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Lost in trans-lation

25 November 2013 Posted by No Comment

By Urmila Pullat 

silence-of-the-lambsThe other day I was reading through all my notes of my internship with Grassrooted and I realised I had such a wealth of information. I also suddenly realised that I had written nothing about my experience in Lanka, with the wonderful people I interviewed for the very portal that got me interested in researching in Sri Lanka in the first place!

While at law school at Pune, a few years ago, while reading an article on the Grassrooted website, I got thinking about the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka and especially the transgender people. What are they like there?  Did they live in Hijra communities like in India, begging and frequently harassing passersby into parting with some money in a fit of revulsion? I decided that I would go to Lanka to see for myself!

I was fresh from haunting the by lanes of the Dhamdeere Galli in Budhwar Pet, the red-light area of Pune speaking to transgender sex workers whose acquaintance  I had made through Panna, my transgender friend. At the time my intention was to know and understand ways in which the trans community in India could be made more employable and my idea was to ascertain whether they were open to being trained and obtaining skills for entry level jobs, for eg. drivers, security guards, typists etc. To cut a long story short, yes they were. And this remains my big dream – to establish  a routing organization that will link the transgender community to companies and establishments willing to train and employ them. But I am veering from the point of this piece – my glorious 2 months in Sri Lanka, working out of the Grassrooted Office, eating kimbula buns and patties from the morning breakfast van, trying and failing miserably at cooking for myself and finally, the great, great interviews I was able to conduct.

That trans people in Sri Lanka were nothing like their Indian counterparts. They did not live in communities, although we had heard that there might be a few scattered across the country, and one reliable source spoke about a community in Negombo. I was unable to interview anyone from there but I did get the chance to interview many others in Colombo. The interviews and the Focus Group Discussions revealed so much and the focus of my research was to understand what it meant to be transgender in Sri Lanka and build a picture of the transgender identity because there was very little research on this.

Here’s what we learnt. And I will attempt to answer some very common questions I get asked about transgender people.

Gender and sex are very different things. More pertinently, gender and sexuality are very different things. Gender identities were various and there was a whole spectrum of permutations and combinations possible. One of the subjects, who was an extremely feminine transgender female, wanted breasts and was having hormonal treatment but also wanted to keep her penis. She was very clear that she enjoyed sex with her penis but she also loved the idea of having breasts. Another was bisexual. I even interviewed an Intersex female who was about to get married after surgery. And this brings me to the most common question I have been asked – “So transgender people are born with both penis and breasts right? They have both male and female organs no? “

No, actually a very small percentage of the transgender community is ‘hermaphrodite’. These are the Intersex people who are born with characteristics of both the male and female sex. The rest of the community are born as one sex and want to be the other. There are MTF (Male to female) and FTM (Female to male) and those who do not want to identify as either(and could fall into the third gender). Some of them get the Gender Reassignment Surgery(GRS) where they get a vagina or a penis constructed, get breasts or remove them, all coupled with hormonal treatment which increases the preferred hormone (male or female) in their bodies. Some have only hormonal treatment and there are yet others who do not want any of this and simply want to live as the opposite gender. For an MTF that would mean, wearing female clothes, make up, breast pads…and so on and so forth. The desires are as simple as that and yet society makes it so complicated for them to live as they will. All of this research has resulted in a paper titled ‘Transgendered in Sri Lanka: Gender Identity and the Law in Sri Lanka and India’ where I have proposed a model law for legal validation of the wide range of gender identities, so that accessing legal entitlements is not an uphill task in futility and presenting proofs of identity do not become a comedy of assumed mistaken identities. There is a really interesting incident that I still relate when people ask me about the necessity for such a law – one MTF trans person I had spoken to during an FGD in Colombo spoke of the times she had been stopped at airports by the immigration authorities because her passport said ‘Male’ while her she was dressed in a saree, had breasts, long hair and wore make up and flowers!

A more urgent need was exposed from the interviews. Most of the interviewees who wanted the surgery spoke of two things – the lack of qualified doctors, and the absence of hygienic, safe places to get the surgery done. A GRS is not a simple surgery and considering that most transgender people need it to live freely and happily, it is necessary that Sri Lanka passes a law regulating and setting forth guidelines for the safe, hygienic and non-threatening conduct of the GRS.

In the backdrop of the start of the 16 days of Activism against Gender base violence, I thought it fit to write about a section of the population that often goes unheard: The transgender people. For Gender-based violence applies as much to them as it does to women and children. They have the right to walk freely on the roads, to be free of harassment and solicitation, to not be thrown into jail for simply existing, to know that their appearance or profession does not mandate that they perform sex acts to be free from custody and to have the option of safe and hygienic surgery. To live. Free.



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