I have worked documenting the MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) and TG (Transgender) community in multiple locations in India taking me into the lives and homes of a highly marginalised section of Indian society.
Within Muslim and Hindu cultures, hijras were traditionally eunuchs. In earlier times, families would give up one of their sons to the hijra community as an offering to the gods. They would then be castrated and wear saris, becoming half-man, half-woman. Hijras are different from TGs as the tradition represents a way of living through begging and favours. In modern India, most so-called hijras are not in fact castrated and many MSM and TG – the individuals who are the subject of this photo project – take advantage of the hijra tradition to get money at traffic lights and trains, or to seek out potential clients for sex. The portraits capture faces in stylised poses, revealing highly embellished and feminised appearances. The hijras delight in the process of transforming themselves into their female alter-egos, often getting together as ‘sisters’ to dress up. Most of them live ordinarily as men; many have regular jobs; and their night-time activity is often kept secret from their family and friends. My camera brings out the model, the actress, the performer in each one. There is still a huge taboo associated with homosexuality in India and because of the strong conservative values of its culture, misconceptions about homosexuality, transgenderism and prostitution are widespread. The MSM do not necessarily see themselves as homosexuals, though they divide themselves between coti (passives) and panti (active). Thanks to a large-scale programme aimed at controlling the spread of HIV and AIDS launched by the Indian government and NGOs, the majority of the MSM and TG community now knows about the transmission of HIV through unprotected sex and has access to free condoms. However, the use of condoms is still inconsistent and low. The MSM will usually have sex without a condom in exchange for more money, or they may make exceptions when they are attracted by a person’s physical appearance. According to a survey in 2004 by an MSM NGO in Mumbai, 20% of the gay community is HIV positive.
There is both beauty and sadness in this little-known sub-culture of India.
**Please note that all names have been changed to protect their identity**