Sexual Minorities and the Nupi Sabis of Manipur - Part 2 -

Sadokpam Ranjeeta Devi *

Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal :: March 10 2013
Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal in March 2013 :: Pix by Deepak Oinam

Gendered Socialisation

Their fondness for certain types of work, seen as 'women's work,' is a continuation of the childhood games of 'Laidibi sanaba' (playing with dolls), 'Chakthongbi' (a game where children play-act cooking) and 'Eta Koibi' (Girls play act, decking up as women and visiting friends) that appealed to them the most, despite severe family discouragement. Most of them grow up playing all the games categorised as girl's games and also preferred only girls as his friends for which he was reprimanded.

Some of the 'lila nup sabis' I met changed their names to protect their real identities. They refrained from their identity to be revealed as those involved in Shumang lila are in a peculiar position where the director of the Lila tries to keep a professional space and thus not encourage the nupi sabis to flirt with the other artists, and hence tries to project the nupi sabis not as individuals with different sexuality.

This has also coloured the nupi sabis's sense of self and hence they also do not want to project their identity as such. However, for the nupi sabis the performative space also becomes a space to find eligible partners and thus this space is marked by conflict of interest amongst the many who interact in this space.

Thus, on one hand, the space which overtly seems like a liberating space for people with different sexuality becomes a restrictive space owing to gendered and moralistic notion of professionalism as imposed by Shumang Lila Directors/ Managers who are heterosexual men.

The world of work

The difficulties in negotiating their gendered habitus and the expectations thrust upon them being born a 'son' to the family accompanied by the familial desire that they get involved in so called 'manly work' is more pronounced during childhood. In the course of their professional lives, their self-sustenance (bringing in income for the family) and their popularity in their professions has helped family members accept their gendered sense of self.

Most of them are involved in creative and artistic pursuits as well as in the 'beauty' industry. The most common career options for them are being beauticians, knitting, textile designing, being artists (in Sumang Lila, Crafts) and some are strong activists in health and human rights issues.

Two of my respondents gained immense popularity in their work. Both are the most sought after make-up artists in the Manipuri film industry as well as take up assignments to do bridal make-up. Thus, the family members' acceptance of their sexuality is closely related to their status as earning members.

One nupi sabi I met during the course of my study had acted in more than 50 plays as the female protagonist. He has toured in many states of India and has been selected for fellowship with a prestigious institute for performing arts. Theater remains his first and the most enduring commitment. To him this is solely his artistic endeavor and he does not look at this space as a space to pursue or meet eligible partners.

He was also hesitant to reveal his sexuality and calls himself a heterosexual male involved in cross dressing for the theatrical act only though other sources informed me of his sexual status and his earlier involvement with a troupe managed solely by homosexuals and who source their artist also from the same group.


The nupi sabi I met were mainly homosexual and are completely aware of and understand their sexuality, yet they are forced to live under hidden identities because of the discrimination and abhorrence meted out by the society towards them. They are constantly forced to compromise with their sexuality in order to safeguard and protect themselves.

I have encountered during my case studies many such incidences of problems faced by them as they attempt to be a part of society dominated by heterosexist sexual norms. In an effort to make themselves a part of such notions of normality, some of them are compelled to get married to women.

To project himself as a heterosexual in order to gain acceptance from his peers, one of my respondents attempted to have an affair with a girl. He even managed to establish an affair with a girl that did not last long but after this incidence he was accepted as a friend. He is discontented with his sexuality because of the way society looks at homosexuals. He also wants to get married even though he was convinced of his sexuality, he wants to marry solely to fulfill his mother's wishes as he is quite attached his mother.

Another respondent I met was a very popular figure. He disclosed that he left school as people made fun of his homosexuality.

Political identities

Yet some still exist who are well-educated, who completely accept their sexuality and actively participate and work for the emancipation of people like them. One respondent introduced himself as "I am a homo " in an assertive yet comfortable manner.

This illustrates the earlier point in this article of how the term 'homo' is not thought of as an abuse and also marking the nupi sabi identity as not 'gay,' but a particular mediation of homosexual identity. Most nupi sabi introduced themselves with this term. Some of them are well-informed of discourse on gender and sexual minority issues.

Some of them have even worked in popular NGOs and have even studies various issues related to MSM (Men who have sex with men). It is interesting to note that I came across only two such respondents who were well-educated and well-informed with what is happening in the other parts of the world for their cause and rights.

This can be attributed to a deeper level of the lack of acceptance of sexuality beyond certain norms and the effort placed on keeping such 'abnormality' under wraps or it can indicate that it is an accepted part of Manipuri life and these men feel no need to mobilise around their identities which would make them stick out and make acceptance an issue.

There is a lack of a consolidated attempt to educate themselves on issues of sexuality and consequently a sustained struggle for their acceptance is missing but this may not necessarily be detrimental to them. However, there are no NGOs based solely on the LGBT issues and most gatherings are informal and self funded and does not receive any funds.

The NGOs are not working in the area of sexuality per se but happen to have staffs who belong to sexual minority group or those NGOs who also work with homosexuals minimally while addressing health issues or more specifically those working on HIV/AIDS.


Being born physiologically a man and psychologically a woman is one of the greatest contradictions with which they have to live with. Societal norms which do not accept fluid sexuality and the demand for well-demarcated 'black and white' identities place a lot of stress on them. Their family and community, living with constructed and constricted notions of sexuality, put them in a peculiar position of having to live a dual life.

Their acceptance of their own sexuality however becomes a process of negotiation with demands for biological progeny from them to carry on with lineage, especially if they are the only male child of the family, to inherit familial property based on patriarchal and patrilocal structures and to play the role of the 'man'.

This, in turn, makes even the ones who resist heterosexual family and strive to live on their own terms, eager for acceptance.

What is clear is that the nupi sabis do not fit the conventional rubric of 'gay' identity and that their sense of self and inhabitation in Manipuri society involve a complex set of negotiations that display differing levels of rejection and acceptance as well as the creation of a space for a distinct cosmology and social world, however beleaguered by the pressures of heterosexual Manipuri society.

While NGOisation and the discourses of sexual self-realisation that come with them offer one articulation of a kind of identitarian politics, the majority lead unmarked and non-indentitarian (in the conventional sense) lives that nonetheless carve out spaces for themselves and demand acceptance without drawing attention to themselves as different.

The multiple identities that inhabit the nupi sabi's body and mind offer us a way out of the simplistic, equally black-and-white sexual minority identities of LGBT and offer a way out of those categories that show an engagement with the sociological particularities of the contexts in which local communities of sexual minorities live.

Concluded ..

** (This article is an extract from one of my papers already published in Eastern Quarterly)

* Sadokpam Ranjeeta Devi write this articlee for to Hueiyen Lanpao
This article was posted on January 25, 2015.

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