By Rohini Banerjee:
Akkai Padmashali has been one of the most prominent Indian transgender activists for a while now — not only working fearlessly for the rights of sexual minorities, but also giving the trans community some much-needed visibility. While she’s been truly breaking barriers through her social work, her journey hasn’t been an easy one. She has had to face a lot of prejudice and harassment, and has had to struggle a lot to find acceptance. But, her indomitable spirit has continued to rage against patriarchy, and, through her work, she continues to make the world a better place for the LGBTQ community.
We caught up with her for a long and interesting chat, where she had some insightful things to say about gender, sexuality, and changing the perceptions around the same in the time of regressive laws like Section 377.
How difficult was it to come out as transgender in a conservative society like ours?
It was unimaginable, in so many ways. You’re born with one sex, but you belong with another gender, and that was bound to create conflict in society. It went against family expectations, and my family was totally against it at first. From my school days itself, I have faced so much discrimination and harassment because of my body language and because of my identity—and it was so demotivating, because no one is there to support you and no one understands you. I felt so alone, that I tried to commit suicide.
At age 16, I told my brother—that I’m no more a boy, I’m a girl. Before that I was constantly told by my parents that it’s not acceptable—behave the way you are, because you are born with a penis and you have to behave in accordance with the so-called man-constructed norms. I fought against them. They asked me to quit the family, and I did, briefly. When I was away from my family for ten days, I saw the real world. The amount of public stigma, the amount of public harassment…being alone, you face so much difficulty, and there is no respect for your identity. Being a sex worker and beggar was eye-opening. The amount of violence I faced, the free sex they demanded from me, and the physical and mental abuse—those were the really sensitive times. I ultimately came back to my family, even though I had to compromise my identity for it.
So how did your family finally come to accept you?
When I told my brother as a 16-year-old that I’m actually a woman—he was the first one who accepted me, and tried to speak on my behalf to my parents. Though the rest of my family opposed my identity at first, slowly, over time, they began to come to terms with it. It took them 16 years, but now my whole family supports my identity, and they were all there for me during my sex-change surgery.
You recently became the first Indian transwoman to receive an honorary doctorate, and before that, you were the first transwoman in India to have a driver’s license with your actual name. How do such achievements make you feel?
The driving license was actually made possible because of the Supreme Court judgement on NALSA, which had given equal constitutional rights to trans people. So I decided to challenge public morality and applied for a driving license for a two-wheeler, and became the first transgender person to receive the license.
But before the NALSA judgement, when I had applied for my passport, I had faced enormous discrimination and stigma from the passport authorities themselves. People were talking about me behind my back, and I was constantly being made fun of. Finally, when I was supposed to travel to Geneva, I wasn’t able to, because of the passport delays. But, fortunately, while getting my driving license I did not face the same discrimination, and I was highly regarded by the local authorities.
But what I ask myself is—how many trans people in India get the same opportunity, to get an official driving license?
And as for the honorary doctorate…well I’m not here waiting for awards or doctorates or other kinds of acknowledgment, because my work is totally in the grassroots—with the working class, non-English speaking minorities, sex workers, children, women and so on. When they are conferring me such honours, like the Rajya Sabha award and the doctorate, it definitely gives pace and recognition to the movement. It takes the issues that we’re fighting for to a bigger platform, which is the important thing. With the recognition, my responsibility to do more is increased, but it’s also a motivation for us to continue our struggle. So that it isn’t only Akkai—and the movement spreads to others who can support and further our cause. I want more people to also get these awards.
What was your vision behind founding your organisation, Ondede?
‘Ondede’ is a Kannada word for ‘convergence’, and through our organisation, we work for the rights of women and sexual minorities. As you mentioned earlier, we live in a conservative society, and in the name of culture and traditions, there are so many biases that exist, and there’s so much violence happening—on the basis of caste, class, gender and so on. There is a lot of prejudice surrounding sexuality—sexism, transphobia and homophobia—so how do you combat them? How do you get all of these minorities together to speak about issues? That’s why Ondede was formed.
