At the age of 12, Akkai Padmashali, troubled by her gender identity, grappled with suicide. Luckily, life had other things in store and today, she has emerged as the face of transgender welfare in the state, the first transgender to win the Rajyotsava Award. The state government's approval of the transgender policy, with which she has a long history, is a definite feather in her cap. To her, it marks the start of the transgender's journey into mainstream society, one marked by hardship and moments of despair. She tells Ralph Alex Arakal her story.
A male to female transgender who decided to kill herself at the age of 12, Akkai Padmashali has risen to be the face of the transgender community of the state and beyond, over the years. The first transgender to be conferred with the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award, the second highest civilian honour of the state in 2015, Akkai also robes in roles of a social activist, a motivational speaker, and a classically trained singer and is known for her talent to converge these flairs towards nourshing young minds to develop an inclusive generation in days to come. With the transgender policy being approved by the Karnataka state cabinet, the pioneering transgender from the state capital reveals her story. “I am a woman without breasts, vagina, uterus and periods, who is on a life mission to fight the patriarchal norms and intuitions the society has been practicing since centuries as of now,” alludes Akkai, who holds a honorary doctorate from the Indian Virtual University for Peace and Education.
For Dr Padmashali, her own life is the textbook from which she takes out pages to get the message of diversity and identity across to the larger masses she interacts with. “The initial years of my life since I started feeling the urge of being a woman continued to throw challenges of various levels at me day after day – for a society-approved identity, sexuality and profession,” she remembers elaborating on her transition to Akkai from Jagdish. Also the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the state, Akkai had to discontinue her studies after tenth grade and later even took up sex work for four years in the city, as she battled her way out to make ends meet for her unapproved identity in the society.
“Gender is all about an individual’s right to chose,” she ascertains with a proud smile recalling instances of being respected and welcomed by the society, governmental institutions and even foreign varsities (including UC Berkeley, Wellesley College and Princeton University) to address people from different strata of the society. “The journey for our community from being criminalized even for our existence to various state governments now drafting exclusive transgender policies, Karnataka being the latest, is the proud result of over 20 years of our unified struggle,” she says. Akkai was invited by the Government of Kerala to receive the draft of the transgender policy in 2015, as the state became the first ever in the subcontinent to do so.
Even though she is happy to be the pioneering face among her community members across the nation, she stresses on a thought – “New leaders for the community at various regional levels should be encouraged to take form to continue the legacy of what we have achieved so far. The responsibility of speaking up for rights and to continue knocking doors of the authorities should stay consistent to sustain the effects of the ongoing activism,” she asserts. Elaborating on the scope of the judicial system developing towards the welfare of sexual minorities, the activist also calls for separate toilets, wards at hospitals, seats in buses and quota in mainstream sectors like housing, employment and such. In other cases, she adds, “Gender parity is the need of the hour.”
A person who does what she believes is the best, Akkai reveals that conversing with the younger generations and the exposure her venture at Sangama, the NGO she started her career at, has motivated her to inspire more minds. “Millennials are more receptive and open to learning on various issues to bring a positive change in the society they are part of. The 21st century is non-phobic to changes and this is where such movements can capitalize on,” remarks Dr Padmashali. She adds that more opportunities given to minorities to profess their experiences would broaden the narrow perspective on which the societal mindset is being set on.
An atheist by faith, the motivational speaker reveals her definition of God holding her head and tone to the zenith. “The individual who comes to one’s situation to provide assistance when in need is God for me,” she says. Commenting on the Andhra Pradesh LGBT community’s decision to build a temple for CM Chandrababu Naidu as a gesture for setting up the Hijra Welfare Board in the state, Akkai said “A group’s faith cannot be dictated and brought into the objective of a larger society and on personal grounds, I object such a move.” Happily married to her childhood love Vasu, a vendor at Magadi, who identified and approved her identity right from the age of 13, Akkai is leading a normal life of a married woman which she once taught would never be a reality. “I am a woman, not a transwoman and yes, call me a Black Beauty and I’ll love it,” she concludes with a strong smile as her eyes continue to elaborate tales of the once-oppressed.