Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest Post: The unique community system followed by transwomen in Tamil Nadu, Southern India

Today's guest post comes from Susan Deborah of Meanderings and Reflections. Thank you so much for being here at our blog, Susan!

The unique community system followed by transwomen in Tamil Nadu, Southern India

The transgenders in India most of the times live as a community which has a family set-up. One transgender adopts the other and becomes the mother. A sum of Rs. 5. 50/- is paid to the jamath to adopt him. The word ‘jamath’ comes from the Urdu word which means ‘community.’ The transgender community follow certain systems of the Muslim community as years ago they imbibed the customs and patterns of the ruling Muslims in the Mogul period. The older transgender who adopts another is called the guru, which in Hindi translates as teacher. The adopted children are known as chelas which is translated as disciples. Once an individual is adopted by a transgender there is a certain obligation on the part of the ‘child’ towards her ‘mother’ or guru. Part of the earnings through dance performances or any other means like begging goes to the mother. Apart from monetary aspects there are other things that also operate in the ‘mother-child’ relationship. The mother is responsible for taking care of the welfare of the child, taking on the role of a biological mother whenever required. In a way, the guru or the ‘mother’ performs the ‘mother-role’ by arranging money for the sex-change operation and taking care of the post-operative needs of the child. The mother also advises the ‘child’ on the vile ways of the world and against forming any deep bonds with their ‘husbands’ who is referred to as the panthi in the transgender community.

Despite the fact that many ‘children’ do not stay permanently with their ‘mothers,’ they will always be known as the children of X transgender in X village or place. The children migrate to bigger cities in search of better economic prospects or they like to discover new places instead of remaining in a small village. Even though they live in a different pace, they visit their guru once in six months often bringing presents and money.

If you are interested in knowing more about the kinship, family, customs and traditions of transwomen in India, these two books contain a vault of research and information.

Books (Non-Fiction):

1. Reddy, Gayathri. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2006.

This book by Gayathri Reddy talks about transwomen (known as hijras in Hindi and Urdu) in Hyderabad, a city in Southern India. A group of hijras living near the railway station are extensively researched by Gayathri Reddy, an anthropologist from University of Illinois, California. A detailed description of the community life of the hijras is provided by the writer.

2. Nanda, Serena. Neither Man nor Woman. 2nd Ed. Canada: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.

This book by Serena Nanda, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is also quite similar to Reddy’s book but it talks about hijras from different parts of north India. An anthropological monograph, this book is an easy read which depicts the religion, rituals, biology and stories of hijras in India.


K. P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro: Our Family, a 56-minute Tamil (with English subtitles) documantary elucidates what it means to free oneself of the social construct of being male and explores life beyond a hetero-normative family.

Santhosh Sivan: Navarasa (Nine emotions) is a 2005 film. For more details you can visit:

Susan Deborah: Pandiammal’s Illam (Pandiammal’s home) is a 29-minute 2010 documentary made by the researcher during the course of her research in T. Kallupatti, a village in Southern India. If interested you can email the writer for copies. The documentary is the partial story of two transwomen Pandiammal and Mahalakshmi who talk about their life and times as a transwoman.

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Interview with David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl, has kindly taken some time out to answer a few questions about his book for me. The Danish Girl is about a transgendered painter, the first person to undergo a successful sex change operation. You can read my full review of The Danish Girl at The Zen Leaf. Thank you very much, David, for the interview!


1) In writing about a historical figure, what prompted you to change/fictionalize many of the details around Einar, especially with regards to his various friendships and relationships?

We know a lot about Lili Elbe, but there is much, much more we don’t know. I wanted to use fiction to write about her because I wanted to focus on her heart. Not her biological heart, of course, but the center of her emotions. We have many clues about her emotional life – her diary entries, her public statements, even Einar Wegener’s art – but they are only clues, not a complete mapping of what she felt across the years. And thus I turned to my imagination to fill in, especially with her relationships – for what better way to understand a person’s heart than to understand his or her relationships? Her most important relationship was her marriage to Gerda, whom I call Greta in the book. Every marriage or intimate relationship has what I think of as a black cave of privacy – a space known to only the two people in that relationship. I wanted to take the reader into that cave, to give the reader access to this extraordinary marriage. Yet the historical record simply does not provide enough details to show the reader what that space was really like and how these two remarkable people experienced it. In my view, this is the role of historical fiction: to fill in the holes of history. To imagine what might have been, or could be.

2) Why did you choose to represent Einar and Lili as dissociative personalities, rather than as two facets of one personality?

