Activists / Commonwealth Writers / Filmmakers

On Being Transgender in Sri Lanka

When Asoka Handagama released his film Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna (Flying with One Wing) in 2002, he told journalists his plot had been inspired by a story that ran in the papers the year before. The story was about a woman who had lived as a man, marrying a young girl and earning her way as a “casual worker” in Maravila, in western Sri Lanka.  Neither the man’s wife nor his colleagues knew his secret, until it was revealed by a doctor (a debilitating stomach ache had forced him to seek medical attention). He was arrested shortly after.

Handagama’s film enjoyed international acclaim, with a world premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and was named Best Asian Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival (2002), among several honours.

The man from the newspaper article also saw the film and reached out to Asoka, but to his lasting regret the two never managed to meet.

Over a decade passed before Handagama read another article in a local paper and had a sense of déjà vu. ‘Husband turns out to be a woman’, declared the headline in May 2015. The paper said the ‘pretender’ had been exposed by his wife of eight years, who went to the Weligama police after her husband stopped sending money or visiting the family. Reading the story, Handagama remembered a Q&A after a screening of Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna, when a foreigner stood up and asked him “Do things like this really happen in Sri Lanka?”

Still from Flying with One Wing

Revan* had a blade to his throat when the subject of the woman who was a man came up. Sitting in a chair at the barbershop, he heard them talking about the mechanics of it – how could the wife not sense she was sleeping with another woman? The men in the small room thought it was impossible. The lightly built 39 year old who was getting a shave kept his thoughts to himself.

Revan was 34 years old when he began taking hormone replacement therapy – his voice began to deepen, his upper lip acquired stubble. That was in 2010. He had a hysterectomy in 2011, and a mastectomy in 2014 – two of the three surgeries required to fully complete the transition from woman to man. The final, genital transformation begins with a vaginectomy, and costs anywhere from Rs.4,000,000 to Rs.15,000,000, a bit more than 100,000 US dollars. The procedure is still not available in Sri Lankan hospitals.

Through Revan, I meet Udesh.*

Udesh’s father is a pharmacist, and his mother keeps their home. He cannot remember a time he did not identify as male – even as a child he preferred to keep his hair cropped, to pull on shorts and shirts instead of dresses. When forced to play with the other girls, his only compensation was that he could take the male characters – father, brother, shop keeper. When he was in school, he read about a transgender man living in America. “It was a relief to know there was somebody like me,” he says.

But every doctor he visited as an adult told him to resign himself to his lot. Some said the medications and surgeries could kill him. So Udesh tried, embracing as much as he could of what was expected of the gender he was assigned at birth.  But it proved very hard: “I wanted to see myself in the mirror, not another person wearing female clothes. I used to get really frustrated and depressed.” He was frequently asked why he could not simply be a woman. Often his only answer would be silence, but sometimes he would say: “Think about it like this. You are an innocent, but somehow you are put in jail. Would you like to stay there?”

He came out to his family in 2006. His father was open-minded and helped pay for Udesh’s first surgery. His mother was also willing to accept him, but his sister and he no longer speak to each other.

Still from Flying with One Wing

The first time we meet, Udesh is carrying a bucket. In it are Sri Lankan sweets for sale. It’s a small source of income at a time when he finds it hard to get or hold down a job. This is not for lack of qualifications – Revan and Udesh boast an eccentric assortment of those. After completing their A Levels, they both received diplomas in airline ticketing. Revan went on to study 3-D animation, computer assisted design and computer hardware. Udesh studied computer hardware too, but threw in a proficiency in Japanese, a certificate course in English language and another in shoe making. Yet they say it is all cancelled out when – inevitably – they have to show prospective employers a birth certificate that identifies them as female. “All the O Level and A Level certificates are also under the female name so we cannot show any of them to employers. Even if we mention our school name they will know it’s a boy’s school or a girl’s school,” says Revan.

Societal attitudes mean that for most businesses, the very idea of hiring a woman who looks like a man is unthinkable. Revan says he has stopped going to interviews altogether.  “I’ve been to many interviews where I’ve been laughed at and ridiculed, so I don’t go anymore. It doesn’t matter what your qualifications are. They always think about your sexual problems.”

