A. REVATHI: A LIFE IN TRANS ACTIVISM: A HIJRA LIFE STORY

Grace Fausett
 | 
Alturi Contributor
Aniruddhan Vasudevan translated Revathi’s responses.

A. Revathi is a writer, activist, and performer based in Bengaluru, India. As a transwoman and member of the Thirunangai/Hijra community, Revathi’s life experiences have pushed her to fight tirelessly for sexual and gender minorities and other marginalized communities. I spoke with her about her accomplishments and her journey from being forced to pursue a living in sex work to becoming the director of a human rights organization and an author with works on almost 300 school and college syllabi.

Past

In India, a majority of transwomen have to seek out a living through two things, sex work and begging. That continues to be the reality for many transwomen. When I was presented with those two options, between sex work or begging or both, I actually found sex work to be more honorable and gave me more self-respect. Still, it was just overpowering violence through and through from clients, police harassment, or from other community members.

I wondered, why can’t I just work as all men and women do? Well, because I had to run away due to family violence, I hadn’t even finished my 10th standard (high school equivalent), so that was in the way. But more than that, I tried to go to shops and other places to get a job as a salesgirl, and people just did not want transwomen in any of these spaces. There were a lot of misconceptions about how transwomen lived. People were afraid; people did not want me there.

That’s when I realized that I needed to work towards creating a world where trans people can get jobs, finish education, and be part of the broader social framework. I realized I needed to do that because it didn’t exist.

Sangama

This brought me to Sangama in 1999, a big human rights organization based in Bengaluru.

Sangama became a school. My education didn’t come from books; my education came from work and learning new things about how much I did not know about how the world worked and what mattered. It was only after arriving there that I realized there were people called lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans men. I learned that there are different ways of being sexual throughout the world and that there is a shared discrimination and violence toward these identities. I also learned that our struggles in Indian society cannot be separated from other struggles, such as those of the Dalits or caste struggles.

Sangama Work

I started at the lower level in Sangama and became the organization’s director in 2008. Some of my work here was setting up independent community care networks. HIV/AIDS and other STI-related work was essential. People needed services like counseling, testing, or ARP therapies, so we set up a community-based organization to do that work.

We knew that a lot of trans folks were in sex work and they faced police harassment or violence, and we often had to go to the police and talk to them. We needed people to be trained to negotiate with the police and speak the language of rights, so we set up a community forum to do that work. We started a crisis intervention helpline; if a trans woman was being harassed, she needed someone to call, or else violence would happen to her, and no one would know. I was basically the helpline; the phone was in my hand.

We also organized sexual minorities state-wide and realized that we could help establish these things in other states in the South of India. So, we set up regional offices in these other places as well. 

Present Work

I left Sangama in 2010. After a decade of this work, I realized that my interests had shifted, and I was interested in education. We need a broader education about these issues; they must be discussed in schools, colleges, and universities. That’s when I decided I needed to write. I needed to get access to these spaces where education really happens.

In 2010, I wrote my memoir in Tamil, which was later translated into English as The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story. I also wanted to do a performance of my life. I worked with A. Mangai, a famous feminist theatre director and actor who helped me to make a 45-minute one-woman play from this big memoir of mine. After writing my book and my play, my work has been educational, political, and cultural education. I also wrote another book after this, A Life in Trans Activism, in which I go into the work of trans men. I feel that their issues are often sidelined.

Over the past year, the Department of Education in my state has asked me to take my play to select schools in all 36 districts. I have traveled from district to district every week, performing my play in these schools and hosting conversations with students.

Achievements

There are three things I take to be my most significant accomplishments. The first thing that makes me very happy is that I have been able to support the work of trans men. For a long time, hijra (transwomen) and others in the community did not understand what trans men’s issues were. Having been able to support their work and educate my trans-women community has been one of my greatest accomplishments. Now, there are trans women who, some ten years ago, did not understand who trans men were, now “adopt” trans men as their sons. Being able to be part of that conversation and transformation has given great meaning to my work.

The second is my work in the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a law that effectively criminalized adult consensual same-sex acts. I participated in this campaign, organizing dialogues with religious leaders, conversing with interfaith communities, and trying to change minds. Being part of that extensive campaign to overturn India’s anti-sodomy law was a historic moment for us all.

The third thing is that I’ve written these books, which’ve been translated and are widely read. I’m invited to literary forums and schools, and my books have been on almost 300 syllabi so far in schools and colleges.

The Columbia University Library has names etched on the outside of it – Plato, Aristotle, figures in the Western canon. Some years ago, there was a movement to decenter that by positioning other writers. A banner was created to demonstrate that “the canon” doesn’t end with these thinkers. My name was put on that banner alongside Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and others. I saw this as a recognition that leaders do not just read my books, but they are part of the educational curriculum in many places.

Hopes and Fears

Many trans folks are now finishing education, going to colleges, even getting Ph. D.s, going into professions, and going to medical school—that gives me hope.

I have fears that we have legal changes happening, which are very good, but legal changes happen a lot. For instance, when it comes to Dalit communities, there are laws that are supposed to protect couples who marry across castes. However, when young Dalits marry into other castes, they still face unimaginable violence. There is an incommensurability between the legal victory and social change.

Similarly, for us, Section 377 may be gone, but violence against queer folks continues to happen. In fact, it is on the rise. We should not think that legal victories somehow automatically translate into social victories or genuine victories. We have a lot of work to do on that front.

Message

We use the term LGBTQIA, you know, the umbrella, a lot. We need to keep reminding ourselves that it takes a lot of work for us to stay together.

We come from different backgrounds, including caste, class, religion, and forms of privilege. The issues affecting us are different, so we should not take the umbrella for granted as if we are already a community. It takes a lot of work.

Sometimes, things happen that fray solidarity. We, as a community, are not somehow naturally immune to the things that tear the rest of the world apart. Considerations of caste, privilege, religious difference—these things can enter our spaces too, and they have. We have our work cut out to put ourselves back together or ensure that these forces don’t tear us apart.

One part of our community has to understand things about another part of our community. We need to understand the vulnerabilities of people who are poor or those who are more exposed to a certain type of violence. What are the issues of people who are gendered in a way that is different from us?

We should not assume that the umbrella already signals unity, community, and understanding. That is my message.

Support

When I perform, or people read one of my books, they often come up to me and say, “I feel so transformed.” They might be moved, but if there were a trans child in their family, for instance, would that transformation translate into action? I worry that “being moved” might not translate into anything else.

If you can make my book into something that changes something in you and leaves an opening for you to treat trans folks better, that is the favor you can do for me. Allow my work to transform or touch you in some way. That is all I ask.

For more information on A. Revathi’s life and advocacy work, see her memoir, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, her autobiographical play, “Frankly Speaking,” and her other books, A Life in Trans Activism and Our Lives Our Worlds: Telling Aravani Life Stories.

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