The “T” is Silent

As part of a semester abroad in New Delhi, student Erin Brioso ’14 spent time learning about India’s transgender community.

Erin Brioso ’14 speaks to India’s transgender community on the streets of New Delhi. Erin Brioso ’14 speaks to India’s transgender community on the streets of New Delhi.

“LGBT” rolls off the tongue much easier than “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” But take a look at the ordering: L…G…B…T. That last letter is, well, last—not unlike the way transgender issues are handled in cultures around the world.

This is the pondering that guided the focus of the research Erin Brioso ’14 conducted during a recent semester-long study abroad in India.

“The status of sexual minorities is a prevalent topic of discussion, and currently issues like marriage equality and the rights of sexual minorities are on the forefront, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well,” says Brioso, who is active in the LGBT community on campus. “I’ve become increasingly aware of how absent transgender issues are from this conversation because they confuse people and are not always clearly defined. Issues pertaining to the ‘LGB’ often exclude and perpetuate the silent ‘T’ that is the transgender community.”

That silent “T” has formed the basis of the 30-page research paper Brioso authored on India’s hijra community, which includes eunuchs and male-to-female transgender people that experience a unique set of cultural and health challenges.

“Hijras have existed on the fringe of the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years. Historically, they were known as bestowers of blessings and curses; however, this practice has waned over the past few decades,” Brioso writes in her paper. “In society today, all official documentation requires adherence to the binary gender identification of male or female, but hijras are not classified as either. Most Hijras can only hope to be beggars as discrimination against hiring hijras is prevalent. In the last few decades, hijra sex work has exploded. Numerous studies have been done to provide accurate statistics on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases within the hijra and transgender communities.”

As part of her research during her 4-month stay in New Delhi, Brioso explored the programs in place to support hijras, such as HIV awareness, educational outreach, and counseling. She met with members of non-government organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) to make observations and later, recommendations.

“The hijra community is experiencing extreme levels of illiteracy and have very few resources, as well as treatment and prevention options,” Brioso says.

Through interviews with CBO officials and transgender people, Brioso examined available health care and counseling resources, as well as education levels and occupation diversification.

“In the end, I found that CBOs are making a difference. Confidence in seeking health resources has soared since CBOs were established; however, low levels of education and little variance in occupational opportunity are keeping this population severely marginalized.”

That finding has inspired Brioso to do more to ensure that “T” doesn’t remain silenced. She plans to return to India next year to build a program that promotes the basic human rights denied the hijra community. “The psychological effects that discrimination can have on a person—including depression, alcoholism, and suicide—require immediate action,” Brioso says. “My plan is to create a small therapy center for the hijra community in Delhi that would aid in their psychological rehabilitation.”