Photographing A Year In India’s Queer “Kothi” Community

Photographer Candace Feit has spent the last year documenting the lives of a community of people who call themselves “Kothi” in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Candace Feit

The term “Kothi” describes a wide swath of identities and relationships, including “married fathers who have male lovers, people born male who wear female dress and male-born people who wear traditional women’s clothing only during religious festivals or celebrations” says photographer Candace Feit.

Candace Feit

“In December 2013, the judges of India’s highest court overturned a 2009 lower court decision that decriminalized gay sex between consenting adults. While convictions on the law have been rare – none in the last 20 years - the law has been used to harass sexual minorities, particularly transgender people.The ruling underscores a longstanding tension in Indian society between western-style laws, inherited from British colonizers, and traditional practices that have allowed gay and transgender communities across to negotiate a panoply of sexual and gender identities within the confines of traditional values.”

Candace Feit
Candace Feit

Jagada Guru, whose Kothi name is Arundhati, sits with his two children.

“Some Khoti are quietly battling with their families about the expectation that they will soon marry and have children, while others are completely estranged from their families as a result of their gender identity expression. They all take what they describe as the female role in sex and give one another female names, by which they address one another.

In the places where they gather together - in their temples during religious celebrations, or in certain kothi’s homes - they create their own spaces to express their gender and sexuality. They do this through the theatre of religious festivals and the assuming of traditional gender roles. For example by gathering together to do what they call “women’s work:” chopping down wood and preparing and serving food together and practicing traditional Indian dance. This juxtaposition between reality and make-believe creates space for them to be the women they feel themselves to be.”

Candace Feit

“Yet even as traditional culture allows small spaces for Kothis, they are inevitably forced to be outsiders – something that the debate over the ruling re-criminalizing homosexual sex brings into sharp focus.”

Candace Feit

Sheethal smokes a cigarette in her apartment in Pondicherry. Sheethal acts as a guru
to many of the younger kothis in this community who refer to her as their mother and
she to them as her daughters.

Candace Feit

A group of people, including several kothis prepare food at Sivagami’s house. For
many of the kothis, who live with their families, being able to prepare and serve food
– considered to be “women’s work” is a way for them to express part of their female
identity.

Candace Feit

A goat being prepared for sacrifice during the Mayanakollai festival in the village of
Devanapattinam. The Mayankakolli festival celebrates the deity Angalamman.

Candace Feit

Sivagami, in trance state, after slaughtering a goat at her temple.

Candace Feit

Mohana holds her niece while sitting with her family in their house in the village of
Devanapattinam.

Candace Feit

Mohana, preparing to play the Goddess Kali at the Mayanakollai festival in the village
of Devenappatinam.

Candace Feit

A kothi from the village Devenappatinam poses with her father.

Candace Feit

A kothi from the village Devenappatinam takes puja during the end of the Mayanakolli festival.

Candace Feit

Sivagami, temple priestess, makes offerings to the Gods.

Candace Feit

Two daughters of Sheethal get ready for a function celebrating Sheethal’s first birthday — marking one year after her gender-reassignment surgery.

Candace Feit

Laksheaya (far right) poses with her mother and brother in their house in Devenappatinam. Laksheaya’s family is very supportive of her kothi identity. Her brother often hangs out with her and her kothi friends.

Candace Feit

Sheethal taking puja at her first birthday.

Candace Feit

Raja, a body builder who also dresses as a woman to perform classical Indian dance and who has kothi sexual partners, poses for a portrait in Devenpattinam.

23. Feit plans on returning to India in April to continue documenting the “Khoti” community. You can learn more about her work and purchase prints of her photographs here.

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