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From India: Sexual Minorities and the Gender Agenda

Fabrice Houdart's picture

India’s estimated 700,000 hijras, or transgender women, generally get little or no schooling, their families often reject them, and they join marginalized and feudal communities where their employment options are sex work or ritualized begging. They are likely to die young, of violence – like Anil Sadanandan, a transgender activist murdered in Kerala state during my recent visit to India – or AIDS. They are among India’s most destitute women, yet they are ignored by the World Bank, despite its strong focus on the “gender agenda.”

Lesbians in India who live openly in a same-sex relationship or display so-called “masculine traits” will be excluded from social networks, if they are not beaten to death by their families – something occurring regularly in rural India – or forced into marriage. They face discrimination in employment and lack access to already limited services.

I spent the past two weeks traveling across India and Nepal to explore these issues. As I learned more about the courageous struggles of India’s hijras, khotis (or feminized men), gay men, and lesbians from local World Bank staff members and representatives of non-profit groups serving those communities, I was reminded every day that the lack of voice, sexual rights, cultural representation, and economic opportunities, as well as displacement and daily violence, they encounter stem from the same roots as gender discrimination.

Hijras, khotis, gay men, and lesbians are rejected by society – often at a very early age and in a violent manner – because of their femininity (in the case of men) and the threat they represent to the patriarchal society imposed by British law and social norms. Homophobia is no more a cultural or religious issue than any other part of the gender agenda (and in fact, Hinduism and India’s history and literature are surprisingly homosocial and homoaffectionate).

Although this reality was completely absent from the Bank’s 2012 World Development Report on gender (in 458 pages the word “transgender” did not appear once), it was present throughout the preparation process. In their companion piece, Masculinities, Social Change, and Development (2011) Margaret Greene, Omar Robles, and Piotr Pawlak used the Gender Equitable Men (GEM) Scale to prove that homophobia and therefore discrimination against LGBT people is an unfortunate corollary of dominant masculinity. Their study found that 73% of Indian men surveyed said they would hit their sons if they found out they were gay.

Some economists believe that gender – let alone social justice for populations transgressing gender norms – is a distraction from our very serious business of growth and poverty reduction. In addition, some fear that mentioning this aspect of the gender agenda would put the Bank squarely on one side of a global cultural and religion divide and undermine the Bank’s standing as a serious technical institution.

Yet if the Bank is to fulfill its mission to end poverty, it must reach everyone – women and men, gay and straight, transgender and hijras. Eventually, the Bank will have to confront these issues. Why not start now?


Submitted by Anandaroopa on
Saw your blog through Martin Dixon's posting on FB. Great writings. If you do return or travel to Chennai, I hope you will meet a wonderful organization, which I volunteered with, SAHODARAN (, while I lived there with my partner who worked at the US Consulate Chennai. Did you meet the first transgender TV hostess in India? Best regards, Anandaroopa [email protected] Arlington, VA 202 812-4083

Submitted by Fabrice on
Dear Anandaroopa. Thanks a lot for your comment. The picture in the blog is actually from Sahodaran in Chennaï. I had gotten in touch with Sunil Menon who had kindly invited us to chat with transgender and kothis at the organization. We had an amazing time which also included a dance performance :) All the best. Fabrice

Submitted by Cheikh on
the debate on gender took a long while to make it to the Bank's agenda. There is no doubt that sexuality and gender identity are complex topics. but perhaps a good place to start is HIV/AIDS. the Bank has issued a fantastic resource on HIV epidemics among men who have sex with men. perhaps it is time to do some follow up on that work?

The contribution of Fabrice Houdart is a breath of fresh air on this topic. I tried to promote an active involvement of the World Bank in this area since 2002, but it has always floundered on fears of staff that protecting the rights of sexual minorities would prove difficult for Bank-country relations. Yet if this issue is not tackled in countries such as India or in Africa, the AIDS epidemic cannot be conquered. This very practical reason for action is compelling, but it should not distract from the importance of the rights of sexual minorities for their own sake: They are humans too, with feelings, aspirations, and the right to realize them.

Submitted by Shubha Chacko on

Glad that the World Bank is willing to look at issues and concerns of the LGBT population. Of course sexuality is embedded in power dynamics at play in societies and institutions and constantly intersecting with gender, class, caste, race and other disparities.

I would really like to know your source for the figure (700,000 hijras). I ask because there is such a paucity of reliable data

Submitted by Fabrice C Houdart on


Thanks for your comments. The Bank just released a powerful report on inclusion including LGBT people among marginzalized communities. The full report titled "Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity" can be accessed at

I chose the number 700K based on conservative estimates ranging from 500,000 (Nanda, 2000) to 1,000,000 (Sitapati, 2009). As you mention the lack of attention paid to the issue of sexual minority results in a gigantic knowledge gap.

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