In the past, South Asian Trans masculine folks have relied on the larger South Asian LGBTQIA+ community for support. But they haven’t always received it.
We are now seeing long-existing orgs like Trikone and SALGA NYC inviting Trans folks into their spaces, as well as queer folks across the diaspora standing up for Trans rights. This support has encouraged the growth of a more visible community for South Asian Trans masculine folks, both within and outside of queer spaces. Upon first glance, this new wave of unity might make it seem like we are on the advent of change and liberation for all Trans folk. But we are far from it. In this budding community of out Trans masculine people alone, there is a clear divide in the experiences of lower-caste Trans masculine folks and upper-caste Trans masculine folks. It is glaringly apparent that this space, just like other queer South Asian spaces, has yet to address systems of privilege and power that persist, most specifically caste.
There is no doubt that casteism exists throughout the South Asian Diaspora. It dominates the politics of every community, including the LGBTQIA+ community.
In queer spaces, folks with caste and class privilege have homogenized equality for the entire South Asian LGBTQIA+ community as being accepted into dominant cultures like whiteness and Hindutva. As a result, these spaces have often mirrored power hierarchies perpetuated by these cultures, such as centering only upper caste, Indian, cis Hindu people, resulting in the exclusion of all others. Even though these spaces are clearly challenging some power hierarchies as evidenced by the recent inclusion of Trans folk, little work is being done to acknowledge, let alone dismantle, caste privilege.
“A lot of these spaces are 95 percent populated by Indian Hindu queers who don't question the celebration of Diwali and Holi, which are anti-Dalit. The perpetuation of Bollywood in South Asian queer spaces is also really problematic, since Bollywood thrives on the dismissal of Dalit and Muslim voices, ” said Farhat Rahman, an upper-caste, trans masculine activist, who spoke at length about why he does not feel comfortable in South Asian queer spaces.
These spaces have often mirrored power hierarchies perpetuated by these cultures, such as centering only upper caste, Indian, cis Hindu people, resulting in the exclusion of all others.
Rahman points out that casteist practices and attitudes that isolate lower-caste folks continue to thrive in queer spaces.
A Trans masculine person’s journey with self-actualization is not always easy. The struggle of coming to terms with gender, the fear of losing loved ones in the process, and the ordeal of finding resources that can help us is exhausting. Seeing other Trans masculine folks and having a more visible community is incredibly powerful but we cannot homogenize the Trans masculine experience. Before welcoming lower-caste Trans people into any South Asian LGBTQIA+ space, we must commit to abolishing caste.
Being in South Asian LGBTQIA+ spaces reinforces ancient ideas of exclusion and erasure for a lot of lower-caste Trans masculine people. Along with dealing with erasure and isolation in South Asian LGBTQIA+ spaces, lower-caste Trans masculine people have the added layer of oppression that further complicates their journey with gender. From historically being unable to access medical help because of casteism and the generational wealth gap even after migration to the U.S., to being ostracized form South Asian communities, lower-caste Trans masculine people feel added pressure to remain closeted to protect their families from further discrimination.
“My mom told me Brahmins don’t do that. My mom is not Brahmin but wanted to live the Brahmin dream. Not only was I threatening her dream of acceptance, I was threatening the very few friends that she does have,” Nabi, an intercaste digital illustrator, said of his earlier conversations about transitioning with his mother.
While upper-caste Trans masculine folks are quick to talk about Trans rights, most never acknowledge their own caste privilege. The only times they mention caste is when they talk about the hardships of coming out to their conservative Brahmin or Savarna families. They distance themselves as beneficiaries of caste, all the while absolving themselves of their own caste privilege and continuing to uphold casteist practices and beliefs in Trans masculine spaces at the same time.
“In the western Trans masculine community, people always go back to Hindu mythology for proof of Transness, not understanding that it’s reserved for myths,” Nabi said.
Texts like the Vedas in Hindu mythology do outline a third gender, but those texts also lay a foundation for the caste system. As Nabi explains, those texts are for the Gods and the “pure” – not for lower-caste folk to benefit from. The romanticizing of such problematic texts that lead to years of vicious oppression, illustrates how South Asian Trans masculine spaces, queer spaces, aren’t for lower caste people – they are made by and for upper caste folks.
In these spaces, lower-caste Trans masculine folks constantly feel a looming sense of otherness, even in expressing their own masculinity. As South Asian masculinity is synonymous with Brahmanical masculinity, its misogynist, casteist principles are upheld by other Trans masculine folks as the model of masculinity to adhere to. When a lower-caste Trans masculine person implicitly challenges Brahmanical masculinity in their own gender expression, they are seen as less masculine, and even not Trans enough. They feel forced to hide their caste identity for their gender identity to be accepted. If they do choose to come out, they open themselves up to relentless discrimination.
“One time, my non-binary femme friend came out to us Jatt Queers as lower-caste, and I told this friend that I support and love them no matter what their caste is.” said Manpreet QueerisSingh, a Sikh artist and activist. “They have lost many Punjabi friends because these people take caste seriously. My other Jatt friend got mad at my lower-caste friend, saying he didn't care what the f*ck caste my friend is. This same Jatt friend writes that he is ‘Jatt’ in his social media bios, so how could he possibly say he doesn't care about caste, when he makes his caste known in the virtual world?”
Transness does not erase caste privilege. If upper-caste folks feel unease that their Transness jeopardizes their caste status, then they have more than community acceptance to reckon with. Their woeful ignorance makes the Trans masculine community an unsafe space, because they continue to propagate problematic behaviors that uphold caste hegemony.
If we ignore the needs of lower-caste Trans masculine folk in the greater Trans rights movement, we are only fighting for the rights of a select, privileged few. Without an intersectional investigation into how casteism affects the diaspora, all efforts to dismantle systems of oppression, including homophobia and transphobia, will not work.