Interviews

Life-changing train ride

By Sarah Hannan

Not too long ago, Jyothi* left her home, disregarding her parents’ pleas. Growing up in a Catholic family, her parents assumed they could “rid” their son of identifying as transgender by locking him up in a room and forcing him to read the Bible.

While Jyothi was under house arrest for over three months, all she did was cry for her freedom. Unable to bear her cries, her mother then finally decided to let her out.

During the time Jyothi was locked up in her room, she researched transgender persons and the organisations that assisted them, and after she was let out, she reached out to them for assistance.

“I wrote to them and asked if they were willing to offer a job to a Tamil transgender girl from the North. They responded favourably and I was immediately offered a job at the institute.

“About eight months had passed since I was kept under house arrest and this was my cue to move on with my life. However, my parents were not happy about me leaving home.”

Knowing even at a young age

That day, Jyothi packed her clothes in a bag and boarded a train bound for Colombo. She confirmed that it was the first time she had travelled all alone on a long train journey. We then asked her about her childhood and whether she was always a strong-willed child.

“I knew who I was even at a younger age. I was not happy to be a boy and would constantly think about changing my physical appearance. I would always wear clothes that fit in with that image. I would always buy tight-fitting jeans to feel more womanly.

“In the night, I would steal a dress from my mother’s wardrobe and wear it to sleep and would return it in the morning without her knowledge. When I turned 15, I gained the courage to tell my parents that I wanted to be a girl. But they were not accepting enough.”

Jyothi recalled that there were others in his class he grew up with since grade one, who were also transgender.

“Even my classmates knew who I was and I would repeatedly tell them that I was not a boy, but a girl. We always stuck together as we understood each other well. Most of the teachers in my school were very accepting, apart from one incident.

“One day, while we were walking across the school garden, a male teacher canned us for walking like girls. We immediately complained to the Bishop and the teacher was then fired.”

Innocent curiosity

For two years, Jyothi attended the boys’ school during the day and hang out with the girls at the convent after school. During this time, Jyothi would reside in the convent next to her school as she was related to one of the nuns there.

“As teenagers, many of my classmates were curious about what I meant when I said I was not a boy, but a girl.

“I then shared information on who a transgender person was and they later understood. I then showed them some of the transgender rights activists who had been fighting for equal rights around the world as well.”

Psychological support

Soon after completing school, Jyothi spent more time with her family, and it was during this time that they observed changes in her behaviour, tone of voice, and even that she walked differently compared to other boys.

“My parents started to question why I was behaving in such a way and asked me to behave like a man. I tried to explain it to them but they could not understand.

“I then reached out to my uncle who was well educated. I asked him to take me to a psychologist so he could know for sure who I really was. Thankfully he agreed and accompanied me to a psychologist.”

The psychologist had then explained to Jyothi’s uncle that Jyothi was in fact a male-female transgender person and no amount of coaxing or forcing her to be a man or punishing her to change her ways was going to prove useful.

The psychologist had also instructed that Jyothi immediately be placed under hormonal therapy.

Not knowing that Jyothi was on hormonal therapy, and with the physical changes becoming apparent, Jyothi’s parents restored to placing her under house arrest and getting her to read the Bible.

But little did they know that Jyothi, in the meantime, had got in touch with an NGO and was offered a job.

Today, Jyothi is involved in outreach programmes for the organisation and actively advocates transgender rights, inspiring many youth in the Northern Province. She also found her true love after she arrived in Colombo, another transgender male from the Southern Province.

*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity