Bhoomi recognised at 2021 APCOM Heroes Award

Dec 10 2021. views 165

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer (LGBTIQ) Community has fought long battles to earn acceptance and recognition, mainly in the South Asian region. However, overt discrimination and lack of legislative protection for individuals whose sexual orientations and gender identities are non-conforming are still very evident. The situation is more or less similar in Sri Lanka. It is in this backdrop that individuals such as Bhoomi Harendran, Executive Director of the National Transgender Network have worked tirelessly to change the discourse to bring about acceptance and recognition for transgender individuals and individuals belonging to sexual minorities in Sri Lanka. Recently, Harendran was recognised for her efforts at the 2021 APCOM Heroes Awards held in Bangkok. Excerpts
Q When did you first realise that you are not comfortable being a male?
I can’t say the time period but I identified myself, step-by-step. However, there were many complexities in each step. There was no place for me to go and talk about how I felt or get some advice about it. But I really thought about this transformation when I was in my twenties. 
Q How challenging was it to come out of that phase?
This challenge affected me in two ways; one is to identify myself and face the reality. The second is the fear of facing society and preparing yourself for consequences. As such there was a lot of pressure. At the time I wanted to do this transformation, society was not aware of it and there weren’t many people who were ready to talk about it in the open. 
Q To whom did you first talk about it?
I shared my views with some close friends and an advocate. I revealed it to the media before informing my family. But I believe that it was a courageous step I took.
Q How did your family perceive this transformation?
We are living in an extremely traditional society. Culture, religion, family integrity, and respect have been deep-rooted in this system. I come from a normal family and my parents have a low educational background. They responded similarly to how a majority of parents would respond in a situation like this. There were many disagreements and disappointment. It was only after I left home that the matter was resolved to some extent. 
Q Have they accepted you now?
Yes, maybe about 98%. I’m the only child in my family. It was my father who started accepting me first but he is no more now. Thereafter my mother also started to accept me for who I am. But everything has a price. The price I had to pay was to achieve certain things and prove to them that I’m still worth myself. They accepted me when I ensured that transgender individuals in this society could live with dignity. With time they understood the reality. 
Q Let’s talk about the APCOM Heroes Award you received recently?
It’s an annual awards ceremony that acknowledges outstanding HIV and LGBTIQ advocates and allies across the Asia-Pacific region. My name was nominated from Sri Lanka and I’m humbly proud that I received the Transgender Hero Award for 2021. This is a historic achievement for me and I’m happy that my efforts over the past 11 years were recognised this way. Many awards and recognitions I received have been received for the first time in Sri Lanka. But these achievements have been seldom spoken about. However, I never expected awards or accolades in my journey. 
Q Do you like to talk about your transformation?
The process started in 2010 and I’m still in this transformation. People think that after doing certain changes to sexual organs that you complete the process of becoming a transgender individual. But that’s not correct. It’s a lifelong process. You need to adjust yourself to this change. Once you become a transgender individual it’s something like reincarnation.
Q Do you identify yourself as a transgender individual or a female?
I feel that I’m female. Whether it would be called trans-female, female, or whether there would be other acronyms depends on society. What is important for me is to accept myself. Labels are for clothes and other items and not for humans. If people identify you as a female, then you are a female irrespective of whether you’re a transgender female or a biological female. 
Q Are there facilities to do this transformation in Sri Lanka?
There are facilities to do the surgical transformation here but I cannot say that they are the best services. There are certain loopholes and apart from that certain attitude changes are required in this process. I hope that these services are fully streamlined in the future. 
Q Let’s talk about the National Transgender Network and how it has brought about a change in our society to accept transgender individuals.
It started three years ago as a result of aid received by the Global Fund for HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. When working for the eradication of HIV, transgender individuals were identified as high-risk persons. They do a mid-term evaluation every year. As a response to an issue, they provide us with financial aid to establish a network for transgender individuals. We received the guidelines and funds via the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka. Our objective was to establish an independent network. Many people think that we only work for the eradication of HIV but that’s not the case.
We have joined hands with organisations that voice for sexual minorities, other independent activists when establishing this network. Two main goals of this network include safeguarding the human rights of transgender individuals while empowering them. Therefore we support them in family planning, providing them with job opportunities and helping them fine-tune their skills through vocational training. Drafting policies and laws is less of a challenge when compared to empowering an individual to succeed in life. We provide them with medical services, legal support, counselling services, and emergency support. There are certain practical challenges as we are currently based in Colombo. But we are planning to improve and establish our branches islandwide. 
Q When filling a form, for example, the gender is often limited to male and female. Do you see any changes with the inclusion of other sexual orientations or is it still the same?
We are planning to submit an Act to be passed in Parliament in order to safeguard the rights of transgender individuals and provide them with a secure environment to live in this society. As such we are now in the process of seeking comments from the community. It is the community that should accept themselves. One aspect is that they don’t like to identify themselves as transgender individuals once they complete their transformation. They would prefer to be either male or female. There are around 64 gender identities around the world and we plan to draft this Act to bring about justice to these individuals as well.
Q Is there any progress with regard to the inclusion of transgender individuals in corporate working environments or other places of employment?
With regards to this matter, I believe that we still follow an archaic thinking pattern. Irrespective of their knowledge and skills, they are discriminated against based on their gender. As such, there needs to be an attitude change and workplaces should introduce non-discriminative inclusive policies. We are in the process of discussing these matters. In addition, we plan to have discussions with the National Vocational Training Institute to provide skills training for transgender individuals.
Q What are your views on pride celebrations?
There have been pride celebrations in Sri Lanka for over 15 years and it’s important for visibility. But personally, I don’t believe in special days. Gender-based discrimination shouldn’t be addressed only during a particular time of the year. It is something that happens on a daily basis right around the year and there has to be a continuous dialogue in order to bring about a change. We should move out of conducting traditional awareness campaigns and shift towards innovative methods of raising awareness. 
Q Any suggestions on new approaches to spread awareness?
We are planning to have a training camp for the youth. But it’s not about having PowerPoint presentations and conducting speeches. It’s a residential camp. We have a Trans Task Force and we formulated a process to teach the value of life by doing various activities. Therefore there are activities for them to engage in to improve communication skills, build team spirit etc. The youth likes to have fun and this camp is to provide them with knowledge while having fun. We are in the process of developing new applications to raise awareness in an interesting manner. 
Q What sort of state-level intervention is required to bring about change and acceptance to this community?
It has to happen from the grassroots level to the level of the Executive. When there are programmes and training the officials at the highest levels would conduct them. But it is the junior level officers who resort to discriminatory approaches.
Q Your message to society? 
A person’s sexual orientation is an entirely personal matter. You shouldn’t judge someone based on what’s between their legs. We have no right to judge someone or harass them in any way. The pandemic affected everybody irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion. Transgender individuals too are a creation of nature. If nature doesn’t do any harm to us how is it that humans of other sexual orientations can harass us? Human life is a valuable gift. We like to live a peaceful life with our loved ones. If you don’t like to be the subject of harassment it is the same for another individual as well. Humanity is priceless and we need to accept each other for who they are and start living in harmony. 


Kamanthi Wickramasinghe

A psychology graduate who eventually became a journalist to be a voice for unheard voices. A proud Sri Lankan - Thalassophile - Travel fan - Nature lover - Chocoholic - Extraordinarily loud - Frequent laughaholic. Follow me on Instagram - @kamzylifeTM or FB – Kamanthi Wickramasinghe



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