9 February 2001

Language Choice and Sexual Identity in New Delhi

Kira Hall

Stanford University

This paper investigates the role of language choice in the construction of sexual identity in New Delhi, India. The language practices that characterize the emergent urban gay and lesbian community contrast sharply with those of the hijras or kotis, transgendered communities that claim an indigenous lineage dating back to the eunuchs of the medieval Mughal courts. Tensions between the newer gay community and the long-standing hijra and koti communities materialize in language choice, with the upper-middle class gay community embracing English as an index of progressive sexuality and the comparatively lower class hijra and koti communities employing a variety they call "Farsi" as a marker of indigenous sexuality. The latter variety, structurally consistent with Hindi yet unintelligible to Hindi speakers, is characterized by distinctive intonational patterns and an extensive alternative lexicon. Although Koti/Hijra Farsi is unrelated to Persian Farsi, its speakers conceptualize it as the language of the Mughals, employing it in the construction of an historically authentic sexual identity. When gay-identified and koti-identified Hindi speakers come together, as in the non-governmental organization where I conducted my fieldwork, conversational interaction reveals much about local ideologies regarding the relationship between sexual identity, class, and language. Both groups find Hindi at times inadequate for the expression of same-sex desire, switching into either English or Farsi to distinguish themselves as gay or koti. Drawing from interviews and conversations I recorded in New Delhi during the spring of 1999, I uncover political, social, and global influences governing the choice of English, Hindi, or Koti/Hijra Farsi in liminal Delhi.