Everything else.. Breaking the Stigma: Trans-Individuals in Sri Lanka

Breaking the Stigma: Trans-Individuals in Sri Lanka

2020 Jul 7

Transgenderism has been defined as possessing a gender identity that differs from one’s physical sex assigned at birth. Medically termed as Gender Dysphoria, transgenderism is said to be a result of brain structure development differing from that of an individual’s biological anatomy. These individuals feel as if they are trapped in someone else’s body, and therefore may seek medical and surgical treatment to experience normalcy through a change in their gender. 

Men who transition to women are known as “trans-women”, and the vice versa are “trans men”, with the label containing who they identify themselves as ultimately. The transition process can be difficult, both mentally and physically. We interviewed Ms. Satya Baashi, to better understand what it is like being a trans-woman in Sri Lanka.

 

  • What do you identify as, and what was it like on your path to acceptance?

I identify myself as any ordinary woman would. But at the same time, the category label of “woman” has a broad spectrum in itself – you get women of different nationalities, ethnicities, different complexions and so on. A trans-woman is just another sub-category of this vast label of being a “woman”. I never had any real trouble accepting myself from a mental point. Growing up, I knew my mind worked in a feminine manner. The difficulty was in combining my physical appearance with my mental state. It was during the explorative ages of puberty that things got a little difficult, and required a step by step progression. There were some fun times too, and all the experiences help define the meaning of  womanhood to a trans-woman. 

 

  • Describe your biggest challenge growing up in a community that may not have understood you?

I was born and raised in a middle-class family, in a rural area. As such, there was a great reverence towards the concepts of Buddhism and the traditional belief of horoscopes in my family. I had to overcome these opinions, together with a lot of forced masculinity. I looked at it as a challenge. In doing so, I experienced a great deal of resentment from everyone, even my family. However, the biggest issues I faced stemmed from society – my family had to undergo constant shame, especially from the parents and teachers of the boys’ school I attended. Therefore, I feel if there was more information available to people at these levels, my coming out journey would have been made easier. 

 

  • Describe how far the LGBTQIA community has come in Sri Lanka, and how you see its future?

As far as I remember, the biggest advancement for the LGBT community in the entire South Asian region, was around the mid-90s. The first support centre for our community was opened in Sri Lanka, creating a new voice and establishing a renewed sense of unity amongst us. Since then, the community has strengthened itself year after year – we now see more of the youth coming out and leaving their safe spaces with pride. We also see increased support from fellow community members, making the transition process for younger generations easier. In addition to this, I am happy that we no longer have to voice out our human rights; we blend in quite easily now. We are headed on the right path, generating greater acceptance by society. 

The highest form of acceptance of our community at present is that members are allowed to have a “living together” relationship. However, from a political standpoint, and being a Buddhist country with a rich religious background, I do not know how long it will take for legal acceptance of our community. For example, if a member loses their partner, do they still have legal rights as those of non-LGBT members? Will they be taken care of socially?Will members of the partner’s family look after them, or will they be shunned from the house? These are pressing issues and are usually solved in court. However, members of our community will be voiceless in such a situation as there are no legal documents accepting the relationship. This change is greatly anticipated, and I look forward to it in the near future.

Moreover, a lot of society’s acceptance is seen only within the major towns of the country. Social stigma still exists in rural areas. This has led to many cases of suicide and drug abuse by members of our community in these villages. Social status has played a big role in one’s acceptance; LGBT members from middle and upper-class families find themselves more easily accepted by society than those from hailing from lower social level households. Needless to say, many of them relocate to larger cities in attempts to overcome this.

 

  • What is one misconception most people have about you?

On a personal level – growing up, I was always a bit hesitant when I made friends. As with anyone, it takes time to build trust with people you newly meet. Unfortunately, this has been viewed as an attitude problem in my case. Most people’s first impression of me is to be this proud and “head held high” kind of person. This is not true. I have always been a very open person, and I look to educate people and challenge their idea of “normal”.

 

  • What was the most challenging aspect of transitioning, medically and emotionally? How did you cope?

In my opinion, the most important thing during the period of transition is psycho-social support. Trans-individuals’ minds work in the manner of their biologically opposite sex. Therefore, we experience a great deal of internal conflict between mind and body when receiving medication. This is also a factor contributing to an increase in the number of cases of depression, anxiety, self-harm, drug addictions and even suicide in the transgender community. 

Furthermore, the “right information” has to be made available to everyone looking to transition. In my case, I received all the necessary guidance when I was around 23/24 years of age. Currently, the legal age for hormone treatment is 18, and therefore it may be in the best interest of youth to transition as early as possible. If the required information is made available to younger members of the society, especially those going through puberty, they are better mentally and physically prepared for surgery and hormone treatment when they turn 18. 

The “right information” includes: 

  • Hormone treatments and any possible side effects.
  • How long the transition period may take depending on the person – mine took 5 years of hormone treatment before the surgery
  • Where the surgery can be done – locally or overseas
  • The types of surgery available – breast reduction and womb replacement for trans-men; breast implant and facial feminisation for trans-women. Gender reaffirmation surgeries are also available, but only at a primitive level in Sri Lanka’s general hospitals.
  • Financial viability of the surgery and other aspects of transition

Surgeries have been done in Sri Lanka for many years now with more youth coming out over the past few years. Along with the surgery, legal formalities and documentation procedures have been made easier after a few members of the community voiced out in 2015 and got an official circular issued by the government. 

 

 

  • What advice would you give to anyone struggling with acceptance?

Before seeking acceptance from others, it is absolutely essential that you accept yourself. This is the first step; accepting yourself instils a sort of inner strength that helps those around you accept who you are in a better manner. In addition to this, you also adapt to coping with those who reject you and try to bring you down. Keep in mind that this does not entitle you to do whatever you want, but rather teaches you to live in a manner without affecting or being affected by the actions of those around you – a “minding my own business” mindset.