You are listening to the Outright Proud podcast. I'm Hannah Kohn and I'm Outright’s UN Advocacy Fellow. At Outright International, we work together for better LGBTIQ lives.This podcast will advocate, celebrate, amplify and support LGBTIQ voices.Outright will be launching a campaign to show the benefits achieved by transpeople in 20 countries that observe self-determined legal gender recognition.
In our debut episode, you'll be listening to our Senior Advisor for the Global Trans Program, Rikki Nathanson, in a conversation about this.Here is Rikki.
Hi, my name is Rikki Nathanson, and I am the Senior Advisor of the Global Trans Program here at Outright International. I'm here with a dear colleague and friend of mine, Chamindra, who is with GATE and we'll be having a conversation around what it means to be trans.
Hi, my name is Chamindra Weerawardhana. I'm a human rights defender from Sri Lanka. And I currently serve as the Director of Programs and Global Partnerships at GATE [Global Action for Trans Equality], which is an international organization specialized in the area of trans human rights and intersex human rights.
So let's just start a bit talking about when an individual comes into their own being, when they realize who they are, when they realize what it means.
And the term that has been coined a lot is ‘coming out.’I know many times people are asked,’when did you come out?’or ‘what was your coming out experience like?’And speaking personally, I prefer to use the term self-determination or self-realization because it's somebody who has always seen themselves to have been different to the gender binaries or what was considered to be quote-unquote, normal. I realized actually from my first moment of consciousness, as a human being when I could realize, I always knew I was different and I could not figure out when we had to go shopping for toys, for example, go shopping for clothing when it was birthdays or Christmas.
Why wasn't allowed to buy that nice frilly dress with a little tutu? Or why was it that I was forced to buy an airplane rather than buy little Barbie doll? And I didn't realize that I was a boy until I started school, junior school, and then I was forced to wear boys clothing, uniforms. And then as time went on, it was you’re forced to play the sports that boys play. So I like to say that I've always been, I never came out of anyway.
I didn't come out of a closet. So I really, really like to say that my self-realization was my first moment of consciousness. However, my self-determination as a trans individual, now when we started labeling, what I am, or what I should be, or how society would - want society would call me. And I would say, I was in my late teens, early twenties, I transitioned socially, meaning that weekends, when I wasn't at work,I would dress in a very feminine way. As time moved on and I grew older,I started transitioning medically.
So it really was a transition so to speak, from this child that always knew who they were, who was forced to live in one particular lifestyle, to the individual I am today. So how was it? How was it for you, Chamindra?My thoughts resonate very much with what you said there, Rikki, when you say you're coming out in terms of sexual orientation if we take the SOGIESC rights as a whole, rights related to sexual orientation, you used the term ‘coming out’ to a certain extent,it could make some sense when it relates to sexual orientation. But when it comes to gender identity, it's more one person becoming themself in the singular,right?
You know, coming home to yourself, basically. And the concept of gender self-determination,I think is the most important tool to understand the lived experience of a trans person. And to me, I mean, it makes perfect sense that way and the conversation around self-determination and visibility could also be used as an occasion to zoom in, on the diversity of what it means to be a trans person, you know, because to a large extent, even today, despite all the progress we have made when you say that someone is a trans person, many people see only the gender identity side of things, right?
You don't a whole person, a whole human being with their skills, with their capabilities, with their achievements, with their regrets, with their challenges and many other aspects of life, you know?
So that is something that needs to be acknowledged as well. So these words, ‘coming out’ or ‘transition’ even, I mean, what does transition actually mean, right? You become yourself. You don't transform from oneself to another self. In many cases, and this may be a bit different from one person to another, given the cis-normativities of the world we live in. Like in my case, for instance, it was very clear from a very, very young age.