This financial uncertainty is combined with social isolation. Neither Revan nor Udesh can imagine sharing their secret with most of their colleagues. The final surgery, requiring travel abroad, is so expensive that it still seems out of reach. Until it can take place, they move through male spaces with care. There is the very real possibility of assault or arrest should they be discovered – Revan is careful, for instance, about traveling alone late at night, even though he knows his appearance as a man offers a degree of security.

The state offers little to no protection. According to Sri Lankan law, it is only possible to amend your gender on your birth certificate if you can prove you are transsexual, having completed all the surgeries that are required. Homosexuality itself remains a criminal offence under section 365 A of the Sri Lankan penal code. Activists argue that the application of other ordinances also adds to the vulnerability of transgender people – for example, Cheating by Impersonation as per section 399 or the Vagrants Ordinance, which allows police to arrest, without warrant, someone whom they deem a loiterer or a public nuisance.

A report released in 2014, by the Colombo-based non-profit Equal Ground, attempted a situational assessment of the stigma, discrimination and violence faced by transgender people in Sri Lanka. The report concluded that transgender people in Sri Lanka “experienced gross human rights violations, including physical assaults, sexual harassment, inequality before law, arbitrary arrests and detentions, stigma and humiliation in public places, verbal insults, discrimination as regards employment” in addition to other problems such as rejection by their families. The report also identifies the laws that are used to perpetuate this discrimination as “remnants of Victorian morality and British Colonialism” dating back to the 19th century.

“Transgenders are very misunderstood in our society. How they feel, how they live…is an enigma to most. With this misunderstanding comes fear, marginalisation and discrimination,” says Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, the Editor of the report and the Executive Director of Equal Ground. “It would be extremely useful if they were provided easier and more useful ways to change their papers to reflect their identities and a system should be put in place to integrate them into society.”

Still from Flying with One Wing

Revan is early for our next meeting and I use the opportunity to ask him about the report.

Out of 22 transgender people who spoke to the researchers, 13 said they had attempted suicide. The rest had at least contemplated it, even if obliquely. With a bleak laugh, Revan says he isn’t surprised. “I have thought about it too.” But his sense of responsibility for his family, his mother in particular, stopped him from following through. Also, he wants to see what the future holds for him. “Sometimes I want to see if I can just survive the day being me.”

Another transgender friend of Udesh’s and Revan’s committed suicide a few months ago. Revan says the man struggled to find a job, make friends or find acceptance from his family. He would obsess about being rushed to a hospital where his biological sex would be discovered. “He always kept telling himself, ‘what will happen if I get into an accident on the road?’” It’s a fear to which Revan himself isn’t immune. “That is always in our minds too, it’s why we look after ourselves more, try not to get into trouble, try to lead a healthy life.”

There is a constant awareness that one might be discovered at any time, and that such exposure can turn friend into foe in a devastating reversal. “When we are with our male friends, we have to be very careful,” says Udesh, explaining why he had to turn down an invitation to go on a holiday with a group from work recently. “I couldn’t go with them. My main problem was how I would use a toilet or bathe. Every single minute you have to be really conscious of how people are seeing you.”

Nonetheless, today Udesh is wearing a striped shirt in his favourite colour (pink) and his smile lights up his eyes.

Another friend of Udesh, Janaka* works on construction sites around Colombo, as a painter. His hair is cut short, his teeth stained red with betel juice. It takes a few minutes for him to shed his nervousness. He makes on average Rs.1,200 (just under $10) a day – on days when it rains and he cannot paint, he makes nothing. This unreliable wage means he is unable to take the hormone replacement therapy regularly – it’s been three months since his last dose – and that he will struggle to afford a mastectomy. His body could so easily betray him since he works in a very masculine environment, so he has had to invent ways to avoid exposure.

He returns every day to the solitude of a small room he rents in the city – the others live on the construction site for free and believe Janaka returns every evening to the comfort of a fictional sister’s home. This sister is particular and tells Janaka that he should skip the queues and simply shower at home. This hypothetical sibling also allows him to explain away why he does not keep company with his workmates after hours.

He has mastered the art of constant vigilance. If he notices anyone paying him too much attention or sees any suspicion directed his way, he collects his wages at the end of the day and leaves, finding a new place to work the next day.

