The discourse on human rights in India is yet to show any active interest rights and liberties of individuals whose biological sex or sexual orientations cannot be easily classified. These include the transgender communities, individuals with anomalous sex, gays and lesbians.

In India, there are only two acknowledged and accepted classifications of gender male and female. Most people think that an individual is identified by the physical structure of the sex-organs along with some secondary physiological characters. However, scientific understanding of human genetics has shown that sex identity is embedded in the DNA of an individual. A human male is marked by the presence of a Y chromosome that is absent in females. Furthermore, DNA is not the only factor that contributes to sexual identity.

There are over 1 million transgender individuals in our country, but the larger society refuses to accept them within the regular social framework. They are social outcastes, forced to live in poverty, earning their livelihood through singing and dancing at various social occasions like births and marriages.


Illustration: Farzana Cooper

Another class of sexual minorities in India is the gay and lesbian community. Even today, homosexuality is not recognized as a natural human choice of sexuality in Indian law. Gays and lesbians are shunned by society including their own families and sometimes removed from their jobs one account of their sexual preferences.

Despite isolated efforts by human rights and other representative groups, there is prejudice in the Indian society against any individual who is perceived as a "sexual" anomaly. This discrimination transpires into human rights violation in many critical places - sometimes jobs are denied, sometimes hospitals shun them as patients, and sometimes families drive them out with out any support. While legal measures are required to redress these problems, it is equally important to tackle the issue by creating a scientific understanding of the human physiology and educate the society.

This article is an attempt to initiate an educational discussion on the biology of sex and sexual orientations, in the Indian social milieu.

Ambiguous sex

Gender is a very complex biological phenomenon and not a simplistic male - female classification. The controversy surrounding stripping Shanthi Soundarajan of her Asiad silver medal in 2006, highlighted a critical bias of the society against individuals with ambiguous sex. Shanthi "failed" the gender test after winning the silver medal in the 800m final with the official reason being that she did not possess "sexual characteristics of a woman". What was more shocking is the story that she was previously denied a job in Indian Railways on the same account, according to several news reports. But Shanthi is not a man either and there are many people like her who cannot be classified one way or the other.

Several clinical cases get reported of women undergoing infertility treatments. DNA tests often reveal that some of these women carry a Y chromosome, like men. Further studies have shown that their physical appearance is feminised sometimes because of defects called "mutations" in some of their genes. For example, if the mutation is on the gene involved in making the male hormone "testosterone" or one of its associated proteins, the male hormones which are responsible for male appearance are not functional. Hence these individuals resemble women externally, despite carrying the Y chromosome in their DNA.

Men and women measure up differently on parameters like body size, basal metabolic rate, size of vital organs like heart and lung, red blood corpuscles count, body fat and number of slow twitch muscle fibres.

These are more likely to directly influence the capabilities of an athlete and ought to be taken into account in a gender test.

The question that then arises in Shanthi Soundarajan's case is that why would the Government of India deny a job to an individual who carries a mutation in the DNA? It is interesting that while many news reports and the state government of Tamilnadu sympathized with Shanthi's situation, no questions were raised on whether a gender test be solely based upon the DNA constituency. Did the test take into account physiological parameters that are likely to differ between men and women athletes and that are more likely to directly influence the capabilities of an athlete? These issues were neither discussed nor highlighted by media or the society. The consequence of the humiliation drove Shanthi to extreme depression and she attempted a suicide recently.

The Trans-genders

Hijras have been openly discriminated against by the India society. Ridiculed and outcaste by the public, the Hijras live in abject poverty and earn their living by flaunting their sexual appearance. Hijras are individuals with attributes of both male and the female sex and hence considered hermaphrodites. It is believed that there are 1 Hijra per 400 males in India, spread across the length and breadth of the country. There has been very little effort on the part of the government and public interest groups to generate understanding and acceptance of them. In fact films and television have portrayed them as less than human, involved in vulgar acts and ghastly crimes shunned by the common people.

Since sex is determined by multiple interconnected factors, it is difficult to single out which one of these factors is the primary determinant of sex. For example, some women (with 2 X chromosomes) possess high levels of male hormones while the opposite holds in case of some males (with one X and one Y chromosome). These men and women have the defined chromosomal sex, but certain aspects of their physical appearance resemble the opposite sex - e.g. facial hair and deep voice in case of women and slight enlargement of breasts and feminine attributes in case of men. In fact most "normal" human beings have a small degree of hormones from the opposite sex traits. Men carry a small amount of estrogen and women carry minute quantities of testosterone.

