I have learned to fight back and live life on my own terms

By Lekshmi Parmeswaran
In Interview
April 4, 2016
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In a world that is known for its rigidity of established values and practices, Kalki Subramaniam is a name to reckon with. As a transgender person, her battles have often revolved around creating an identity for herself. Her unwavering faith in herself and her abilities helped her to emerge victorious in each and every one of those struggles. Today, she has earned herself the distinction of being the country’s first transgender entrepreneur and is also the founder of Sahodari Foundation which works for the empowerment of transgender people in India. Lekshmi Parameswaran of Governance Today spoke to Kalki to get a deeper insight into the issue of gender identity and know about her vision for the transgender community. Edited excerpts:

KALKI SUBRAMANIAM

Kalki Subramaniam | Founder, Sahodari Foundation

Can you take us through your journey?

It has been tough and challenging and it still is. However I have learned to fight back and live life on my own terms.

Because of my gender identity I have faced discrimination and stigma throughout my life. But today I live with pride. I live a happy life mainly because I stopped worrying about people’s criticism.

You are a successful entrepreneur. How difficult was it to get accepted in a space that remains male dominant?

I am an artist at heart and business is new to me. I wanted to promote village craftsmanship and do my part to revive our ancient wisdom. That is the reason I started Brand Kalki Handicrafts. I have approached so many people to seek support and to promote my handicrafts. I had been welcomed warmly and encouraged greatly. My growth as an entrepreneur is slow but steady. I want to be known as a business woman with ethics and not here to make quick money. I promote wind chimes, xylophones and other genuine craft works.

Tamil Nadu is one of the most transgender friendly states in India. The system of Guru and Chela has been instrumental in helping people overcome the societal bias. Can you elaborate on how this functions?

Usually a male to female transgender person, when rejected by their biological family needs the emotional support and social security. This is offered by the Jamaath in the Hijra community. A transperson is inducted as a part a disciple/daughter of any hijra that she considers her guru or mother. It is a unique system which has been supportive for those abandoned by their families. However, over the years it has also become highly exploitative and some gurus force their chelas into sex work and begging. I am not a hijra, yet I have a guru who is more like a friend to me.

Though the government has finally given legal recognition to transgenders, the fight for equality seems to be a long drawn out struggle. What are the measures that the government can take to ensure equal social, political, economic and cultural rights for the community?

Educating on gender and sexuality to our adolescent children at schools is of primary importance. The government must find ways to implement it without inhibitions. This will reduce gender based violence drastically over the years. Reservation in jobs and education is a must for the upliftment of the transgender community. Existing laws should be practically inclusive in protecting transgender people.

In India, transwomen have been able to create a space for themselves in the society.  But transmen still remain hidden. What could be the reason for this?

Living in a patriarchal society, transgender women who are mostly born as men find ways to come out and choose a life for themselves. Being born as a woman biologically a transgender male finds it difficult or impossible to come out and live in their true identities as a man. Being in a woman’s anatomical gender blocks his freedom in so many ways.

Please throw light on the activities of your organization Sahodari.

Sahodari is a small organization which functions in an informal way with the help of volunteers and friends. Being small and with no funds, we have done a tremendous work and created impact for the betterment of Transgender people’s lives which even an NGO with a million dollar fund could not do. Sahodari focuses on saving people from suicide, inspiring them with a hope for a good life, providing them with the proper guidance and support and be the bridge for providing education and employment opportunities for transgender people.

The bill introduced by Shashi Tharoor to decriminalize Article 377 was defeated in the Parliament once again. What could be done to sensitize people to be more accepting of different identities?

Same sex love is seen as something imbibed from the West. Love cannot be criminalized. If it is, then our culture is barbaric and we are inhuman. Section 377 violates human rights. More result oriented sensitization strategies need to be initiated to inform people, create awareness and understanding about LGBTQI people.

What is your vision for the future of transgender community in general?

To be accepted in their families as any other child, loved, protected and assured full support in education and allowed to pursue the career they dream about, the person they wanted to be. Only family acceptance will put an end to the problem of transgender people becoming sex workers and beggars for their livelihood.