Janaka was adopted, and married off at 15 to a 32 year old man. They lived together for a year, before Janaka fled. His husband died a year or so after, and Janaka considered that the end of the matter. However, his suffering through that period, when he was still a teenager, compelled him to cut his hair and start wearing male clothing – just so he would never be forced to play the woman again. For a while it seemed like everyone would accept it, but a few years later he nonetheless found himself embroiled in a court case quite similar to the stories that began this article.

Janaka says he was falsely accused of marrying a woman and deceiving her (he says he was only a witness at her wedding to another man). He has since run the gamut of the system, becoming first a wanted man on the run, then imprisoned for several days – placed in the female ward after multiple medical examinations confirmed his biological sex – and now a recurrent visitor to the Matara courts. When his case first made the news, his picture seemed to be in every paper. The police provided the press with photographs that had been confiscated from his home.  There was also one taken before the trial, where it was decided against Janaka’s wishes that he should be dressed as a woman.

Janaka was abused while in prison and remains very isolated even now. He dreams of having a mastectomy and has heard there are local doctors who will perform the surgery for free. He worries though about the time it will take him to recover and get back to work. He thinks his adopted family’s decision to marry him off at age 15 was a not-so-subtle signal that he was a burden to them and he prefers not to test their sympathy.

Instead, he plans to go it largely alone. He hopes someday to take on an apprentice painter who will take over and earn for both of them while Janaka undergoes and then recuperates from surgery.  But finding someone to trust is hard.  Sometimes he thinks of all he has undergone and when he feels he can no longer bear the weight of his thoughts, he goes out and buys a beer and then returns home alone to sleep.

Each of the three men experience this profound isolation to varying degrees.

Udesh looks to Buddhist beliefs to make sense of his life. He thinks being born in the body of woman is a punishment for some unknown crime in a previous birth.

Revan’s mother took him to a priest (who recommended he join a nunnery) and has also had his horoscope read. The astrologer told her that her child was being punished for the sins of another lifetime, in which he is supposed to have repeatedly assaulted his wife. Revan takes this with a generous pinch of salt – he believes in rebirth but not that karma manifests in this way. The astrologer argues that Revan needs to marry and be a good wife. Then the husband’s blessings will mean Revan can be born as a man in his next birth.

Revan’s response to all this is that he is already a man now.

There are times when Revan says he feels almost grateful to be different. “It has showed me people’s true colours. How they react to me says a lot. I’m glad in a way. I can see who people really are.”

Still from Flying with One Wing

Revan can remember seeing Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna when it first came out. It was, he said, the closest anyone had come to capturing his reality on film in Sri Lanka. He and Udesh can relate to the character Asoka Handagama created – a mechanic who hid his biological sex from his wife and from his colleagues at the garage where he worked. The logistics of that – how to use a bathroom meant for men, how to shower with other men, how to pass for a man in the dark while you have sex with your wife – are plausible challenges.

The filmmaker himself tells me that audiences respond very differently to the movie – some see it as a feminist struggle, others as a story of lesbian love. Both those options seem curiously neglectful of the struggle of the transgender person whose story it actually is. The director himself seems uncertain about the motivations of the person whose life gave him the idea for the film.

Revan and Udesh are not surprised. “Nobody understands us properly. Only another transgender person can fully understand what we feel,” says Udesh. He explains that he knows only a few others and that they can only truly relax in each other’s company. Aside from the Equal Ground offices and events, another place where they can openly be themselves is at Heart to Heart Lanka, another non-profit that works with the LGBTIQ community in Colombo.

Underlining the need to educate society at large, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera points out that an “essential area is the psychological assistance this community desperately needs to understand themselves, firstly, and secondly to assist them in their journey. Transition for most is extremely difficult.”

For Udesh it can sometimes feel like all they have is each other. A group of some 40 transgender people in Sri Lanka has formed an informal network and will sometimes meet at events like the Gay Pride celebrations that are coming up this July in the city.

There’s a kite festival that Revan and Udesh both love – the bright rectangles dancing in the breeze overhead, the water curling and crashing on the shore. It’s a time of year that is reliably joyous. It’s also free (a very important consideration) and takes place early enough in the evening that they can find a bus to take them home afterwards.

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

This piece was first published by Commonwealth Writers on June 23, 2015 at http://www.commonwealthwriters.org. Words by Smriti Daniel, still courtesy Asoka Handagama. 

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