Screenwriter, lyricist, and activist Gazal Dhaliwal is an outspoken member of India’s increasingly public transgender community. She created a documentary while in film school, To be…Me, which features interviews with fellow trans people and summarizes current medical and legal perspectives. She has appeared in blogs, on the TV series My Big Decision, and with her parents on a high-profile talk show‘s episode on “alternative sexualities” (available for viewing here). In her appearances she stresses her post-transition happiness and the variety of gender roles that trans people are drawn to.
Dhaliwal’s Facebook page can be found here; her Twitter feed, here; and her blog (not updated since 2010), here.
Openly gay Bollywood director and producer Onir is a small minority in a suppressive industry. His feature length film debut, My Brother…Nikhil, was based on the life of Dominic d’Souza, who was quarantined in a tuberculosis ward after being diagnosed with AIDS; due to careful avoidance of same-sex physical affection (among other deviations from d’Souza’s life), it received a warm welcome with India’s mainstream audiences. Onir has since directed several more films, including I Am, an award-winning collection of four short films, each of which explores a controversial theme through a single human subject. He has started a production company aimed at elevating new acting talent.
Ardhanarishvara, the “totality that lies beyond duality”, is a fusion of the Hindu deities Shiva and his wife Parvati. The full mythology surrounding Ardhanarishvara is vast, stretching through multiple religious texts and several cultures, but there are commonalities among the varying accounts: Shiva and Parvati share one body, with Shiva on the right and Parvati on the left; and their union is meant to symbolize a divine (and healthy) balance of masculinity and femininity. One of the more striking origin stories for Ardhanarishvara comes from Tamil: There was a priest who worshipped Shiva but refused to venerate Parvati, which outraged her. She tried to humiliate him by turning him into a skeleton, but Shiva gave him an extra leg so he could stand and so escaped his humiliation. Shiva and Parvati then fused together, and the priest escaped the dilemma of having two gods in one to worship by turning into a beetle and burrowing into Shiva’s half of the body.
Deities who are in some way androgynous or intersex are common in mythologies worldwide due to the associated symbolism of creation and fertility. Depictions vary broadly, but there are several described in Wikipedia’s page on LGBT themes in mythology as transgender or intersex. However, a god composed of two different people who can join together and split apart at will has very little in common with a contemporary transgender or intersex individual, who is (in addition to being only one person) not always interested in being both male and female. It may be more correct to connect the various myths to specific terms such as “gender fluid” or – in the case of Ardhanarishvara – perhaps “bigender”, or to not attempt to translate them into anything contemporary or even human at all.
Ānanda, whose name means ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit, was the cousin and permanent attendant of the Buddha in Buddhist mythology. He was tireless in his efforts and compassionate in his spiritual services; as the story goes, it was at his urging that the Buddha permitted women to become bhikkhunis (monastics). For his exceptional memory and wisdom to process the Buddha’s words, he was known as the Guardian of the Dharma, and his enlightenment came just in time for a conference of monks after the Buddha’s passing.
Accounts of Ānanda’s past lives indicate that he had at one point been a paṇḍaka, a term that encompasses everything from intersex individuals to men who perform fellatio. One story tells of his romance with a cobra king (Nāga): Although their relationship was a happy one, Ānanda was forced to end it because their sexual entanglements were interfering with his spiritual development.
Prince Manvendra had a dramatic coming out experience. Although his sexual orientation became semi-public after a nervous breakdown in 2002 for which he was hospitalized, it wasn’t until the story hit the press – and The Oprah Winfrey Show – in the mid-2000s that he became an internationally recognized gay celebrity. At the time of this writing is is the only out contemporary member of the Indian royalty. (For more details about his personal life, try this Huffington Post interview.)
While much of Manvendra’s fame comes from his title, he is an accomplished activist, and runs a foundation he started dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS and improving the lives of LGBT people in the Indian state of Gujarat. He has spoken at a number of high-profile events, including the São Paulo gay pride parade and the Euro Pride gay festival, and appeared on the BBC reality show Undercover Princes.
Biographical information on Nehru in English is difficult to locate online. Some coverage is of dubious quality, displaying little respect for trans people; some is merely brief and without much context.
In 1998, Nehru was elected to the city council of Hissar, Haryana, a province in India. Her appointment was a noteworthy achievement; due to extreme persecution it is difficult for hijra (a gender designation similar to ‘trans women’) to enter into professions enjoyed by other citizens, and her victory was the start of a trend.
Nehru got her political start with neighborhood sanitation organizing – clearing up trash heaps, etc. – and was nominated for the municipal elections when her neighbors took notice. She went on to win three in a row, and was quoted saying, “I know the art of getting things done.” Her politics are bound up in activism on behalf of her community: “When people see me getting the drains fixed and arranging water and electricity, they stop treating me like an outcast. Having a role in public life wins me respect. I get on the stage during social functions and I’m garlanded.”
For a more in-depth explanation of the social position hijra occupy in India, see this testimony by Raveena Bariha.