Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America.