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In conversation with Shanthi Sonu – Activist, Artist at The Aravani Art Project, RJ

By Rebecca Edwin

 

In light of Pride Month, today and every other day, the queer community must be uplifted and celebrated for their tremendous bravery in choosing to be and love whomever they want. Like so many other important minority groups that struggle to be heard amongst the noise around us, Shanthi, a member of the trans community in Bangalore, India, informs us of her courageous journey. The trans community continues to be oppressed, persecuted and discriminated against, and even as the world changes around us, we must recognize the ideologies and laws that continue to govern our societies. Shanthi is truly an inspiration, with her cheerful disposition and gentle soul. She tells us her story of survival: even when faced with impossible challenges, she fights for a future that desperately needs to be altered in order for humanity to thrive.

The Aravani Art Project is an art collective that creates spaces for people from the transgender community to connect with other communities and cultures in their local neighbourhoods. Through public art and interventions, the Aravani Art Project reclaims the streets on which so many transgender people suffer from violence and discrimination.

 

What is your take on gender identity? How do you identify?

My name is Shanthi, I am a transgender woman. After the surgery, they call us transsexuals, but trans woman suits me better. I'm proud to call myself a woman and if someone opposes it, I call it the patriarchy. But I'm not against men, I'm against the dominance. It’s the patriarchy which gives rise to gender inequality. I’m tired of the patriarchy where men rule.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey.

I was born and brought up in Bangalore to a lower-middle class family. If I were to narrate my story, I would begin at age 7 or 8. Even at such a young age, I was very much attracted to everything that a girl would do. I would take my sister's doll, play with it, and take my mother's jewelry. I felt very attractive when I would wear bangles, and apply lipstick in front of a mirror, admiring myself.

I used to watch my mom put Rangoli outside. So, when I wanted to try it, my mother would pull me away and say, 'No this is something that a girl would do and not a boy.' But that didn’t stop me. I used to continue to put Rangoli in the school court. School teachers would find it and ask me, 'What have you done?’. I'd blame it on my sister.

People began teasing me: my friends, family, neighbours. And my parents' friends would ask them questions - in a very smirky kind of way – like, 'Why is your boy behaving like a girl? And why does he look very different.' But my parents would say, 'He's still a child. He’ll get over it'. They say you get over it, but you never really do, which is something they could never understand.

Even in school, I was bullied and made fun of for what I am. For no reason. Because whatever I did, I felt very normal. But the people who were seeing it could not accept it. The woman that was trapped inside my male body was so naive. I felt like I was in the wrong body. I couldn't express this or tell my parents or my friends how I felt. When I turned 15, that's when I hit puberty, I had crushes on boys. Just like being born in a male’s body and having crushes on other males, it had become something very taboo and stigmatized in society. I couldn't say anything to the friends who I wanted to convey my love to. And eventually, because of the bullying, I dropped out of high school. I couldn't concentrate on my studies, so I left school.

I worked as a cleaner boy in a pharmaceutical shop. I enjoyed cleaning very much; it was like being a girl: sweeping and all those kind of things. One day, when I was sweeping outside, I noticed this trans woman, dressed in male attire, watching me. I began to see her every day. Then, one day, she approached me and said, 'Hi girl, how are you?'. That was the happiest day in my life, to meet someone who referred to call me a girl. From that point onwards, we became very close friends and she introduced me to the NGO: Sangama, which works for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. They are very invested in the trans community. They helped me come to terms with my identity as a transgender women. I realized I’m not alone in this whole world and there is a community I can turn to.

When and how did you choose to come out?

When I was 20, my parents were keen on finding me a girl to marry, as they thought this would help me become ‘normal’. But, I obviously liked boys. I always felt cursed because I was born differently, angry that I couldn’t simply lead my life as a cis male. But again, India is filled with so much diversity and culture.

Before marriage, they let the man and the woman meet for some time. That moment came and I was left to talk to the girl. She came and said, 'Are you happy with the marriage?' and I said, 'No'. The second thing she asked me was, 'Are you in love with some other girl?' I laughed, because I was in love with some other boy. I told her this, and back then in the 90’s, even talking about homosexuality was such a taboo. I told her that if there was going to be a marriage in my life, it would be one very different from anything she know, and that society wouldn’t accept it. She just left crying. But thankfully, the marriage was cancelled.

It is awful to think about how many of these kinds of forced marriages result in suicide or divorce (which is just as bad), for trans people. Although I dodged a bullet, but it was not the first marriage my parents attempted to arrange for me. Eventually, I was placed under house arrest because I didn't obey my parents. I went into a deep depression, and I was not allowed to call my friends or meet anyone. I became suicidal. I tied the rope to the fan and I was about to put it around my neck, but then I realized, 'Why should I take MY life for the sake of others? This is who I am and I should be able to live the life I want.' I cut the ropes and I left my parent’s house. That’s when I joined the transgender community.

