Akkai Padmashalli is a male to female trans-woman and gender activist. Her journey is one of courage and determination. From begging on the streets and participating in sex work for two square meals a day, she is now an activist that has inspired many. In 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 in civil service.
In an interview to Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz, Akkai talks about her early years, on issues related to the sexual minority community, on the award and her future plans. Edited excepts
So, Akkai, I know that I stated the fact that you don’t need an introduction, but for the benefit of our listeners, 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 7 or 8, 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. Those boxes that masculine behavior is encapsulated in, I am against those boxes. Gender and sex is not natural, but they are just social constructs. I wanted to do something, and after working as a beggar and sex worker, I finally decided that I would speak up for the 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.
2) How did you become an advocate for human rights?
There was a huge amount of guilt we have no one to support us- no parents, no relatives. Even if they tried understanding us, they often made fun of us or ridiculed us because of the way we spoke and behaved.
3) Why did people make fun of you or treat you differently?
The society has specific constructs on how a girl should behave and how a guy should behave. Guys should be more outgoing and loud spoken, 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. This is the right time to educate people on the problems faced by sexual minorities, not only in a single sector, but in all sectors. We need to speak up.
4) How did the community enter the space of community radio?
I met Vijaya in Sangamam office, in 2008, where I was working as a part time staff. But later, I got promoted to be a full time staff. So, when Vijaya, an old friend, when she 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? At that time, I did not know the objectives of a community radio station and thought it was commercial. 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. At first, we spoke only little, but then we felt that we should be given a common platform for speaking on our issues. I still remember asking Vijaya if we could be given a whole day to discuss the many aspects of our gender. Because 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, pansexual, 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 stared 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 constant touch with them, to have an indirect relationship with the state government.
5). The Delhi High Court Ruling of 2009 was another important year for you. How did that impact your working on the ground?
We have inherited a colonial legacy and they said sex was to be used only for procreation. My question is that is sex to only be used 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. Vijay came to that celebration in UTC. Across the world, entire movements, like the LGBT communities, same sex community etc came together and joined on the streets. There were lakhs of people celebrating. India reached its zenith of new age thinking, we all requested Vijay to talk. We celebrated by cutting cake and stuff. This way we realized that media is very important. And the way we reach out to people can change our lives completely.
6). Not all the coverage on the sexual minorities’ community, specifically the print media, has been negative. What is your comment on the coverage of issues related to sexual minorities?
Yes, they have been very supportive. Especially in Bangalore. Though across India, that is not the case. Media is not very educated on the issues of sexual diversity. Lack of understanding even in Bangalore is present, but we managed to go past 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 was bridged constantly. Now, media is matured enough. That I can definitely say.
7). Can you briefly tell us about the issues you worked on, during the years 2010 to 2012?
2009 – 12 were my significant years. In Karnataka, the government was very supportive. Apart from this, the media and society became increasingly sympathetic towards the burning issues on hand. We had the backward classes’ commission, talking about transgender, 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 where the entire country was keen on knowing. Other communities objected too. They did not like the 2A reservation for 14% for transgender but the fact is that under that 14%, about 200 classes are included. A good thing happened, where went on field and did analysis on transgender plight. Bangalore University kept 1 % reservation for transgender, but till today no one has taken up that opportunity. This is because we could not complete our education beyond 10th std. 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, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka said that we are going to have a census for transgender, and awarded 75 lakhs for development and that slowly got implemented. Stories were written on struggles and challenges, and a lot of dimensions were covered, which made the common man accept. That’s how we succeeded.
8). You were invited by the President of India, in 2012. How exactly did that come about?
In 2011, the Karnataka Judiciary Wing of the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority came forward to listen about the plight of transgender, and who are they? What are the social issues they are facing? What is their emotional condition? What are the legal issues they are facing? So to get people to hear our voice, we all came together, for the first time we had a meeting where the Chief Justice of the High Court and the Chair person of the KSLSA were present. We feared that we would be arrested or something. That was a good experience. Then we had meetings where we decided that we would have regional consultations in Bellary, Mysore, Bangalore and Gulbarga and Shimoga. The show was a success and the entire judicial committee of Karnataka was aware of this show and its various connotations. This was a huge thing done by KSLSA .That time Ex CJI Altamas Kabir, was the Chairperson for the National Legal Services Authority. He had come to Bangalore to inaugurate the transgender program which had taken place in dhyanajyoti savangam. There Justice Manjula Chellur was also present. She was so close to the sexual minorities’ people and 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 Sepetember 29th 2012, I was ecstatic. I was the first transgender person who was invited, and that too at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. So, I started deciding 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, Former CJI Kabir spoke to us for more than 12 minutes, which was such an honor for us. I met top political leaders, officials and all. 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.
