For years, the hijras of India — people who identify as belonging to a "third gender" — held a special place in society.
"Hijras were both revered and feared as powerful entities who lived between the sexes," according to photographer Jill Peters. “They were believed to bestow good fortune and fertility by dancing at weddings and the births of children."
But discrimination and a lack of understanding chipped away at that stature, Peters said, leaving the hijra minority "on the margins of society."
That was the case when Peters came across a group of hijras at a Delhi marketplace in 2007. She asked her guide about them. His answer? "Just stay away from them."
But Peters, whose work focuses on gender identity and sexuality, persisted. Soon after, in Mumbai, she said she approached a beautiful hijra on the street and asked if she could take her photograph. That shoot inspired a series of portraits of hijras in a studio and, later, on the beach.
Peters quickly learned of the heartbreaking discrimination faced by her subjects, some of whom had been shunned by their families and rejected by mainstream employers, forced instead to rely on begging or sex work to raise money to cover medical and other expenses. Her goal, as she writes in the project's introduction, became to "portray them as the subjects of beauty and grace they so desperately wish to be, as if their path to nirvana had not been impeded by a century-and-a-half of prejudice and intolerance."
Peters told Refinery29 that she has come to believe that "a lot of hijras put on a fierce act out of necessity."
"They have a reputation as being provocative. Getting to know my subjects one-on-one provided me with a special insight: Do not believe the stereotype," she said. "I was struck by how naturally graceful and feminine they are. I think that quiet dignity comes through in the portraits."
Ahead, stunning portraits and stories from Peters' photo series, Nirvan: The Third Gender of India. View more of Peters' work with burneshas, people who are born female but live their lives as male "sworn virgins" in parts of Albania, here.
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