In April, following the example set by Nepal and Bangladesh, the Indian Supreme Court officially introduced a “third gender” in official identity documents. The judgement that created the third gender was meant to include the group traditionally known as kothis, defined (in the judgement itself) as:
biological males who show varying degrees of ‘femininity’–which may be situational. Some proportion of kothis have bisexual behavior and get married to a woman. […] not all kothi-identified people identify themselves as transgender.
Under the new law, there will be quotas for kothis eligible for employment in the public sector and for admission to educational institutions. Moreover, the law bans any discrimination of transgender people seeking medical care.
Though this is a step forward, the situation for the LGBTQ community in India is delicate, especially after the Supreme Court ruled to criminalize gay sex in December 2013.
Candace Feit’s ongoing photography series “A woman in my heart,” looks inside the kothi community—long been forced to live on the margins of Indian society, sometimes estranged from their families or worse—in a small village called Devenappatinam in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.
The town of just a few thousand residents—a great majority of whom are kothis—is 30 km south of Pondicherry on India’s southeastern coast. For 10 days every March around Holi (the ancient Hindu religious festival of colors), Devenappatinam plays host to the 10-day Mayanakollai festival, one of the largest known gatherings of kothis in India.
Feit, who took the pictures in 2013 and 2014, sought out to depict intimate portraits of everyday life—where families reject entrenched gender norms and set out to form their own.
“A lot of them [kothis] haven’t transitioned and don’t really plan to, they just want more freedom to express their gender identity,” Feit tells Quartz. “They form a community that, like any Indian village, is heavily centered on family life, but they are building their own social structures in the process.”
Both Western and Eastern gender norms, Feit explains, are rigid and have trouble accepting non-conformist groups like the kothis. Devenappatinam, while remote, is a place where they “can find their way in a very complex system.”
“The idea with this project is to, first of all, humanize this group of people,” says Feit. “They have relationships, fights with their companions and turmoil as we all do, but are dependent on these invaluable bonds to get through their struggles.”
*As common in many southern Indian states, Dinesha—as well as others portrayed in this photo essay—simply goes by his first name.