Hence it is more scientific to define human sex as a scale where complete masculinity and complete feminity mark the extreme ends of the spectrum. Most males and females probably lie close to one or the other end of this spectrum and are accordingly classified as male or female. Transgender individuals lie in the middle of this spectrum and hence retain traits of both sexes.

Gays and Lesbians

The sexual orientation of people is another area of dogmatism in the society. Homosexuality is considered a "criminal offence" punishable as "unnatural sex and sodomy" under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The law of the country does not account for rights of homosexuals, public awareness is low and remains vehemently opposed to these people.

Even though there are several debates around ethics, validity, conflicting results and feasibility of research on sexual orientation, nevertheless, the scientific world is taking a rational approach towards understanding human sexual behaviour.


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Even though gay and lesbian rights issues are enmeshed in controversies all over the world, there is a steady support of scientific work that has been building over time to explain homosexuality. While there are controversies on the existence of "homosexuality gene" in humans, research on the model organism Drosophila (fruitfly) has identified a gene where mutations are responsible for male - male courtship. Over a hundred research papers have been published to elucidate the complexity of sexual orientation. Proteins responsible for conversion of male hormone androgen to female hormone estrogen, and fluctuations in male hormone testosterone have been studied in the context of homosexuality. Public repositories of medical and bio-science literature contains hundreds of research articles from scientists investigating homosexuality. Even though there are several debates around ethics, validity, conflicting results and feasibility of research on sexual orientation, nevertheless, the scientific world is taking a rational approach towards understanding human sexual behaviour.

American sexologist Alfred Kinsey performed systematic research on human sexual orientation. In his two research reports titled "sexual orientations of males in America" and "sexual orientation of females in America", Kinsey discusses human sexual orientation in a scale of 0 to 6. Homosexual individuals lie at 0 while complete heterosexuals are at 6. His research placed the majority of men and women in their 20- 30 years, at 3. He also postulated that human sexual attraction does not remain fixed on this scale all through an individual's life. Most humans continue to lie in between the two ends, all through their life.

Such scientific studies and clinical approaches towards human behaviour has not made its way into India's research arena yet. Discussions supporting the rights of homosexuals mostly quote ancient Indian scriptures and temple carvings and present arguments in favour of social acceptance of the phenomenon in ancient India.

However, the Indian government itself is itself discriminatory and has been diffident in taking any stand on this issue. Ironically, this lack of legal support for sexual minorities has dire consequences on HIV/AIDS control, considered a priority amongst public health issues in the country. Male sex workers who have sex with men are targeted and harassed by government bodies like the Police force. NGOs working to prevent HIV/AIDS amongst them are also targeted.

In 2006, four men from the NGOs in Lucknow working on HIV/AIDS prevention amongst male sex workers, were arrested by the police. In fact, several petitions have been filed by the Human Rights Watch on the issue of discrimination against homosexual AIDS patients, who are identified as one of the most susceptible groups. However, even to this day, governments have turned a blind eye to this discrimination, thus allowing unscientific biases to thrive against homosexuals. There are constant reports of killing gay men or raping lesbian women charged as criminals by a public judicial system.

Course correction needed

The advanced scientific understanding of sex in the world has not translated into action in India. As noted earlier, it is more scientific to define human sex as a scale where complete masculinity and complete feminity mark the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Even though there have been some sporadic efforts from the government and public health organizations to disseminate information on sex education, it is only geared towards family planning, safe sex and AIDS awareness. These topics have been barely accepted for open discussions in class-rooms which are perhaps the most important place for intervention.

Given that an objective debate on sex is an enormous challenge, India is still grappling with lack of basic sex-education. The lack of a scientific understanding of sex has devastating effects on the lives and status of people who are considered sexual anomalies. In sum, Indian society has an unhealthy attitude towards sex itself, let alone sexual - minorities. This leaves common Indians un-informed, irrational and shy to talk about issues that may be having serious consequences on their health and well-being.

What's more, the government has done very little to reform its policies, promote the interests of these communities and facilitate their acceptance by society at large. The government's regressive stand on the law as well as redressal of grievances is seen in the cases of denying jobs and discriminating against transgender and homosexual citizens of India. Government decisions and public statements continue to reflect biases of individual ministers and bureaucrats, instead of projecting a determined stand, as befits a progressive nation. All of this sustains the ignorance and discomfort of Indian society towards discussion on sex and sex-education, and is reflected in our attitude towards craving male children, torture and humiliation of transgendered people and shunning of homosexuals, all recognized human rights violations.

Unless we make a course correction as a society, AIDS awareness programs, family planning measures and recognizing human rights issues may not succeed in their goals.