Where does your family stand in regards to your journey?

My parents live in Bangalore. They now know about what happened and they’re actually my biggest supports, which I’m so grateful for. But I don't live with my family. I live separately with my boyfriend. I’m in a live-in relationship, and my parents have met him. They are happy about it. Now they understand a little better. It wasn’t easy, there was a lot of struggle and fighting, but eventually they understood.

Right now however, I am proud to say that I am an artist and I took my mom to Freedom Park to show her my mural art here in in Bangalore. She was really proud of me.

 Can you tell us about the communities/families you have chosen to be a part of, as well as any LGBTQ+ advocacy groups?

In the transgender community, I was adopted as a daughter to a mother. Back in those days, if you were trans, you would only feel comfortable in a place where your people were accepted by the community. Bombay was the best place to migrate to at that time. But I thought, this is me and I've come out, but I don't want to leave my city. Let me suffer and figure things out in my home town.

The only options that were available to the trans community were either begging or sex work. Still, even after recognition from the Supreme Court, it is the same today. There is not that much change that you see. So, I begged. I begged in the same city that I was born and bred. And I had to take up sex work also. Sex work is not safe, you can be raped, shot, etc. at any moment.

Luckily, I met Akkai Padmashali, who is a trans activist. I always wanted to be in the pride rally and protest. One day, Akkai calls me and says that there is this International Family Acceptance Day event going on, and I should join. So, I did and I ended up recited one of my poems, sharing my story. What I didn’t know was that the director of a community radio station was present there. 90.4 Radio Active. After the meeting, Akkai and Pinky Chandran asked me if I could do a radio show on sex workers. An RJ – a Radio Jockey job! I was really shocked. I said I didn’t know anything about this, but they said that I could learn. And by the 2nd day, my colleagues had taught me how to record, how to do everything. That’s how I landed a job, got a platform and got the opportunity to be a radio jockey.

Two years passed by, and I reached a point where I’d decided that I wanted to become a woman. The only thing to complete the process was to go for my surgery, which was incomplete at the time. So, I got the surgery and I was at home for few days resting, meaning I couldn't do the show. That was when I joined Aravani Art Project. I was actually scrolling through my phone one day and found something about Aravani online. I wanted to do something that would represent both my communities: the trans community and the art collective. I’ve always been filled with so much passion, and I wanted that to shine through in my work. Another bonus was that as an artist at the Aravani Art Project, I was able to gather enough money for my surgery. I'm so happy to be a woman!

What do you think India’s societal mindset is, in regards to the trans community? What is the biggest mis-conception about the trans community?

I always say that the younger generation are the change makers in society. It’s best to begin educating people at a very young age, so they can become aware, and know more about the trans community. The older generations were raised believing we were dangerous threats, kidnappers and such. So, people became scared of us, very hesitant to approach trans people or even speak to them. But really, we are just like you.

This is something that I want to change in the society. Don't just stick to the two societal tick boxes of 'male' and 'female'. When you come out of that mind set, you can see a colourful, different and more diverse picture than what’s on the inside. Gender lies on a spectrum.

 What are the spaces in society which make you feel safe and/or give you the freedom to be yourself?

Oh, that's a nice question. But unfortunately, there’s no space in which I feel safe. As a trans woman, even traveling day to day in public transportation, is such a struggle for people like us. People stare at us like we’re aliens. I get on a ladies train and nobody wants to sit next to me. It’s just a simple thing, but it effects me so much. Wherever I go to the bathroom – if I go into a male toilet, they say go to the female’s toilet and when I go into the female’s toilet, the other females become so angry. Something as banal as going to the bathroom is such a difficult process for me.

How do you think we can generate awareness about the trans community?

After joining the art collective, I also joined an educational institution, to take lessons on sex, gender and sexuality. I do workshops. We need to educate the younger generation, so they can be more aware of the transgender community in Indian society. Hopefully, in the coming years, people will learn to finally accept us. We don't want your sympathy. Just show some empathy. The support needs to start from the family, because when the family rejects someone when they come out, they’re likely to go into a depression or develop addiction issues. This could be avoided if the main support comes from the family. Then, later on, society will also become more accepting.

What would be your advice to young people/those who haven’t had the courage to come out yet?

Just come out of the closet because you’re not alone! There are people just like you, so take your time and convey to others who you truly are. You don't need to hide from societal pressure, there’s a support system for you.

If you could describe your journey in one word - what would it be?

(Laughs) In one word? That’s difficult.... Diverse!

 


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