My research explores how internationally-funded NGO-led activism impacts the ways that sexual minorities form and organize their communities in India. My analysis is based on an 18-month ethnographic study of interactions between a large NGO and two disenfranchised groups of sexual minorities in South India: preexisting communities of hijras (gender non-conforming people assigned male at birth) and a newly emerging community of working-class lesbians and female-to-male transgender people. My dissertation research period was funded by a Junior Research Fellowship from the American Institute for Indian Studies.
My doctoral dissertation, based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Bangalore, India, and entitled “I am Not a Hijra”: Transgender Women Claiming Citizenship in South India, engages current debates about inclusion into citizenship for marginalized groups across the world. Scholars and social justice advocates previously understood the concept of citizenship and citizens’ rights as a way of mitigating inequalities; thus, the goal was to bring more groups throughout the world under the ambit of citizenship. This perspective has been challenged by scholars who interpret citizenship as an exclusive institution that is necessarily predicated on inequality, since the rights of citizenship depend on the rightlessness of non-citizens. Drawing on participant observation and over 75 interviews with hijras (working class gender non-conforming people assigned male at birth) newly emerging groups of working class “transgender” women, and staff members of an internationally funded NGO, my work is the first to examine the emergence of the transgender woman identity via NGO led sexual rights activism in India. I argue that transgender women have emerged to claim citizenship by drawing distinct boundaries between themselves and stigmatized groups of hijras. Instead of joining hijras to advocate for their shared interests, transgender women seek to distinguish themselves from hijras, thus positioning hijras as undeserving of the rights of citizenship in order to bolster their own citizenship claims. This study offers empirical evidence that rights claims predicated on marginalized groups’ inclusion into citizenship are often exclusionary in practice, which means that processes of obtaining citizenship in different contexts may be in tension with emancipatory social justice projects. I am also working on a book manuscript entitled Activism and the Perils of Outreach: Working-Class Lesbians and Transgender Men in South India that includes research from my dissertation fieldwork that does not appear in the dissertation.
My current research project, “Gender and Marginalization: Competing Oppressions and Transgender Reservations in India,” in May of 2017. For this project, I focus on activists’ demands for constitutional protections similar to affirmative action policies known as “reservations” for transgender people. I employ qualitative methods to examine the interaction of postcolonial discourses of reservations as a means to develop India and recent global development discourses that re-shape this discourse using the language of human rights to uncover how social justice advocates understand the relationship between the state and inequality in India today.