Battling against all odds
By Bhavna Mohan
As she turned down my persistent offers of tea, coffee, and water, Sakuni apologised for walking in late, complaining about the traffic she had to endure to get here. It was a warm morning, yet her make-up was flawless. As we settled into our uncomfortable seats, I couldn’t help but notice her straight posture and confident air.
M. Pradeep Jeevana was a facade that Sakuni Mayadunne was forced to put up for more than half her life. Born an intersexual into a family of four girls, her parents wanted their fifth child to be a boy, and they made it so.
“I wish they had waited till I was of age to understand which gender I identified with before carrying out the procedure. Unfortunately, I face complications at present as doctors are faced with the challenge of recommending the next steps of action for my sex reassignment due to the removal of female parts that I was born with.”
Sakuni doesn’t usually go into such detail about her experiences as she slowly came to accept the difficulties she endured growing up. She has since dedicated her life to helping those like her, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.
This is her story.
Childhood – the time of innocence
Sakuni spent her childhood as any boy would, which turned out to be difficult as she didn’t identify as one. She attended a mixed school and managed to find companionship in three friends who were just like her – except for the fact that they had not undergone surgery when born.
Constantly getting involved in school activities traditionally meant for girls when she was around 7-8 years, her group of four became a mutual support system.
Each time Sakuni was subject to bullying and name-calling, all she had to do was call out for her friends and they would come to her rescue. “I was never one to be very aggressive or violent – I could not fight for myself. But that was not the case for the other three – they were always ready to fight if necessary. I used to wonder why this was, but then I realised,” she explained, referring to the differences in biological circumstances that had shaped them. During the budding years of adolescence, the same boys who bullied her would approach her and her friends to satisfy their sexual desires.
Despite the bullying she endured from her peers, Sakuni described her principal and teachers as being very supportive of her. In fact, she was awarded prefectship in her senior years as well.
Once Sakuni passed out of school, her father realised the grave mistake he made as a parent. “My father worked in Pettah as a vegetable vendor, and I’m guessing he saw people like me and understood what I was going through. He spoke to my mother and told her that what they had done was wrong,” she explained, also admitting that it was only at that time that she was informed of the surgery she underwent as a child.
“He further explained to my mother that since I was almost an adult (at the time), I am in a position to leave the house if I wished to – and that he did not want that to happen.” It was at this point that her parents accepted her for who she was. “I realise that I am lucky to have gotten that acceptance from my parents, as I know of many people like me who have been kicked out of their homes.”
Shortly after, her father passed away.
Earn to survive
Sakuni was sent to live with her aunt as soon as two of her older sisters got married. This was because their husbands were very fond of her, and looked to her as a younger sister; but Sakuni’s mother was apprehensive about the entire situation.
Sakuni was only 17 years old at the time. She came across Companions on a Journey (CoJ) – an organisation that stood for the rights of the local LGBTIQ community, which was her first choice for employment. However, as she was underage, the organisation was unable to employ her. In an effort to earn some money to survive, one of her friends suggested she take to the streets in Town Hall at night.
“People used to pick me up in their vehicles; then I did what they asked, then they used to pay me and drop me off.” Sakuni eventually managed to save some money for herself. Realising that there was no way she could go back home, she decided to look for a place to stay.
It was very difficult for Sakuni to find a decent place because no one was willing to accept her as their boarder. Ultimately seeking help from a friend, she managed to gain entrance to the same boarding facility.
Ashamed at her source of income, Sakuni searched alternatives; the only one she could find was as a tea-packager. As she was still underage, she had to work in hiding, continuously ducking when the Labour Department visited.
She continued to work there until she turned 19 – when she was finally old enough to reapply to CoJ.
Noble work cut short
Once employed there, Sakuni fully integrated into her female personality. She worked on a project that involved locating gay persons and their hotspots, in order to map them across the island, and to educate them on safe sex. She was making a difference, earning a living, and providing for her mother. This brought about great satisfaction for her and she continued her work with vigour.
On a mapping expedition to Kandy with her team, a group of media personnel from a leading English newspaper at the time had approached them, claiming that they believed in CoJ’s cause and wanted to highlight their work – all the while taking pictures. Sakuni welcomed their positive words.
However, the paper misrepresented their work. “They had said that we were distributing condoms to encourage sex, and not that we were trying to prevent the spread of diseases and HIV,” she said, frustrated. She explained that this was why she didn’t like speaking to the media.
On her arrival in Colombo, much to her dismay, she learnt that CoJ was shut down, hence, her livelihood as well.
