Meet Kalki Subramaniam, an artist, activist and entrepreneur who uses the medium of art to tell the devastating stories of so many from the trans community.
How do you identify?
I don’t believe that gender is rigid or binary. Gender is fluid like water, and there is beauty in diversity. The natural truth is that we are all different, and everybody's existence and space need to be acknowledged. I identify as a transgender woman and am proud of who I am. I am partly woman, partly genderless and mostly asexual.
Photo by Alexander Klebe
When did you choose to come out, and how has your family reacted?
I was 13 when I came out. My family never rejected me; they were supportive. Initially, when I came out, they were shocked and deeply worried about my future. But my transgender community has always been there for me.
What do you think is society’s biggest misconception about the trans community?
I’ve always said that a healthy society is one that respects its women. And when society respects its women, it will respect all people – including those who are transgender and gender-fluid. The gender inequality in our country and in many countries around the world bothers me. We need to understand that being male, female or trans is okay and that we are all equal.
Stigma exists everywhere, among both the educated and the uneducated. The education we have today doesn’t help us grow or develop our thinking. What we really need is true knowledge which brings peace and happiness, and allows everyone to coexist happily.
Where do you feel safe, with the freedom to be yourself?
I would always prefer living in a community of many like-minded people. Cities are very diverse, and I have always loved living in a city. But at the same time, I deeply need to connect with nature as well. I love the village and tribal cultures as well. So, it’s actually a kind of hopping between places and balancing life.
I’m a traveller, a nomad. Even though I do always go back to my hometown and my family, I’m always travelling, searching. I’m in Mallapuram right now, three weeks ago I was in Kotagiri and three months ago I was in Berlin. Tomorrow I’m going back to my hometown and the day after, I’m going to Chennai to receive an award. I enjoy what I do, and I love travelling. Everywhere I go, I meet new people, make new friends, have new experiences. There’s so much to learn.
Tell us about your art and poetry, and how it has been a part of your journey so far.
Art was something I took up during my childhood, when I wanted to express my deeper self. It was through art and poetry that I shaped my life. I used to draw who I wanted to be. And today I really live the life that I was once drawing on piles of paper during my teenage years. The person I was drawing then is the person I am today.
While growing up, art was more like therapy and a way of expressing my freedom, my agony, my dreams, my passion. Most of my art was vibrant with the intensity of feeling feminine and the intensity of being transgender person. And it still is. But while my art is about celebration, my poetry is about pain. I write poetry only when I’m in deep pain.
Through the Sahodari Foundation, I run an art project called ‘TRANSHEARTS’. I want to promote the livelihood of transgender women through art and help them through art therapy. Our art can be found in North America, Australia and Asia. You can look us up on www.transhearts.org.
Tell us about the travelling art show titled 'Shut Up!' and the #MeTooFiles.
For the last two years, I and my artist friend Sowndharya have been meeting so many transgender and non-binary people across India and listening to their stories. Almost all of them have gone through physical, verbal or psychological abuse of some kind from their own families, relatives or acquaintances. Most of the time, our community doesn’t speak about these experiences out of shame. But speaking to someone about painful experiences is important to heal oneself. If we don't do it, who else will? That is why I and Sowndharya spoke to our community and collected their testimonials — we call them #MeTooFiles. We wanted the world to know what happens to us, how our bodies become victims, objects to be used, reused, abused and discarded.
The ‘Shut Up!’ art show is very different from what we have done earlier. The earlier exhibitions of Transhearts’ transgender artists were about showcasing our community's talents. This show is more about our life stories, which need to be heard. It is not easy coming out and living openly as a transgender woman or a transgender man. In the show, a special section features our #MeTooFiles, our side of #MeToo experiences which, so far, the media has not come forward to write about. All through this year and next year, we will be travelling, researching, finding our people, recording and writing their stories.
How do you think we can/should generate awareness about the trans or LGBTQ+ communities?
I think people have begun to understand that it is okay to be trans. But when we talk about lesbian and gay issues, it’s discussed as a morality issue and people think same-sex love is wrong. It is not. We all have the right to privacy, and we all have the right to love. Love is love!
When we are willing to accept people as they are — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender-queer — and not judge them based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, that will be a big step forward.
India has a long way to go, but we are changing, we are developing. Ours is a learning society. We will change! It might take years, but we will be the safest place for LGBTQ+ people to live in the world – I’m sure of it. One day, India will be one of the safest countries for women. And that will involve educating young people to believe in gender equality.
What would be your advice to young people or those who haven’t been able to come out just yet?
Only knowledge can save you. True knowledge. Pursue that knowledge, build your intellect and be spiritually strong. Keep on building your self-confidence, love yourself first, don’t judge yourself and others, and trust your instincts.
If you could describe your journey in one word, what would it be?