India's Kothi community defies gender roles despite persecution

A Woman In My Heart by Candace Feit captures a community of men who struggle to find a way to express their feminine identities.

From the Series

In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, men who identify as transgender have formed a community called the Kothi. The men who live in this community have assumed roles believed to be associated with women. Because they identify as transgender, these men live on the margins of society and are only able to fully express their true selves trough theatre, festivals, and religious rituals. Documentary photographer Candace Feit documents how the Kothi community uses these small spaces in their traditional culture to manifest their true gender identity, despite facing mounting pressure to conform and threats of violence.

Speaking to Quartz, Feit says the majority of men who identify as Kothi never fully transition or undergo gender reassignment. “They just want more freedom to express their gender identity. They form a community that, like any Indian village, is heavily centred on family life, but they are building their own social structures in the process.”

Despite a growing acceptance of those who identify as transgender, India’s transgender population still faces uncertain circumstances, ridicule and abuse. Many Kothi men hide the fact that they’re transgender and enter into heterosexual marriages and even father children. They live a secret double life that can only be expressed subtly. These are the stories of some of the men featured in Feit’s ongoing series, A Woman In My Heart.

“With these photos, I seek to capture the subtle ways that Kothis express their feminine identities; to capture the ways in which members of this community skirts the line between modernism and mysticism, and to use photography to observe the ways in which they manifest gender roles with dignity,” says Feit. 

A Kothi prepares to play the goddess Amman in the Mayanakollai festival.
Kothis dress as both goddesses and women during the spring festival.
The men in the Kothi community pave their own way despite strict gender roles.
Face painting and clothing are a big part of how the Kothis choose to express themselves.
The Mayanakollai is the spring festival in which most Kothis choose to express themselves.
The festival provides a much needed escape from the pressures to settle down and start a family the traditional way.
The festival provides a much needed escape from the pressures to settle down and start a family the traditional way.