Sympathy is not what we want: Bhoomi Harendran

Bhoomi Harendran has become a prominent figure in the media recently as the first trans-identifying actress to ever win a SAARC award in Asia and Sri Lanka, for her role in critically acclaimed film Frangipani while also receiving the ‘Kusalatha Sammanaya’ at the Sarasavi Film Awards 2018.

However, Bhoomi’s rise to prominence has not been solely due to her involvement in the arts. She is an avid human rights activist, particularly dedicated to the betterment of the rights and lives of transgender individuals in Sri Lanka.
We sat down for a quick chat with Bhoomi and her most recent undertaking as the head of the National Transgender Network Sri Lanka (NTN Sri Lanka).

Q: What is the NTN Sri Lanka?

A: The newly established NTN Sri Lanka is a network set up to ensure that transgender (TG) rights and health are secured in Sri Lanka. We are ready, through the network, to assist the transgender community to go through both legal and surgical processes; ranging from changing personal documents to counselling, hormone treatments and gender confirming surgeries as well as any health advice regarding STIs.

NTN Sri Lanka is the first network established with and through the Government that is in collaboration with the Health Ministry and provided for by Global Fund.

It’s a historical movement – a transgender network mobilising for the first time as an island-wide initiative.
We are in the midst of identifying trans individuals in each district and providing a means for them to create a community and join the network.

There are many who are afraid to openly connect with us, and we wish to travel around the island identifying those who require assistance and possibly arrange for medical tours, field visits, and lectures.
So far, it is in the birthing stages, and the distance we have travelled has been very little. However, we wish to expand and be underway by next year.

NTN is determined to provide the most possible secure environment for Sri Lanka’s trans community and support trans equality.

Q: How did it come about?

A: We made a proposal for a network/system to be set up which provided medical support exclusively for transgender needs. The proposal came about due to the varying medical needs of the TG community; there is a necessity for individual and separate medical care.

At first, Global Fund suggested that this new network be established under a system via the Family Planning Association Sri Lanka.

However, we wished to establish a network which could stand on its own without the control of any other organisation.
The reason being, no one better understands the needs of a community than the members of the community; of course, we would liaison with any and all other organisations. It must always be a collaborative effort, but we wished for those of the TG community to have a say which would not be overridden.

And so, we invited all representatives from the LGBTIQ spectrum in the island, to have this discussion and to set it up, together with Global Fund’s support.

Q: What was the main purpose?

A: The main purpose of establishing this network, in addition to our health and wellness goals, was to improve and raise the quality of life of TG individuals in Sri Lanka.

Members of the transgender community often, unfairly, come under fire for “bad behaviour”. They are looked down on by society, placing blame on them for becoming sex workers and other occupations that are presumed less than worthy.
However, the reason this is a prevalent belief is because when one is stripped of their rights, they must turn to less than favourable means to survive.

Society blames members of the transgender community for not getting their lives in order, when many of them are struggling and are often helpless and absolutely desolate, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

As a solution, we wish to propose and implement a systematic infrastructure where TG individuals are not left helpless and are able to live life in a dignified manner; to ensure they are not rejected from higher education institutes or opportunities, to ensure that corporates do not discriminate against members of the TG community, starting from the hiring process to varying levels in employment, etc.

Q: What are the roadblocks you have encountered along the way?

A: We did face some difficulty when setting up our official network, primarily due to the fact that our board of directors are all TG individuals in the midst of the process of gender reassignment surgery. Therefore, we faced a complication in opening a bank account.

However, we must give credit to the good people over at a branch of a leading bank in Dehiwala, who were most sensitive to the issue, and were ready and willing to provide support where it was needed.

We were most heartened by their willingness to support us despite possible future complications; they merely requested that the necessary documentation be provided in order to get the process underway.

To be honest, there are many who are supportive of our situation, but it is mostly sympathy we see in them; a sort of sympathy mixed with empathy at best, but that is not what we want.

For example, the circular No. 06/2016 dated 28.07. 2016 issued by the Registrar General instructing all registrars in the country to change the sex and name in the birth certificate based on the gender recognition certificates has yet to reach many registrars around the island, and while we are in the process of sorting this issue out, we came across many who were quite sympathetic and were not troublesome in solving the problem.

However, while kindness in any varying capacity is appreciated, what many do not realise is that “aney paw” doesn’t solve anything.

The various solutions provided by the Government has somewhat provided relief for many – particularly the transsexuals – who are able to live life as is, but those who are gender neutral, transgendered, and in the middle, are yet to receive any recognition, and to improve their quality of life is our goal.

Garnering sympathy is not our objective; we wish to incorporate everyone in human rights protection to support our cause, for quality and equal opportunity and to empower a stigmatised, marginalised community for the better in Sri Lanka.


By Dimithri Wijesinghe