This is something we know about Lili: she thought of herself and Einar as two distinct people. She made this clear to everyone around her, at times even expressing disdain for him. In fact, after her surgeries, she proclaimed him to be dead. Einar was a successful and productive artist; for years he was always painting and showing his work. But Lili never painted. She claimed to have no interest in it nor any skill. This strikes me as both peculiar and telling: it’s a detail about her story that helps me understand her and how she viewed herself. This of course is different from how most transgender people today view themselves. Yet it is authentic to her story. In writing The Danish Girl I never intended to (nor did I think I ever could) represent the experience of all trans people. I only wanted to represent the emotional experience of one person.

3) One of the themes that comes up often in your book is the danger of knowledge. Einar's mental and physical health deteriorate as he learns more about the feminine side of himself, and even the advances in science that make his surgery possible eventually place his life in danger. What does this say about knowledge in general? Would Einar have been happier had he never tried on those stockings and opened up that part of himself?

When I write fiction I try not to answer questions like these, I simply try to raise them. I want my stories to highlight ambiguity and uncertainty, for what is life if not ambiguous and uncertain. Lili sought out medical help in order to save herself. On the other hand, the doctor whom she considered her savior also led her to her ultimate fate. Was he right to do so? Did Lili err in placing so much trust in him? I can’t answer those questions. I can simply ask them and let the reader ponder them.

4) You mention in an interview in the back of The Danish Girl that "there is a universality to Einar's question of identity." We all can be unsatisfied with who we are. Do you think that transgendered issues are a more extreme example of that dissatisfaction, or just a less accepted one?

Both. Many people look in the mirror and see what they want to change – the nose, the teeth, that little line around the mouth. Or they see what they don’t have. Last year I heard Serena Williams talk about burning calories on the tennis court because, as she said, “Every girl wants to lose five pounds.” I was stunned and fascinated – this kind of dissatisfaction from the number one tennis player in the world? From a woman with one of the most admired bodies on the planet? Yet this is how Serena sees herself and by sharing it with us we can understand her a little more. I’m not equating transgender issues to wanting to lose five pounds. Not at all. Yet I believe both come from the very human longing to be the truest version of oneself. We all want our outer selves to correlate to our inner selves so that the world can see us, and know us, for who we really are. This is universal. Of course transgender issues are less accepted and less understood than many, if not most, issues of identity. Yet this is changing (if slowly) in part because people are beginning to understand gender identity in these universal terms.

5) It's implied in the book that Einar's gender issues stem primarily from physical deformity. What if there had not been a physical deformity and Einar's gender confusion was entirely psychological/emotional? Do you think the character would have taken the same journey?

Your question points to one of the great beauties (and wonders) of reading. You find this implied in the book while others have found just the opposite. This goes back to ambiguity and uncertainty. Where did Lili come from? Was it from the fact that she was most likely intersex? Or was she the soul within Einar’s frame? Or is it a mysterious combination of both? A brew of biological, psychological, emotional, artistic, cultural, and historical circumstances that gave the world Lili Elbe? In The Danish Girl I wanted to ask these questions. I leave it to the reader to answer them – or to decide that these are the kinds of questions that will ultimately remain unanswerable.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Guest Post: Transgender Non-Fiction

Today's guest post comes from Cass at Bonjour Cass! Thank you for being with us, Cass!

Make sure to check at the bottom of this post for giveaway information!


When I was in high school, my mother and I would frequently have dinner at a local sit-down restaurant. My mom, who at the time was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer, had taken to wearing a cap to cover her baldness and wore sweat shirts and elastic waisted pants for comfort, but still had energy enough to go out for dinner. On our last visit to this particular restaurant, our waitress, a young, pleasant woman, seemed flustered after giving us our menus. Mom, who was quite shy herself, give her an encouraging smile, assuming the waitress was having a difficult evening. After a few endlessly awkward moments involving my mom trying to get the young woman to relax and the waitress staring blank-faced at her, the waitress asked, "Can I get you anything to drink, sir?"

This was my first (although certainly not my last) encounter with misgendering and incorrect pronouns. To be clear, my mother (who has since passed) was cisgender and did not identify as transgender, but due to her disease she was not immediately identifiable as a woman, at least to the waitress. She looked at my mother, saw a person with no hair and no breasts wearing an androgynous outfit and read my mother as being a man.

Each time we see someone, we read their appearance for gender cues, such as hair style and clothing; we then use these cues--consciously or subconsciously--to make an assumption about whether that person is a man or a woman. The hurt and pain my mother felt when the waitress used an incorrect pronoun is something that many trans men and women experience on a regular basis. (Note: A trans man is a person who was assigned female at birth but who identifies as a man, just as a trans woman is a person who was assigned male at birth but identifies as being a woman.)