We are a fourteen-member stakeholder organisation, from different backgrounds—lawyers, activists, feminists, thinkers, writers, academics, artists—we have all come together to speak about the ‘convergence’ of these issues. It is also an important way to bring the dialogue between the trans rights movement and the women’s rights movements into the mainstream—and to bring all of these movements together. Our second goal is to change things at a legislative level. There are so many laws which are against us—the rape laws, domestic violence laws, section 377, civil rights, and of course the laws about juvenile justice. Somewhere, the government has a lot of loopholes when it comes to the protection of the rights of minorities, so we want to educate the government. Hence, we are trying to bridge the gap between the state and the common public. We are trying to work with the government to make the laws better and less discriminatory, and to challenge their focus on just the upper classes. We are working with the women and child ministry, public health and education ministries, and we’re working with religious leaders as well.
What are some of the challenges you have faced while working for the rights of sexual minorities in India?
It is definitely a challenging task. If you go back to ten years ago, trans people were not allowed inside courts, assembly houses, or government offices even. But today, due to our huge struggle, the State as well as the Judiciary are finally heeding our voices. After the Supreme Court judgement, Karnataka was the first state to implement its transgender policy, which addressed both the male to female and female to male transgender communities—and I was a drafting member of the policy. However, it wasn’t implemented very well, because the will to do so was lacking.
The formation of Commission for Transgender Rights and the Welfare Board For Transgender Rights is suffering from a backlog, and I alone can’t do this—the community needs to come together. But there are very few people across the nation who can take up and fight for this cause, which is unacceptable. Trans people should occupy more mainstream positions—and they should have access to the education to take such positions.
Are you happy with the Transgender Rights Bill that’s been introduced in the Lok Sabha? What are its shortcomings, if any?
I am very disappointed, and very disturbed with the present bill. The bill does not speak about self-identification, and has totally disregarded the Supreme Court’s NALSAR judgement. There are so many loopholes—it hasn’t mentioned a single thing about domestic atrocities and violence, or the right to expression, and the right to privacy has been totally curbed. I don’t think the bill is in favour of the community at all, and the ministry itself has ignored the thousands of comments and suggestions from the community. It’s just a naam ke vaastey bill (a bill in name only).
I even spoke to Minister Gehlot about this, and I asked him ‘Who are Transgenders?’, and he said ‘Hijras’. Transgender people are not just Hijras. There’s a vast variety of identities that go into the Transgender category—intersex people, female to male transgender people, local identities which exist on the basis of culture and tradition, and so on. I think somewhere they have done an injustice, and this bill is just not fair.
Do you think trans individuals are being given a fair chance at workplaces or is the discrimination keeping them away?
Certainly, there is discrimination happening. The majority of transgender people discontinue or drop out of schools, and very few who are economically well-off can occupy positions in big institutions and jobs. I think the whole issue then becomes about education. Trans people need better access to education to get better training for jobs, but even that education has to be bias-free.
Other than that, big multinational companies have anti-discrimination policies that are only there on paper, and are not properly implemented. People continue to face a lot of discrimination.
You have been one of the strongest voices against section 377, and recently filed a petition against it. Would you like to elaborate a little on how you have been fighting against this law?
First of all, I’m thankful for the NALSA judgement, which sees us as human beings and addresses the fundamental constitutional rights of trans people. But the judgement also implies that Section 377 stands, and continues to apply to the transgender community. There have been too many cases where transgender people have been booked under 377 in Karnataka and other places, due to discrimination. This law is undermining my dignity, my privacy, my right to mobility, so why should we even have such a section in our penal code?
I think the judiciary also assumes that transgender people are asexual—which is ridiculous. Of course I’m a sexual being, and have a partner—and many others do! Talking about employment and constitutional rights is good, but when it comes to my privacy, the state has the power to come and knock on my door and arrest me? How is that fair?
So that’s why we have filed this petition. We can’t be made into criminals in our own country, because I’m not ashamed of who I am. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has accepted our petition and referred it to the chief justice of India. I have a lot of trust in the judiciary and I am hopeful that it will recognise our rights.
What will be your message to the young LGBTQ people of India?
The biggest thing I’ll say is, accept who you are. Don’t just support gender identity and alternate sexual orientation—but believe in yourselves. Society has hazaar (thousands of) problems—if you wear a skirt, there’s a problem, if you eat beef, there’s a problem; so let’s not worry about what society thinks and instead, think about ourselves. And beyond that, think of raising all those issues which remain unspoken and ignored.