Transgender rights activist and author Akkai Padmashali spoke to the Bowdoin community over Zoom on Tuesday, April 5. Padmashali told her story as a transgender woman in India, drawing connections between her personal experiences and political issues in India and across the world. She also discussed her autobiography, “A Small Step in a Large Journey,” which will be published in the United States later this year.
Padmashali was born in Bengaluru, India, where she was assigned male at birth, but realized at a young age that her gender identity was female. In the talk, Padmashali explained that the sociological context in which she was born was not conducive to free expression of her gender identity.
“India has so much plurality, and so much tradition-based, custom-based and culture-based politics,” Padmashali said. “When I realized my [gender identity], it was not so easy to accept [within] my family circle. The conflict between sex and psychology was mishmatched according to the social construction and the family’s order of thinking and perspective.”
One of the people responsible for organizing Padmashali’s visit was sociology professor Shruti Devgan. Devgan mentioned the importance of recognizing Padmashali’s story’s place in a larger sociological context.
“One of the good things about [a story like this] is this idea of the personal being political. Akkai is writing about her story in her autobiography, but Akkai’s story is also the story of other gender and sexual minorities in India, as well as across the globe,” Devgan said.
Padmashali spoke of leaving home when she was only a teenager and experiencing several turbulent years full of hardship and depression.
“The self-hate, the self-rejection, is something that affects a lot of people because you are a person not wanted by your family, not wanted by your siblings, not wanted by your relatives. You are rejected by all sections of society,” Padmashali said.
As an adult, Akkai found work at non-profit organizations. After finding that a number of these organizations were working with sexist and castist biases, Akkai decided to establish her own organization, Ondede.
“All the feminists, academics, liberal writers and activists came together and discussed exactly what we wanted to do. That’s how the whole idea of Ondede came about,” Padmashali said. “Ondede is the Kanadan word for ‘convergence,’ where we speak about the dignity of the gender non-conforming, transgengder, and sexual minority children.”
Pity, though, is not what the activist looks for. Devgan demonstrated this when explaining the meaning behind the title of the English translation of Padmashali’s memoir published last year, “A Challenge to Sympathy.”
“Her focus in her book is trying to cultivate empathy and solidarity, rather than sympathy,” Devgan said. “I thought that that was really interesting, and I hope that students take something away from that.”
Beyond her personal journey, Padmashali spoke about the political climate surrounding sexual minorities in India. She explained how, prior to 2009, being LGBTQ+ was a crime in India under Section 377 of the Indian Penal code.
“Our sexual orientations and gender identities came under the veil of ridicule,” Padmashali said. “Atrocities were happening, especially from the police force. You were taken to jail, you were taken to cells, our heads were shaved, we were forced to be in men’s attire.”
In 2009, Section 377 was repealed by India’s Supreme Court. Padmashali spoke of the effects of the law’s repeal in a personal way, embodying the “personal is political” concept Devgan spoke of.
“When we were decriminalized, for those years we were so happily living life, because society was accepting; there was a safer environment and family acceptance; violence was reducing and reducing,” Padmashali said.
When the verdict was overturned in 2013 with the help of right-wing religious groups, putting Section 377 into effect again, Padmashali worked with other activist groups to repeal the law yet again, succeeding in 2018.
The activist wrapped up her talk on a positive and optimistic note.
“It is a high time in the 21st century to fight against all forms of phobias, to speak for social justice, to speak for social acceptance,” Padmashali said.