State and media support LGBT activism: Akkai Padmashali

From being a person who had to face societal opposition, to the one who gets Rajyotsava award for her activism, she has come a long way. Here's an interview that throws light into Akkai Padmashali's life and thoughts.

Pic courtesy: Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali

Akkai Padmashali is a male-to-female trans-woman and gender activist. Her journey is one of courage and determination. In November 2015, Akkai became the first transgender to be awarded the Rajyotsava Award, the second highest civilian honor presented by the Karnataka State government for her work. Here are the edited excerpts of her interview with Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz.

So, Akkai, can you tell us something about yourself?

Akkai is just a normal simple human being. I was born a boy, but at the age of seven or eight, I felt a transformation within me. Psychologically too, there was a lot of tension, and because of this transformation, my parents could not accept the fact that I was this way, and no one was willing to listen to my story. Finally, at the age of 16, I confessed to my brother, who was shocked, yet accepting. Later, he spoke to my parents, who rewarded him with a slap on his face. They were shocked that he supported me on this.

I was named Jagdish, but my pet name was Jaggi.  I felt very uncomfortable wearing pant, shirt and living a life that was a lie. I put on my mother’s bra, makeup, my sisters slippers, and when no one was around, I displayed my true self in front of the mirror. At the age of 11 and 12, I attempted suicide and was obviously, unsuccessful.

Today, I am proud to be known as a woman. I wanted to do something, and after working as a beggar and sex worker, I finally decided that I would speak up. We are not criminals, we are not antisocials. Yet there was a lack of people who can come up to the forefront and talk on issues like this.  So, that is me, a middle class, working, non-English background Akkai.

How did you become an advocate for human right issues?

There was a huge amount of guilt and we have no one to support us—no parents, no relatives. Even if people tried understanding us, they often made fun of us or ridiculed us because of the way we spoke and behaved.

Why did people make fun of you or treat you differently?

Absolutely! The society has specific constructs on how a girl should behave and how a guy should behave. Guys should be more outgoing and outspoken, whereas a girl is supposed to soft-spoken and demure. But for me, the struggle was internal where I was trying to figure out if I was a boy or a girl. My father told me that I was a boy because of my birth, and at a point I believed him too. But in quiet moments, I was always certain that I was female. My mother would often chide me for it. My sister was born with female organs and that was the only thing needed to classify her as a female. Because of this distinction, people like us are often left hanging in the middle. We needed to speak up.

Pic courtesy: Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali

How did you enter the space of community radio?

In 2008, I was working as a part time staff, in Sangamam office. I got promoted to be a full time staff. So, when Vijaya, an old friend, approached me for a program on sexual minorities, I was shocked. I thought that, why would a radio station be interested in a story like ours? After due explanations, I agreed to do a show with them. At first, I did not talk about the advocacy laws. I spoke about the person, his or her feelings, marriage, sex work, family, community crisis etc. But then we felt that we should be given a common platform for speaking on our issues.

Sexual minorities is not just a single aspect. There are variations like male to female transgender, female to male transgender, homosexual men, homosexual women, bisexuals, pansexuals, lesbians, jogappas, shiv shaktis, etc. There are so many identities that people are not aware of, and we used this platform to educate them. After talking on the problems, we started telling people how to address the problem. Through one of our shows, a person from the Department of Women and Child Development contacted us, and we keep in constant touch with them, to have an indirect relationship with the state government.

The Delhi high court ruling of 2009 was another important year for you. How did that impact your working on the ground?

I think it was a beautiful judgment that came out on 2009 July 2nd. It said section 377 was implemented by British in 1860s when they ruled India. They said that sex should be used only for procreation. But the question we had was that is sex meant only for procreation? So, we as a community sent petitions in the year 2001 and 2002 and finally, there was a beautiful judgment passed in 2009, which stated that consensual sex was allowed. It spoke not only of sex, but also of a person’s dignity. We all came on the streets, and celebrated.

Across the world, entire movements, like the LGBT communities, same sex communities etc came together and joined on the streets. There were lakhs of people celebrating. This way we realised that media is very important. And the way we reach out to people can change our lives completely.

Not all the coverage on the sexual minorities’ community, specifically the print media, has been negative. What is your take on the coverage of issues related to sexual minorities?

