I’m on a mission to empower India’s transgender community, one painted palm at a time
Kalki Subramaniam is a transgender rights activist, artist, and founder of the Sahodari Foundation. The opinions in this article belong to the author. I remember my childhood so vividly. Until age 11, he was a playful and happy boy at home, and a good student at school. Growing up in rural India, I was considered the most privileged girl between my two sisters, having been born a man. Yet deep down, I longed to be my true self.
I was a naturally effeminate boy. I felt awkward when they called me “him,” and there seemed to be a girl inside who liked everything a girl my age liked. This made me a constant target. But I wasn’t afraid of those big, intimidating kids and I defended myself, I was never ashamed of who I was. Then, at 14, I gave up. After I began to lose interest in school, certain teachers became aggressive and punished me with a cane. I could never tell my parents. Amid painful episodes of shame and doubt, I considered ending my own life, even though my family’s love prevented me from doing so.
I cut class and would go to parks and woods to get away from everyone. Under the trees, I wrote poetry and imagined my future life in drawings, which helped me heal my internal wounds.
When I finally came out as a transgender for my parents, they took me to a psychiatrist to help me with my gender dysphoria, or the distress caused by the discrepancy between a person’s body and their gender identity. He asked me to draw how I looked in the future, so I drew a beautiful girl in a long skirt, a hat, and a big smile. He was surprised, but eventually helped me gain acceptance from my family.
This is the dilemma that adolescent children with gender dysphoria face. Unable to bear the bullying but terrified of disappointing their parents, they fear going to school and are also afraid of dropping out of school. If they “go out” themselves, only a few are accepted by their parents.
“Deeper wounds cannot heal until they are expressed. Practicing art helps us heal emotional injuries by providing a safe opportunity for self-expression and shaping identity.”
When our families reject us, we find comfort and refuge with other “hijras” who also struggle to survive. In my life, I have lost many transgender friends by suicide. Other friends died of AIDS.
As a teenager, I witnessed, and was a victim of, bullying. A transgender friend of mine, who was a sex worker, was raped by seven men. Another friend was chased by his own brother who wanted to burn her. While another friend was expelled by her family. These childhood experiences built my furious desire for justice and inspired me to become an activist in the transgender community.
Healing through art
After completing my master’s degree in journalism, I started a magazine called Sahodari (or “sister”) to contact and support the transgender community. I used photography, art, and text to educate people about mental health, transition, and their right to dignity.
In a few years, I founded the Sahodari Foundation and trained our team in visual storytelling.
Art has helped me identify my self-esteem. For me it has been a means to express my hope, joy, fear, anguish, wishes and struggles. It is a reflection of my deep self that reflects my travels. It is a divine experience. When I paint, it is as if my blood flows to the canvas and there is a soul connection. My artwork “The Purple Princess” and “I with in” celebrate pure feminine and androgynous expressions with bright fluorescent colors. More recently, I began incorporating augmented reality into my artwork, a technology that will help provide another level of meaning and emotional engagement with the public.
Many people in the community are artistic and creative, but rarely have the opportunity to practice their art. I realized that our community could not only express itself through art, but could also earn a living. This is how our Transhearts project was born. I traveled with my team to various cities and small towns in South India to offer free workshops on expressive painting. It has been a therapeutic experience for the participants. When they make art, they forget time.
We have exhibited community artwork in galleries, universities, colleges, and public spaces. The reception had been tremendously positive. When people see the artwork, they can identify and empathize with us.
Each work of art tells a story. Abinaya’s “The Struggling Sex Worker” was a moving work, very crude in portraying the exploitation of trans bodies. Viji D’s “Begging Cycle” expresses the anguish of asking money from strangers on trains to meet their basic needs. Nayanthara’s “Finding Yourself” is beautiful, spiritual, and powerful.
Deeper wounds cannot heal until they are expressed. Practicing art helps us heal emotional injuries by providing a safe opportunity for self-expression and shaping identity. You can highlight our beautiful side. It can make us more tolerant of differences and of others.
Standing against violence
Sexual violence is a terrible, horrible and health-affecting problem that transgender people have suffered for decades. Research from the Indian states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka found that four out of 10 transgender people will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Many of us remain silent victims.
The Red Wall Project was created to empower the voices of transgender and gender diverse people in India, and to help resist the crimes perpetrated against us. It is a community “art-ivism” project in which the participants are interviewed by my team and write their experiences of assault, abuse or rape on paper marked with their palm prints in red paint.
Listening to experiences can be traumatic, but we are determined to do so. If we don’t tell the stories in our community, who will?
With your consent, we bring these stories to the public. During exhibitions, I use my poetry and performance art to spark dialogue about action against gender crimes.
Participants in the Red Wall project write their stories. Kalki sees the red-painted palms meaning “a slap against the abusers and a sign of resistance.” Credit: Sahodari Foundation
The testimonies have been exhibited at the British Council in Chennai, the Alliance Française in Trivandrum, and various other educational and cultural institutions across India.
We want to communicate with the youth of India with our stories and tell them that it is unacceptable to harm people based on their gender identity. Through the first-hand accounts of the victims, we can show them that we are human beings who deserve better treatment, respect and dignity.
Every time we display these testimonials, I see people patiently reading them for hours. I have seen visitors who, after reading, sit silently crying. Young people come to me and say: “What can I do to stop this violence? How can I be supportive?” And I tell them: “Educate yourselves more, sensitize your family and friends so that they are friendly with trans women. Empathize with us.
Fight for recognition
For decades, our community has struggled for acceptance and equality. In 2014, tough battles led to a historic victory when the Indian Supreme Court finally recognized transgender people as a “third gender”. It was a movement that had long lobbied the judiciary, and legal recognition meant, for example, that people could enroll in academic institutions, as openly transgender, without fear.
“The rainbow shines bright and beautiful. I see hope.”
Many corporations have started hiring transgender employees. Years of activism and awareness raising have led to many other welcome changes, including positive portrayals of transgender people in the mainstream media and movies. In January 2020, the Transgender People (Protection of Rights) Act came into force, which provides more legal protections for our rights and well-being.
Students read testimonials from Red Wall. Kalki sees the red-painted palms signifying “a slap against the abusers and a sign of resistance.” Spoken together, she says palms are a unified and powerful statement from victims seeking justice for crimes committed against them. Credit: Sahodari Foundation
There is still a lot of work to do. We are still fighting for affirmative action to guarantee jobs and places in educational institutions. We want protection against stigma and discrimination, and legal guarantees that the penalties for crimes against transgender people will be severe.
But the rainbow shines bright and beautiful. I see hope I see a better future for our generation of queer Indians. I see India as a place that can defend LGBTQI rights in the world. And I see India as a pioneer of transgender rights in the future.
Courtesy : News Dio