And I would say,I want this, and this, and this, and I would be told, ‘no, those are not for you because you're not a girl.’Then I would enhance it to a new level and say, no, I really want this, this, and this, and it would be. It used to be a become a big nightmare, you know, so it was never easy and also in conservative societies when people notice that their children, especially children assigned male at birth, being not very, you know, conforming to what their role they're supposed to pay as cis, male children, people can get very repressive towards you and this has been my lived experience, and that is why I have a lot of antagonism with my home country, for instance, and it's the country that hurt me so much at the most vulnerable age, nobody realized and nobody being supportive of things that I understood at a very young age, because this is why it is important to think in terms of the rights of trans children. Some people out there, people with absolutely no experience of what it means to be a trans person, saying that their children are too young to talk about, you know, their gender dysphoria or their gender identity or talk about who they are at around 12 years old. In the 1990s, when there was no internet or anything like that, I used to go to libraries, you know, the British Council Library, the American Libraries, and places like that, and try to find out what on earth was actually wrong with me, because I feel something, and I know something, and I have my preferences. I know how I want to be. And I'm constantly being prevented, forbidden, from being the person, the kid I want to be, right?
So when you're up against that kind of challenge, it really matures you, you know, it's the same for young children of any gender identity, especially for young girls assigned female at birth, who faced a lot of violence in deeply divided societies, for instance, gender-based violence, these experiences mature you and you look for answers, you look for information, and a lot of trans children especially today in the digital world we live in, look for answers. So if a kid says, and they’re 12, 13 years old,’ Look I'm trans, and this is my reality,’ the best people could do is to support. Absolutely, I totally agree with you.
And you know, when we speak to - especially young trans people, we speak of trans people, trans youth, trans adults, we look at what's happening now in the Global North, particularly around the pushback against trans rights, which is very vocal. It's so in-your-face. And every single time, I'm living in the United States,I turn on the TV, there's some debate about trans youth in schools, bathroom laws, being revoked in Virginia, for example, which is a neighboring state to where I live. They are arguing around sports, who can and who cannot play sports, what the hormonal levels are, and all those sorts of things and it has become so politicized.
It has become so high-level politics and we've taken away the human element, we’ve taken the element out - the human thread of being has beentaken out of the conversation. And there's something I need to be contested, debated and to be thrashed out because if we just had a discussion, for example, around the day, in the life of a trans person, if you think of this place and this person at the age of say 12, which is now, we are going into adulthood, right?And a person knows, and we both know, that we know who we are from the time we can realize, who we actually are so, you know, that this is what I want to be.So you wake up in the morning and the first thing is now should I get out of bed because I know what lies ahead for me, I wake up in the morning,I look in the mirror and the first level of negativity that I would face, would be the dysmorphia I feel. Or the dysphoria I feel by looking at my body in the mirror because that's not the body I want to have, right? But I'm forced to go through life with this body. I'm forced to go through life in the anatomical frame that I know is not where my being needs to live. And as you said earlier on, young people in those situations more often than not come from families, that are not supportive of them they would face retribution from their parents from their siblings. So be it bullying, be it being beaten up, that’s the next level of negativity that you face in one day. And then, from there, we have to get dressed for school and presume we have to go catch a bus to school, and our parents don't drop us off. So the fact that we leave from our front gate, and walk to the bus stop is retribution.
Insults being hurled at me on the way.I get on the bus and it’s more bullying, I go to school and it's more bullying. So by the end of the day, my life has been so clouded and so inundated with all the negativity, and discrimination, bad vibes, beatings, and evil words that it really is no wonder when we look at the level of statistics of suicide, for example, among people across the board, you'd find that the highest rates of suicide, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are found among young, trans-identifying individuals. And it’s really is sad.100 percent, indeed, especially at that age. That's the time when you need support, right? You need a support network. You need understanding people around you, and you need a lot of care,and a lot of love, and very few young trans people get that kind of care and love that they fully deserve at that age.
And those of us who do survive,those very difficult years of youth,carry a lot of trauma, carry a lot of difficulties, and it's not an easy existence in adulthood. As a matter of fact, you know, when it comes to me therapy has not been enough to keep things afloat. You know, it's a very difficult existence because it's as if there is a void somewhere in your past.You know, those about 20 years of girlhood, where are they gone?