Yes, they have been very supportive, especially in Bengaluru. Though across India, that is not the case. Media is not very educated on the issues of sexual diversity. Lack of understanding is present even in Bengaluru, but we managed to control it. Post the Delhi high court judgment, there has been awareness. Not only in sexual minorities related to the transgender community, but also homosexuality, bisexuals, pansexual, lesbians, sexuality and its politics and diversity. The gap has bridged constantly. Now, media is matured enough. That I can definitely say.

Can you briefly tell us about the areas you worked on, during the years 2010 to 2012?

2009 to 2012 were my significant years In Karnataka. The Karnataka government was very supportive. Apart from this, the media and society became increasingly sympathetic towards the burning issue at hand. Between 2009 to 2012, we had the Backward Classes’ Commission, talking about transgenders, who don’t have one religion caste or class.  “Why can’t we have a common community”, was the question we all asked. That was undertaken by me.

Huge public hearing happened. Other communities objected.  They did not like the 2A reservation of 14% for transgender, but the fact is that under that 14%, about 200 classes are included. A good thing happened, where we went on field and did analysis of the plight of transgenders. Bangalore University kept 1% reservation for transgenders, but till today no one has taken up that opportunity. This is because we could not complete our education beyond 10th standard.

Later, Karnataka government came forward in 2010, with a government order copy, which stated that transgender should be given housing, employment, education, ration cards, voter ids etc. In 2010, Chief Minister of Karnataka said that we are going to have a census for transgenders, and awarded 75 lakhs for development works. Stories were written on struggles and challenges, and a lot of dimensions were covered, which made the common man accept us. That’s how we succeeded.

You were invited by the President of India, in 2012. How did that come about?

In 2011, the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority came forward to listen to the plight of transgenders. Then we had meetings where we decided that we would have regional consultations in Bellari, Mysore, Bengaluru, Gulbarga and Shimoga. The show was a success. Entire judicial committee of Karnataka was aware of this show and its various connotations. This was a huge thing done by KSLSA.

That time, Altamas Kabir was the chairperson for the National Legal Services Authority. He had come to Bengaluru to inaugurate the transgender program that took place in Dhyanajyoti Savangam. There, Justice Manjula Chellur was present. She was friendly with us. She asked me to sing a song that I had written, in English. So, I sung that before Justice Kabir. He was so impressed that he asked me to come to his swearing in ceremony. I thought he was joking, but when I got an official invitation from the president of India on September 29th 2012, I was ecstatic.

So, I started preparing for what I would wear—the jewellery, the makeup etc. Finally, the day came, and I was personally escorted in a car where I was shown the Durbar Hall. There, I met Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani and many other important people. After the swearing in ceremony, Justice Kabir spoke to us for more than 12 minutes, which was such an honor for us. I met top political leaders, officials and others. It was there, for the first time, that I did not feel an iota of ridicule and discrimination. Kalki was another transgender who was present there, as a part of the same program, and both of us had a beautiful experience.

You were also invited by the Kerala Government. How was that experience?

Yeah, that was for justice Manjula’s swearing in ceremony. She was the senior judge at High Court of Kerala, from where she was given the position of the Chief Justice of Kerala High Court. This happened before justice Kabir’s swearing in ceremony. I was extremely honoured and I had all Kerala officials saluting me, and I was escorted in cars there too.

How easy or difficult was it for you, to get your passport done?

I applied for my passport in May 2013. But my passport got inevitably delayed due to the gender confusion at the passport authorities. “Madam, why don’t you tick the ‘others’ box?” I vehemently refused to do that, and argued that I got to get to choose my gender. Finally, they agreed to let me select my gender as female. During this period, I had to travel to Geneva to address the United Nations General Assembly on the issues of discrimination and the Indian status of the sexual minority’s agenda. I missed that out due to my passport delay, but after all the hardship, I finally got myself a passport which stated my gender as female. I was happy, because after a lot of struggle, I got something which challenged the entire notion of patriarchy.

After that, the first place I travelled to was Japan. Before joining Radio Active, I went to Kerala, where I was invited as a chief guest, for the launch of Revati’s book, The Truth about Me.

Pic courtesy: Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali

2012 was again an important year for you, in terms of the sex reassignment surgery you went through. Was there any advocacy that was done on your part, for SRS to be taken up by the hospital?

