Shakthi Nataraj "Failed femininity: The Tamil term "koti" as a site of exposure and nostalgia"

Shakthi Nataraj will be presenting her paper "Failed femininity: The Tamil term "koti" as a site of exposure and nostalgia" at Anthropological Inquiry. 

Abstract: Anthropologists have for centuries produced scholarship about the "sexuality of savages" in former colonies, but, as Kath Weston complains, this scholarship is rarely seen as a precursor to the "queer studies" and "sexuality studies" that supposedly entered academia in the 1990s. One impetus for this entry was the HIV/AIDS epidemic which emerged in San Francisco in the 1980s, and quickly took the form (at a time of expanding neoliberal markets) of a global health apparatus addressing sexually marginalized populations in postcolonial nations. When India opened up its markets in the 1990s, researchers, non-profit organizations, and policymakers in the HIV/AIDS sector in Indian cities quickly positioned themselves as cultural brokers, translating global health categories such as "Men who have Sex with Men" into reified "local" categories. Anthropologists in their turn, cautioned against the reductiveness of such translations, exhorting scholars to attend ever more carefully to the "local" specificity of sexual idioms. Emergent debates implicitly assume that this encounter between "local" and "global" sexuality began in the 1990s. They don't situate their own analytic category of "sex" in the context of bodies of scholarship (colonial forensic science, Victorian pulp fiction, ethnology, to name a few) that have long circulated between India and Europe. 

Chennai, Tamil Nadu has a long tradition of HIV/AIDS activism, and therefore of translating "MSM" to Tamil. Koti is one such translation, described to me by informants as "a person that is born a man, and is female inside, but doesn't elect to undergo surgery". Koti is often contrasted to thirunangai- "someone that has undergone surgery and committed to living as a woman", but people is often alternately koti or thirunangai or both, based on context. I perform a close reading of a raunchy Tamil short story about a koti sex worker, placing it in dialogue with a reading group in which activists read the story aloud and debated its meaning. I show how as the text unfolded in real-time, the body of the koti came alive between us in the room, as a sign with radically indeterminate meaning. In the debates that followed, it was not just sexuality, or even meaning that was at stake, but concerns about everything from the "rich IT boys" working in Chennai's new tech industry sector, to the nostalgia felt for ones male body (pre-operation). I hope not only to shift the focus from "sexuality" as our object of study, but also suggest a method by which we can explore how dense histories congeal and dissipate in an utterance, often in volatile and unpredictable ways. 
If you would will be joining us, please RSVP and request a copy of the paper by emailing Jesús Gutiérrez ( or Ned Dostaler ( by Wednesday, April 26. Snacks and light refreshments will be provided.
Event details
Friday, April 28, 2017 - 3:00pm - 5:00pm
2224 Piedmont, Room 15