The men in green
Her run-ins with the Police have also been difficult throughout her life. However, through her pain she still sees the lighter side of some of her experiences, in a display of unwavering inner strength. “One night, they pulled me by the hair, but it was actually a little funny because my wig came off and I wriggled free from their grasp,” she giggled.
“They gave me another chance. They called me ‘daruwo’ (child) and told me not to engage in this work again. It really touched my heart that they were so concerned.”
However, in 2013, long after Sakuni had given up work as a sex worker, she had a very different experience.
While walking home one day, a patrol jeep of five policemen asked Sakuni what she was doing there and warned her against returning to their area. She paid no heed to their warnings as she had done nothing wrong.
A few days later, around 6 p.m., Sakuni was picked up by those very same men. She was transported and held at a deserted location for about four hours – they switched off her phone, and kept her without water.
She was held till 10 p.m., which was when they booked her. “They wrote the complaint like they had picked me up at 10 p.m. – claiming that I was looking to get picked up. They got me to sign the sheet as well.”
She claims that the policemen then approached her for sex. Being mentally equipped for such situations, she immediately claimed that she was HIV positive, which caused them to back down and proceed to take her to the holding cell.
“I was put into the same cell as the men – more men than I could count. They hit me, pulled my hair. It was horrible,” she said, recounting her trauma. She chokes up a bit: “I just wished God would have taken me then and there! I felt like I could not bear it.”
Sakuni explained that fortunately, the judge, similar to a few others, was aware of the plight of the transgender people.
When her name was called in court, the judge was frustrated that he had to hear her case. He questioned the policemen on what they hoped to accomplish by presenting her in court. He claimed that instructions were given to the stations to avoid bringing in transgender individuals.
The trial was postponed for a second hearing, after Sakuni maintained her innocence. The policemen then threatened to charge her as a drug addict in the future should she drag the court case for longer than necessary. They instructed her to plead guilty at the next hearing, pay a fine of Rs. 500, and never return to the location. She did as she was told.
“I did what they said because I wanted the trial to end – that didn’t matter to me – I was ready to drag it for as long as was needed. I did what they said because I was scared of what they might do to me.”
The realities of their lives
After CoJ shut down, she claimed she had nowhere else to go, and resorted to sex work again. Finding conventional work was an increasingly difficult task, given society’s pre-conceived notions about people like her.
“What happens is they accept the application, ask me to come back after 2-3 days, and when I do, they just say the vacancy is no longer available and laugh in my face. No matter how many times I apply, no one ever employs me. I have applied to banks, I have applied to work as a clerk at hospitals, but they never took me.”
“What do you think will happen when I am forced to retire?” she asked. She explained that most transsexuals, since they aren’t employed by anyone, will have no retirement fund, and thus no roof over their heads.
Even exercising basic civil rights is complicated for Sakuni – sometimes turning into a spectacle of shame.
“I have voted only once in my life. I cannot vote because they make fun of me when I stand in line,” she stressed. She went on to explain the importance of the vote of every citizen in Sri Lanka, and was frustrated that she could not exercise her right.
“Leave aside voting. We can’t even get loans.” Establishments are not willing to provide loans to transgender individuals she explained, even if one holds a steady job. “Even if we have money in the bank and show them, they will not approve our loans.”
In spite of all her bad experiences, Sakuni carries herself with an air of confidence. Always making sure to touch on the positive aspects of life, she explained that she would not be who she is, or where she is at present, if not for the help from the Family Planning Association (FPA).
“It is because of them that we can buy medicine without being turned away,” she stated. She explained that the staff at the FPA treats everyone equally, and is always ready to provide advice. “They used to encourage me to speak out and say what I needed to say – to fight. They explained to me that there was only so much they could do to make things better and that I needed to speak out. I owe a lot to them.”
Sakuni also stated that at present, there is at least one lawyer present at courthouses that is willing to represent transgender persons – even free of charge. She made special mention of courts at Hulftsdorp, Mallavi, and Gampaha.
“Also, the Police will never take me in now. They know the work I do, and they know who I am. In fact, if a trans person gets caught, I go and speak to the Police to facilitate their release,” once again seeing the silver lining.
Sakuni’s goal is to encourage more people like her to come forward and stand up for what they believe in and who they are. She wished they are all treated like citizens of this country. After all, according to some studies, 20% of the population in Sri Lanka is LGBTQ or I.
A closer look at the current laws, regulations, and Constitution bring to light that it is not only the human rights of this community that are violated, but also everyone else’s.
Let us hope that Sri Lanka will soon follow in the footsteps of India in the decriminalisation process to prevent archaic laws from being used to marginalise innocent communities and stifle people’s freedom to be their true selves.