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India’s transsexuals try Internet dating

Published on 05/01/2010

New Delhi — It’s worked for thousands of singletons the world over and now India’s transsexuals are hoping Internet dating can help their marginalised community find love.

A new site offers to help people born as men but living as women find husbands in a country where marriage remains the bedrock of society and gender and sexuality are still conservatively defined.

"Many men are attracted to transgender women, but when it comes to commitment they don’t want to do it," the founder of the website, Kalki, who uses one name, explained to AFP.

"The types of grooms that our girls are looking for are men who would respect them as an equal human being, who would treat them with dignity and would introduce them to friends and family as a girlfriend or wife."

Transgenders and eunuchs — men who have been castrated — live on the extreme fringes of Indian society, often resorting to prostitution, begging or menial jobs that leave them mired in poverty.

Their numbers are difficult to estimate. Kalki says there are about 20,000 in her adopted state of Tamil Nadu, the most socially progressive area in the country with a total population of about 60 million.

"Because of the discrimination in India, 95 percent of transgenders live below the poverty line," says Kalki, who decided to start www.thirunangai.net after two of her transsexual friends were rejected by regular dating sites.

Poorly educated, often abused and tarred by the social stigma of their blurred gender, it is unsurprising that many in the community struggle to find the love and steady relationship they crave.

"We feel love and passion like anyone else and we want to have a family and a husband, even though we can’t bear children. We’d like to adopt children," says Kalki.

The site, available in English and Tamil, features six women, most of whom have had full sex change operations and are looking for "ordinary" men for a long-term relationship and even marriage.

One of them is Sowmiya, a 23-year-old former sex worker who ran away from home aged 15 and is now a campaigner at Kalki’s Sahodari Foundation, a non-government organisation that fights for the rights of transgenders.

"I put my profile on the site because I want to get married to a nice man and I want a baby," she told AFP from her home in Chennai. "I don’t mind if he is not too educated, but he must be faithful to me and have a kind character."

She said she had received responses already "but I haven’t accepted as the respondents were older, far older, than what I am looking for."

Another lonely heart, Deepika, writes on her profile that she is looking for a man with a decent job, a modern outlook and a good dress sense.

"Preferred age group 25-30, with a moustache," says the profile.

Kalki says she had about 200 responses from men in India, Europe, the United States and Middle East, including doctors, engineers, journalists, scientists, teachers and businessmen.

She has high hopes of selecting someone suitable for the women after a "very serious" screening process.

"Out of the six girls, if one person gets married I’ll be totally happy," she adds. "The first wedding may be on Valentines Day or on Women’s Day on March 8 next year."

The role of transsexuals and eunuchs, like many things in India, can appear contradictory to the outsider, as they are at once spurned and discriminated against, yet in some ways accepted as part of life.

They are common in Bollywood films where they frequently play comic roles and they often appear at weddings or at the homes of newly-born children where they are paid as a defence against bad luck.

Often they extract money at such occasions by threatening to strip or resort to violence unless they are given a financial inducement to leave.

The idea of transsexuals or "otherness" has a long history in India and eunuchs are mentioned in the earliest Hindu texts, the Vedas, believed to have been written in the second millennium BC.

Being a transsexual or castrated is seen as curse in traditional Hindu culture, but the idea has historically been more widely tolerated and even venerated in India’s minority Muslim population.

Many eunuchs rose to powerful positions in the Islamic Mughal regime that ruled the subcontinent for hundreds of years after an invasion in 1526.

Kalki says the outlook is changing for them in contemporary India.

"Slowly we are getting recognised and feel good. We are beginning to feel we are part of society," she said.

In November, the community claimed victory in a long-standing campaign to be listed as "others," distinct from males and females, on electoral rolls and voter identity cards.

In the past, many eunuchs and transsexuals had abstained in elections because they were unwilling to identify their gender on voter forms.

They could write "E" for eunuch on passports and on certain government forms, but had failed in their campaign for acceptance at the ballot box.

Earlier in December, a eunuch called Kamla Jaan was elected mayor in a district in the central state of Madya Pradesh, where another eunuch has electoral success in 2000.