NO visitor to Thailand’s Pattaya is likely to come back without watching two of the most popular shows, Alcazar and Tiffany’s. Performed by transvestites — and there are a sizeable number of them in Thailand — the opera is an example of a high degree of skill in the performing arts. Before and at the end of the show, the audience gets a first hand encounter with the actors outside the auditorium. They sign autographs, wish their audiences, preen their make-up and literally spruce themselves up to appear as stylish as they possibly can. These transvestites have accepted their fate not with any feeling of being victimised but almost with pride that they are different.
Transvestites are known by the acronym MSM (male having sex with male). My second encounter with MSMs was in Manipur where they live an apparently normal life, although they may appear perverted to a socially “gender-correct” society. While conducting a study on the sexual behaviour of drug addicts and the deep linkages between heightened promiscuity and the spread of HIV-Aids, I had an interface with MSMs at an NGO office in Imphal. Like Thailand’s transvestites, this group, too, was not apologetic about behaviour. They admitted they were homosexuals and were quite happy being what they were. They dressed up more like females, gesticulated and behaved like women, although their male attributes were difficult to conceal.
It is one thing to be a homosexual but it is quite potent to also be a drug addict and/or alcoholic. This latter group is considered highly vulnerable to HIV-Aids. MSMs are members of all communities, all races and ethnicities, and all strata of society. What is different is that while Manipur’s MSMs are open about their behaviour and are seeking help to combat Aids, there are others in more reserved societies whose behaviour is still confined to the closet. In Meghalaya, for instance, it is taboo to even begin to discuss this issue. Homosexual behaviour is taboo and homosexuals under the veil. Frustration about their own and societal defined “abnormal natures” drive many young people to drugs. What follows is a vicious cycle of addiction, use of shared needles, sex and HIV-Aids.
Recently, Mizoram was in the news for reasons other than the moutam or regular starvation deaths due to the increase in rat population as a result of the flowering of the bamboo plant. The news was about the increased social activity of transvestites in Mizoram which has led to the spread of HIV-Aids. According to studies, a sizeable percentage of young people are affected by the disease. Mizoram is not only a tradition-bound society but its people also practice a very orthodox form of Christianity which preaches a conservative gospel where homosexuality is condemned as a sinful human perversion.
But despite the large attendance at churches, there is the seamier side of Mizo society which has bred a growing number of MSMs. The reasons for such societal aberrations may be many and may also stem from societal codes of conduct that demand strict compliance and do not tolerate differences in behaviour.
But whatever the reasons, the fact is that HIV-Aids has spread rapidly among a sizeable percentage of young people. According to NGO activists, the transvestites who are known by a local term “Tuai” are used to engaging in homosexual sex. A recent study conducted by a vernacular weekly magazine, Zogam, on 50 transvestites found that 38.4 per cent of the respondents have had sex with men. The study further revealed that while 70 per cent preferred to have sex with men, only 19 per cent said they would prefer female partners.
Activists working on HIV-Aids found that despite strict social norms of Mizo society, the transvestites had become belligerent and more visible. They are no longer willing to hide their inclinations in the closet of human aberrations. On the contrary, they have become more fashionable and more inclined to dress up like girls and at times are more elegantly turned out than most women are. They are no longer diffident about taking part in social functions and moving around in civil society.
MSM is a global problem and globalisation is far from being only a commercial transaction. It influences people’s world views, their aspirations and needs and also brings in a liberal lifestyle that traditional societies are unused to and unable to reconcile with. For the North-east it is a clash of civilisations. The West, for instance, has taken several centuries to process their civilisational trauma. India itself is known as an ancient civilisation, almost 5,000 years old. But the North-east, with its own civilisational history, has not had the leisure to develop at its own pace, as Nehru had desired.
Here is a region which in some ways is a melting pot of races juxtaposed to a very old civilisation called India and influenced by a Western religion and Western way of life. The pressure is often too much to handle. HIV-Aids and even the armed movement are assertions of such incompatibilities.
Mizoram is situated very close to Myanmar, a country known for drug trafficking. In fact, Mizoram is, along with Manipur and Nagaland, a very thriving drug route. With MSMs growing in number, there will be an added number that would need surveillance from the state and other agencies working with HIV-Aids. Recently an NGO in Meghalaya carried out a survey on 1,000 respondents who, because of their profession and lifestyles, are vulnerable to Aids. Eighty of the 1,000 samples tested HIV-positive. Yet Meghalaya society continues to remain in denial about the seriousness of the situation.
To reduce the rate of HIV infection particularly among MSMs, prevention efforts need to be designed taking into account the differences among them. But there is a felt need to sensitise society which on the one hand is moving in a trajectory which sees everything Western as good and which on the other hand is still so culturally conservative. Societal reaction towards transvestites is often one of reproach and discrimination, if not total social ostracism. But we live in an imperfect world where transvestites too are part of that universe. We have to take this in our stride.
(The author is a Shillong-based columnist and activist, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)