You know, and what do you do about that emptiness? So these are really difficult issues, and one cannot reiterate enough the importance of being supportive towards trans and gender-diverse children, because the backlash against children, it's the most inhuman of inhuman dimension of this backlash, because when you take issue with me, my present-day version, I can fight back.All right, I have the language for that.I have the tools for that, I have the support network for that. But when you take issue with a very vulnerable,young child, who is part of a very small percentage of the population, who does not get the support they most urgently need, and when you try to demonize the lived reality of that child, where can the child turn to?You know, even when parents are somewhat supportive. Where can the parents turn to?
You know, when you bring in very repressive laws and stuff. So this is something that we really, really need to reiterate, you know. The level of bullying, the level of oppression young trans people face, it's simply too much, and it has its, you know, multiple manifestations from one country to another, one part of the world to another. But it’s never easy; it's extremely difficult, extremely challenging, and I don't think it should be, you know, that much difficult, you know, things should be, we should work on making things easier, you know, for children with different realities of how they relate to their identity, their reality, their there lived reality, their gender, you know.
So this should be something, gender diversity in children, is something that should be normalized. Absolutely, when we speak of mental health issues, and we speak of the psychological intolerance that people go through.They just don't have the support system. We just don't have, don't have the support system, and that speaks to a bigger picture of when we look through a feminist lens of how the manifestation of patriarchy is riddled throughout the system, systematically, and the systemic violence that we face as trans people goes -is so far-reaching and this is just one of the many frustrations that we see when we speak to oppression of not only young people, but I would say of trans people in general. Now let’s switch gears, and let's have a conversation around what we think, or how we think, what is trans visibility and I'll hand it over to you.To me, trans visibility is having the freedom to mind one’s business and get on with one's life. You know, this is the most - this is the hardest thing for a trans person, you know? Accessing basic healthcare needs, going through major -having to go through major hurdles to access the care and the support you need when it comes to healthcare, or when it comes to having the right kind of identity papers or anything like that. And challenging situations at work that occurred, not because of a lack of skills, most of the time, just because of who you are, you know, how you get stigmatized.
Even in the LGBTIQ human rights sector, we see very often trans people with high potential, for instance, who get somewhat marginalized, then their cis peers. So being able to get on with your life and being able to challenge those multiple forms of discrimination and being seen as whole people, you know, and that being trans does not, for instance, define what your sexual orientation is, you know, so challenging those stereotypes and being able to live one's life really. I think that is what visibility is for me. Absolutely.
And I'll just take it one step further. And I totally, it's all of that, and I think a bit more. And, you know, I take this commemoration as a time to sort of step back and interrogate what is visibility? So, being a trans individual, you are extremely visible from the moment you walk into a room, right? They use the term in DC of people getting clocked. They get noticed as being trans.
And as being a trans leader,a global trans leader, of which you are one too. And I certainly try and use my visibility to not only better my life but to try and be in the lives of everybody. And that's the conversation we're having now. And what does it entail? How do we use the platform and the privileges that we have, even though we have faced discrimination, even though we've been through hard lives, we've been at the mercy of hate, perpetrators of hate and perpetrators of discrimination? And people actually tried to harm us for just being, for our mere existence.
The fact that we've been privileged enough to have come through that and risen like a phoenix, what do we do now when we have this platform, now that we are visible? What do we do to try and help, or even to help our other siblings that cannot go through or catch an airplane tomorrow because they have an ID document that gets them pulled aside at airport security?
And, you know, that's the lived reality of a trans person. So what do we do for that individual? And this conversation we're having now I certainly hope will go a long way in beginning the small steps that we need to take as those that are at the forefront, those that are visible, to try and make a change,to try and make a difference for every trans person that's out there. And every gender-diverse person that’s out there, you know, because they tend to, you know, they also need to be included. And then also, what do we do with the visibility that we have to try and fight the oppression, to try and reinforce the intersections of feminism, trans-feminism, with the mainstream feminism? And these are all things that we need to do, and we need to do when it's in times of visibility.
And also acknowledge and celebrate each other, you know? And give a pat on the back where it’s due. And publicize the wins and the gains of our next glorious sibling. And with that, I'd like to thank you so much Chamindra for your time, and looking forward to much, much more interesting work going ahead.