Across the world, people are going through this surgery, as a part of the Harry Benjamin protocol. Here, the person who is confused about his or her identity has to undergo a counselling session, which will go on for almost 2.5 years. According to that protocol, I was counselled not to go for the reassignment surgery. Between 2011 and 2012, I was highly frustrated and felt like chopping up my biological organs myself.  

I spoke to some of my friends and decided to go to NIMHANS again, for a sex reassignment surgery counselling session. I first went through Dr Shekhar Sheshadri who is a child psychiatrist. The sessions were handled with care. From there was referred to MS Ramaiah hospital, where I was started on my hormone therapy. Though in my case, there was a reverse process which was adopted, where I was asked to go in for the sex change surgery first and then have hormone therapy sessions. Because of this, almost 40 people from my community took my lead and were able to change their sex with the right counselling done. This is very important for us to lead a comfortable life.

After this surgery, you consciously decided to change your attire, and adorn saris. Why was that?

My desire to change the way I dress, was present since I was a child, but I could do that only with confidence, after my surgery. So, after that decision was made, I now contemplated which sari to wear. I also ensured that no part of my body was visible to anyone—that was something I was uncomfortable with.

I still remember, that when in 2013, the Supreme Court judgment was passed, which included criminalising consensual sex, your reaction to it was a mixed range of emotions. But, in an instant you got over that, and single-mindedly decided to pursue your line of vision. Following that, the 2014 NALSA judgment came about, for which you worked so hard to get a state consultation. I want to know what that consultation was all about.

In 2013, the social justice litigation was filed by NALSA, as you mentioned. Then in 2014, there was a judgment passed by NALSA, which stated that transgenders are equal citizens and I was extremely delighted. I called all my friends to the Radio Active office and we all celebrated. This was because we got rights to legal services, inheritance, education, citizenship, marriage, adoption, health etc. in the next few days, we organised a sexual minorities state convention, where we got all the bureaucrats together. All the people were sportive enough. They all extended their support and we felt humbled.

In the month of July, government of Karnataka formed a committee where male to female and female to male transgender were recognised and this was also included in the budget session of 2015-16. In this way, I feel that Karnataka is rapidly moving towards mainstream thoughts and practices.

So, by the end of November 2014, you decided that you did not want to look at the sexual minority community in isolation, and wanted a convergence. Why?

After coming to Radio Active, I thought that sexual minority’s agenda cannot be restricted to the sexual minorities alone. Out there, it was a world of transphobic and homophobic people, and I wanted to find a way to fight this thought. That is why I thought about this convergence aspect. Like-minded people came together and we focused on dignity, voice and sexuality.  There is also so much of embarrassment that comes with a person’s sexuality. I wanted to remove that taboo. OndeDe, which means convergence in Kannada, which works towards the rights of women, children and sexual minorities and their human rights, is an organisation started by me, which is a reflection of everything I am.

Pic courtesy: Facebook page of Akkai Padmashali

So, did the award catch you by surprise?

My struggle is not about an award. It was unexpected. This award is given to people who have done something distinctive for the state in honour of Karnataka getting recognised as a separate state. So, there were seven  or eight names suggested, and the panel selected me as the recipient of this award. I got a call on September 30th informing me about the award. It was a 10.30 pm call, which was way past my bedtime. I was shocked, and I could believe this only when I saw the news on the news channel. I was supposed to go the Chief Minister’s guest house for tea. So many guests were there when I entered Vidhan Soudha. The Chief Minister came and congratulated and called me Akkai Amma.

Ravindra Kalakshetra was where we gathered and I received the award. It was very crowded and when my name was announced, everyone stood up and I was floored. I held the Chief Minister’s hand and was moved. After that though, I felt very normal, but it was definitely unforgettable. My responsibilities have gone up towards the civil society movement.

So, what will the focus areas of work, this year?

Going back to 2014, DK Shiva of the DMK political party, placed the private member bill in favor of the transgender person rights bill. This bill has been accepted by the Rajya Sabha and will be coming before the Lok Sabha in the next monsoon session. My priority is to make sure that all the points which may have been left out in the bill, are included in the bill, and it is a huge process. The second point is that, across the Indian population, there are very few people who are actually outspoken. Our concern is to make even the silent ones, a part of the conversation milieu. We want more leaders from the sexual minority community to emerge, and support us in this endeavor of ours.

– Transcribed by Rukaiyah, student, Jain University

Audio of the interview:

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