9) You were also invited by the Kerala government for something similar. How was that experience?
Yes, that was for Justice Majula’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 honored and I had all Kerala officials saluting me, and I was escorted in cars there too.
10). How easy or difficult was it for you, to get your passport done?
I applied for my passport in 2013 may. But my passport got inevitably delayed due to the gender confusion at the passport authorities. “Madame why don’t you tick the ‘others’ box”, I vehemently refused to do that, and argued that I must be allowed 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. There were very few passport officials who actually came forward and supported me during this heated argument that I had, and stated that discrimination on such causes was unjust. Those words reassured me. After that, the first place I travelled to was Japan. Before joining Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz, I went to Kerala, where I was invited as a chief guest, for the launch of Revati’s book, The Truth about me. Over there, I introduced myself as Akkai from radioactive, and was proud.
11) 2012 was again an important year for you, in terms of the sex reassignment surgery you went through. Was there advocacy that was done on your part, to make this surgery easily undertaken 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 counseling session, which will go on for almost 2 and half years. According to that surgery, I was counseled not to go for the reassignment surgery. From 2011 to 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 counseling session. I first went through Dr. Shekhar Sheshadhari who is a child psychiatrist. The sessions were handled with care as I handled their gender sensitization courses. From there was referred to M.S.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 counseling done. This is very important for us to lead a comfortable life.
12) 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 emulated my idol, ex President Pratibha Devi, and by doing so, I also ensured that no part of my body was visible to anyone. That was something I was uncomfortable with.
13) I still remember, that when in 2013 Supreme Court Judgment was passed, which included criminalizing consensual sex, you r 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 judgemnt passed by NALSA, which stated that transgender are equal citizens and I was extremely delighted. I called all my friends to the community radio station- Radio Active’s office and we all celebrated. This was because we got rights to legal services, inheritance, education, citizenship, marriage, adoption, health etc.
Following that, we organized sexual minorities Sate Convention, where we got all the bureaucrats, Ministers and Community together. All the people were supportive enough. They all extended their support and we felt humbled. Because of this consultation. In the month of July, the Government of Karnataka formed a committee where male to female and female to male transgender were recognized and this was also included in the budget session of 2015 to 2016. In this way, I feel that Karnataka is rapidly moving towards mainstreaming of thoughts and practices.
14) 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. Likeminded people came together, and we had our first meeting at UTC, where we focused on dignity, voice and sexuality. Support voice of voiceless community and their voice are heard in a proper way. There is also so much of embarrassment that comes with a person’s sexuality. I wanted to remove that taboo. Onedede means convergence in Kannada, the regional language of Karnataka, across the three different movements- children, women and sexual minorities.
15) So, did the award catch you by surprise?
My struggle is not about for an award. It was unexpected. This award is felicitated to people who have done something distinct for the state. So, there were 7 to 8 names suggested, and the panel selected me as the recipient of this award. I got a call on the 30th of September, where a Secretary called me and congratulated me on the award. It was a 10.30 pm, which was way past my bedtime. I was shocked, and I could believe this only when I saw the news on the news channel. Media has contributed hugely for people like us. I was supposed to go the Chief Minister’s guest house for tea. So many guests were there when I entered Vidhan Soudha Chief minister came and congratulated and called me Akkai amma . At Ravindra Kalakshetra where we gathered, 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 ministers hand and was moved. After that though, I felt very normal, but it was definitely unforgettable experience. My responsibilities have gone up towards the civil society movement. What’s next is something that we have to talk about. This award has given me the leverage I need, to take up matters faster, and make sure that they are seen through. Slowly movement is growing.
16) What will be your 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 this monsoon. My priority is to make sure that all the points which may have been left out in the bill, has to be 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 and 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
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