Meet The Activist Working With Transgender Communities in Sri Lanka for the Past 10 Years

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Global LGBTIQ advocates once again convened this December at OutRight’s annual Advocacy Week in New York City. The ten day event had advocates amass for trainings and meetings with U.N. representatives to discuss global LGBTIQ issues. This invaluable collaboration between advocates culminated at OutSummit 2017, the capstone meeting where attendees are invited to discuss unique social and political issues that LGBTIQ people face in a diverse range of nations.

As Chairperson of the Venasa Transgender Network, Thenu Ranketh is working to represent LGBTIQ individuals in Sri Lanka and the South Asian area.

OutRight: What experiences first made you aware of the need to advocate for LGBTIQ rights? How did you first get involved with your earliest experiences and current organization?

Thenu: I have been working with and for transgender community in Sri Lanka for the past 10 years. Being a transgender person who started the transitioning process in an era when psychiatrists or physicians were not willing to help transgender persons transition and when there was no proper or trustworthy knowledge sources available, I have had first-hand experiences of discrimination and stigma. Not only myself, but also I witnessed many transgender persons who were willing to transition with me face the same circumstances. I believe the journey I started through such hardships made me realize that the above-mentioned situation has to be inevitably changed and we, as transgender persons who knew it very well, must take a stance.

Ever since, I actively and openly engaged in activism for the transgender community. It wasn’t sudden and convenient – it was rather a very difficult and gradual process. I firstly engaged with many community-based organizations and activists and with time became a part of many organizations. My working experiences involve activities including but not limited to, providing counseling for transgender persons, referring to medical practitioners & psychiatrists for proficient support, advocating for transgender persons’ rights & non-discrimination and supporting victims of transphobia to obtain legal support.

As a result of long-term activism, in 2015, I founded Venasa Transgender Network (aka VTN) and it is the first and currently only organization in Sri Lanka that is working solely for transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming persons.

OutRight: How have global politics impacted your work?

Thenu: [It is hard to answer this question as though many changes have been happened in global politics nothing has been changed with regards to LGBTIQ persons’ situation in Sri Lanka.]

OutRight: Why is it important to be a part of advocacy week and how will that impact the work that you will do at home?

Thenu: Since VTN is a newly found, small-scaled organization, it requires a greater amount of support and capacity development. Therefore I believe if I receive an opportunity to attend Advocacy Week, it will be extremely useful and supportive for both VTN and me. Also it is noteworthy that VTN requires international exposure and support in order to move forward powerfully. I believe Advocacy Week would be a good opportunity for me to meet & make contacts with new organizations & individuals/ activists, learn new things and engage with much larger LGBTIQ networks. Because of the fact that the amount of funds VTN receives is very less, I believe programs like Advocacy Week would strengthen and equip us to seek for further funding and opportunities with more capacity and professional experience.

OutRight: What are some local social or political obstacles you and your organization currently face?

Thenu: The legal and political environment in Sri Lanka did not recognize transgender individuals officially until 2016, when a gender recognition certificate was introduced as a result of long-term struggle by tans and LGBTIQ activists in collaboration with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. However, still, there are issues with regard to practical benefits and recognition achievable through the certificate due to lack of trans-inclusive/ supportive policies following government institutes. Also, negative and inaccurate opinions and attitudes amongst general public is one of the predominant challenges that affects the lives of transgender persons and hinder activism and advocacy.

Amongst all aforementioned issues and challenges, VTN finds it extremely difficult to progress with less to no support from government institutes towards trans activism. Also, politicians using homosexuality and gender non-conformity to ridicule and shun opponents also adversely affect the big picture of transgenderism among general public. Changing the mindsets of the general public influenced with many misconceptions about transgender people, is among key challenges faced by VTN.