India’s 1 million “eunuchs” face a unique dilemma every election season — do they stand in the men’s or women’s line at polling stations or stay away altogether?
In the past, eunuchs — the term used for cross-dressers and pre and post-operative transsexuals known as hijra — have largely abstained from casting their ballots because they are unwilling to identify themselves as male or female on voter registration forms.
While some eunuchs do vote by listing themselves as female, many are pushing for an alternative or “third sex” option on ID cards.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a prominent eunuch activist and founder of NGO Astitva, which works with sexual minorities, has never voted and refuses to do so until there is a transgender option on ID cards.
“It’s the question of the identity of our whole community,” she said. “In spite of so many years of independence we haven’t got our own identity, our own place in the Constitution of India.”
Most eunuchs live on the outer fringes of society, ostracized and excluded from decent job opportunities and reduced to begging at traffic junctions in major cities or working in the sex trade.
Despite the stigma surrounding them, a campaign to recognize eunuchs as a third sex has yielded some results.
They can now write “E” for eunuch on passports and certain government forms, but poll stations — where they have to identify themselves as male or female — still eludes them.
“There has been quite a bit of progress, so structurally the only thing that comes in is gender politics,” said Ashok Row Kavi, chairman of the Humsafar Trust, a male sexual health non-governmental organization.
Eunuchs who want to contest in elections for greater rights have come up against similar problems, even though several have been elected to public office as women.
Last month, India’s election commission denied three eunuchs in the eastern state of Orissa permission to run as candidates unless they identified themselves as male or female.
The relatively small number of eunuchs, compared with other minority groups, means it is unlikely that any party deems them a priority vote bank, said Anil Bairwal, national coordinator for the Association of Democratic Reforms.
“Whether it will be taken up or not — as far as our political parties are concerned, the only language they understand is the language of numbers,” he said.
Month-long general elections in the world’s largest democracy began on Thursday, with the last of five phases taking place on May 13. Results are expected on May 16.