I am a cisgender, queer-identified trans-ally; my boyfriend, Ethan, is a trans man (hi, love!) who is wonderful. I started reading about transgender identities and gender theory as a Women and Gender Studies major in college six years ago, and over that time I've amassed quite a collection and have read dozens of excellent, good, decent, and not-so-good books on the subject.

The following is a list of non-fiction books on transgender history, gender identity, and the transgender movement, all of which I own and highly recommend. They are all written by trans-identified folk. This list is by no means comprehensive.

Transgender History
Susan Stryker

An excellent introduction to trans history with a focus on trans women.
Why I Like It: It's very readable, and it comes with bonus discussion questions! I kind of have a weakness for discussion questions.
Best If: You prefer straightforward history and want something published more recently.

Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer
Riki Wilchins

The title kind of explains it all.
Why I Like It: This book starts out all "here is some basic information about the history of the women's movement and the gay movement and the transgender movement" and then Wilchins is all HEY! HOW ABOUT SOME THEORY! And then, you know, I went "OH WOW THAT IS SOME THEORY" and my brain hurt a little but in a good way.
Best If: You prefer a little theory with your history.

Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
Leslie Feinberg

Feinberg is best known for hir excellent novel Stone Butch Blues, which I would beg you to read if this wasn't a list of non-fiction. In the preface of Transgender Warriors, ze describes the book as being "...the heart of my life's work. When I clenched my fists and shouted back at slurs aimed to strip me of my humanity, this was the certainty behind my anger. When I sputtered in pain at well-meaning individuals who told me, 'I just don't get what you are?' - this is what I meant. Today, Transgender Warriors is my answer. This is the core of my pride."
Why I Like It: Seriously, did you read that quote?
Best If: You prefer a little narrative with THE HEART OF SOMEONE'S LIFE WORK.

Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism
Patrick Calfia

More opinion, analyzing, and criticism than plain history.
Why I Like It: Califia happens to be one of my very favorite authors and in my opinion this is his best non-fiction work. There's an excellent chapter on transphobia in the feminist community as well as a chapter comparing Stone Butch Blues by Feinberg to S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt, who is Feinberg's partner and an amazing writer. My nerd-ar went through the roof when I read that chapter.
Best If: You enjoy excellent non-fiction. Also if you want to impress at parties.

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rule of Gender and Conformity
edited by Matt Bernstein Sycamore

All short, first-person narratives from a variety of people with different identities and their experience with passing--not limited to gender.
Why I Like It: When discussing a topic as personal as identity, I think it's much more effective to have multiple writers discussing a variety of experiences.
Best If: You are looking for more diversity of opinion.

Genderqueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary
edited by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins, and Clare Howell

Why I Like It: Genderqueer is one of the few books on my shelf that has post it notes marking certain essays (fyi, they are "Loving Outside Simple Lines" by Sonya Bolus and "Fading to Pink" by Robin Maltz.
Best If: You are looking for more diversity of opinion and for a greater understanding of "genderqueer." Or if you just enjoy good writing. Or if you want to read the essays I mention and discuss them with me. Just sayin'.

(If you have any questions about gender identity or the books I've mentioned, or if you've read them and want to discuss them, or if you find something wonderful you'd like to share, please feel free to email me at bonjourcass AT gmail DOT com. Especially if you want to talk about books. :) )

Giveaway: Cass has generously agreed to donate a copy of Sex Changes by Patrick Califia (see above for description). In order to win the book, all you have to do is participate in May's Transgender mini-challenge.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Mini-Challenge

First, I need to announce the two winners of the April mini-challenge. first chose......

Lauren at I was a Teenage Book Geek!

Congratulations, Lauren! Take a look at the prize bucket and send me an email (address is in the sidebar) with your choice and address. also chose a second winner, who wins a copy of Lauren Bjorkman's My Invented Life......

Andrea of The Little Bookworm!

Congratulations, Andrea! If you would send me your address (my email's on the sidebar) I will forward the information on to Lauren!

The May mini-challenge here at the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name involves Transgendered issues. The task: read a book, short story, or essay, or even watch a movie, that deals with transgendered issues, and then post about it.

Once you do this, leave a link to your post about it in the Mr. Linky. I will draw a winner of all participants at the beginning of next month. Winner will be able to pick from the prize bucket. Like in April, there will be a second prize of a copy of The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, generously donated by the author.

Mini-challenges are, of course, totally optional. :)

**Note: While you do not need to do the mini-challenge if you are a GLBT Challenge participant, you must be a participant if you would like to enter here. Thanks!

Also, keep an eye on the blog - we hope to have some guest posts about transgendered issues!