THIRD GENDER

Photos: An intimate look inside the Indian community that defies gender labels

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.”

Jagada Guru, a kothi from Devanapattinam, prepares to play the goddess Amman in the Mayanakollai festival, which was put on in Devanapattinam by a group of people, which included several kothis. March 2013.
Jagada Guru, a kothi from Devanapattinam, prepares to play the goddess Amman in the Mayanakollai festival, which was put on in Devanapattinam by a group of people, which included several kothis. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Jagada Guru, whose Kothi name is Arundhati, poses for a portrait with his wife and children outside of their house in Devanipattinam, September 2014
Jagada Guru, whose kothi name is Arundhati, poses for a portrait with his wife and children outside of their house in Devanipattinam. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Dinesha carrying water into the temple in Devanipattinam
Dinesha* carrying water into the temple in Devanipattinam. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Dinesha, exhausted, after playing Goddess Kali in the Mayanakollai festival.
Dinesha, exhausted, after playing Goddess Kali in the Mayanakollai festival. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Sheethal smokes a cigarette in her apartment in Pondicherry. Sheethal acts as a guru to many of the younger kothis in this community who refer to her as their mother and she to them as her daughters.
Sheethal smokes a cigarette in her apartment in Pondicherry. Sheethal acts as a guru to many of the younger kothis in this community who refer to her as their mother and she to them as her daughters. (Photo by Candace Feit)
wo daughters of Sheethal get ready for a function celebrating Sheethal’s first birth- day – marking one year after her gender-reassignment surgery.
Two daughters of Sheethal get ready for a function celebrating Sheethal’s first birthday—marking one year after her gender-reassignment surgery. (Photo by Candace Feit)
A group of people, including several kothis prepare food at Sivagami’s house. For many of the kothis, who live with their families, being able to prepare and serve food – considered to be “women’s work” is a way for them to express part of their female identity.
A group of people, including several kothis prepare food at Sivagami’s house. For many of the kothis, who live with their families, being able to prepare and serve food—considered to be “women’s work” is a way for them to express part of their female identity. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Shamla, a kothi who is a classical dancer, performs for a gathering of kothis at Sivagami’s house.
Shamla, a kothi who is a classical dancer, performs for a gathering of kothis at Sivagami’s house. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Chitra, a kothi priest from outside of Cuddalore, poses for a portrait while cutting down wood used for cooking. Many kothis choose to do this kind of work – which is traditionally done by women – as another way to express their female identity.
Chitra, a kothi priest from outside of Cuddalore, poses for a portrait while cutting down wood used for cooking. Many kothis choose to do this kind of work—which is traditionally done by women—as another way to express their female identity. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Chitra doing dishes in her home outside of Cuddalore.
Chitra doing dishes in her home outside of Cuddalore. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Ramu, who lives in Devanipattanam and is a kothi married with two children, milks one of his cows.
Ramu, who lives in Devanipattanam and is a kothi married with two children, milks one of his cows. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Mohana holds her niece while sitting with her family in their house in the village of Devanapattinam.
Mohana holds her niece while sitting with her family in their house in the village of Devanapattinam. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Mohana, preparing to play the Goddess Kali at the Mayanakollai festival in the village of Devanappatinam.
Mohana, preparing to play the Goddess Kali at the Mayanakollai festival in the village of Devanappatinam. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Lakshaya celebrating full-moon puja at the temple in Devanappatinam.
Lakshaya celebrating full-moon puja at the temple in Devanappatinam. (Photo by Candace Feit)
Lakshaya (far right) poses with her mother and brother in their house in Devenap- patinam. Laksheaya’s family are very supportive of her kothi identity. Her brother often hangs out with she her kothi friends. Mohana and Laksheaya are best friends and confidantes.
Lakshaya (far right) poses with her mother and brother in their house in Devenappatinam. Laksheaya’s family are very supportive of her kothi identity. Her brother often hangs out with she her kothi friends. Mohana and Laksheaya are best friends and confidantes. (Photo by Candace Feit)

*As common in many southern Indian states, Dinesha—as well as others portrayed in this photo essay—simply goes by his first name.

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