Sankari was born as Sankar – a boy in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. She did her schooling from Ettiyappa Naicker School in Kaasimedu. But during the school days, she began to feel different from her assigned gender. She loved playing dolls and pretend cooking with girls. She felt and behaved feminine, which was not accepted by people around her, as there was almost no awareness about transgenders. As a result, she was called names by her peers and teachers which made school a horrible experience for her.
She had a friend who was a transwoman as well, and they both were isolated at school. They started keeping to themselves instead of interacting with others and hence trying to avoid the abuse they were subjected to.
In one of the unfortunate incidents during PT period in school, Sankari and her friend were reprimanded by their PT master. They were sitting in a corner in the ground when their teacher approached and asked them why they were not playing. When they talked about how kids make fun of them, instead of supporting them, the teacher also made a hurtful remark: “Oh are you people different, then its better you don’t play with them.”
Sankari faced lot of degradation in school. She was told to walk like a man in the square field and when she said she cannot change who she is, she was beaten up by the teachers.
Things weren’t better at home. She got a lot of beating for dressing up in saree made out of towels. Neighbours and relatives also shunned her and made fun of her ways. In family functions, she was subjected to remarks like “you are not fit to get married”. She couldn’t understand why someone would say such things. Why couldn’t she marry a man and lead a happy life?
She studied till 12th in Ettiyappa Naicker School in Kaasimedu and joined BCom in Madras University but unfortunately couldn’t complete it.
Solace in the Home of God
Sankari was very religious from childhood and visited lot of temples. But during this phase of her life, when she was dealing with the negativity of the world around her, where her opinion and connection to God became much stronger. She always had questions like why me? Why all this suffering when you created me like this? God became her only way to talk and vent out feelings which she couldn’t share with others.
While visiting temples she used to see a lot of Transwomen. Transwomen from her area generally don’t wear sarees or do any outwardly feminine things. They used to dress like a man, but their mannerisms will be like a woman. She always wanted to spend time with other Transwomen but seeing them used to scare her. She thought they will kidnap her and sell her in Mumbai or make her blind and ask her to beg. She heard lot of such stories which instilled this fear in her mind.
One day, a group of transwomen were sitting in the temple and called Sankari by addressing her in female gender while she was crossing. Sankari was 15 or 16 years old this time. She felt elated that someone called her as a woman. This acceptance from someone other her made her feel very happy and she went to talk to the group. Over the time, she started spending more time with them. They became her family and home away from home.
Road to Transition
Transgender community has a ritual of adopting family amongst themselves. Sankari chose a transwoman, Maya, and asked her to be her mother. This didn’t sit well with her neighbors who complained to her parents. Her father, who used to love her and considered her his lucky charm, started hitting her. Her father didn’t accept her which resulted in verbal abuse and hitting. People would question her mother; her brother’s friends would make fun of her and her father would hurt her.
She couldn’t bear all this any longer so at the age of 21, Sankari left her house.
She travelled with her chosen family to Periyapalayam. They looked and dressed like men, but their mannerisms were feminine. They were friendly and was no disparity and they treated Sankari like the way she felt. They became her home.
After leaving her house, Sankari had to struggle a lot like many others from transgender community. Although she had found acceptance within her chosen family, she still had to face tough times. She had to take up begging, prostitution, and such to survive. People mocked and abused her. Since there was no awareness amongst the people, it was difficult for her to find a decent job or house for rent. That left her no choice but to beg on the streets. If she had to look for a house for rent in decent area, she would have to dress up as male and lie about having an office job. Otherwise, she would have to live in slums or railway tracks but there she could be herself. She resisted the hardships and followed whatever came into her way as she wanted to save up for her transition surgery.
Stint at Sahodaran
Sankari and her friend took up work at Sahodaran – an organization which deals with male sexual health projects. They created awareness about HIV and various other sexual diseases. They also worked towards normalizing gays in the society.
Sankari found the work monotonous there. She had to distribute condoms and work on few awareness projects. Also, she didn’t agree to some of the rules at Sahodaran. They expected transwomen to dress up like men and then only were they allowed to be the part of the foundation. She quit the organization soon as she wanted to transition as quickly as possible.
She believes the policies at Sahodaran have been changed now.
Nirangal – A ray of hope to many
After her transition, Sankari joined “Centre for Counselling & Health Services” and worked there for 2 years.
She took training there and was the first transwoman to get professionally trained for counselling in India.
Later, she joined Thangama organization in Bangalore. She wanted to work for the rights of transwoman. So, along with a friend, she started a branch in Chennai with help of small fund from the organization. They started with crisis intervention and supporting transgenders facing societal stigma. Their mission was to widely spread LGBTQ+ awareness and support them.
She co-founded Nirangal with Sivakumar. They were first to support transmen. In those days, people were still aware of transwomen transmen had no visibility in the society. It was comparatively easier for men to transition but women still faced lot of stigma and challenges if they had to come out to the society. They got absolutely no support. Sankari and Sivakumar worked extensively on creating awareness about transmen. They backed and stood by them.
At Nirangal, Sankari is always on her toes. And that’s what she enjoys. She was never a fan of mundane and routine tasks. Nirangal is an opportunity for her to do more hands-on work rather only sitting and doing documentation. Each day brings new surprises and opportunities for her. She undertake tasks like going to police stations to support transgenders or rescue and shelter the people who come out. She is also beaten up and abused for supporting the people from the community. Off late, due to health issues, she had taken up more online sessions and trainings to create awareness. During pandemic, she mostly work on Zoom.
She also supports people with their legal rights. She guides them with their identity and creates awareness on normalizing LGBTQ+ community. She also connects them to right person if someone wants to consult psychologists.
Nirangal has supported countless people in their journey but Sankari doesn’t prefer to keep a count or document these. The nature of her work is so that they have to maintain confidentiality and maintain privacy of people who seek their help. Publicly announcing can be a threat to their existence. She doesn’t seek any recognition for her. She’s happy that she’s able to support and serve her community which had earned her great name and rapport with them.
Trans Kitchen and beyond
Sankari was approached to cook for needy people. She took up the role of being head-chef for Porur kitchen. For two months, she cooked for over 700 people per day.
This initiative got lot of awards, but she doesn’t take any credit for it. She says she supported the event and there are many other people who have financially supported the cause.
She had always dreamt of being a teacher, to study and well and impart her learnings to others. But circumstances forced her to give up on her dreams. But now, after her transition, she is able to pursue what she aspired. She takes online classes and sessions to educate people. She now trains healthcare and policy workers and common public to create more awareness.
Sankari has a role model named Revathy amma. She is from Namakkal. She has been working for the community upliftment from a very long time. Sankari herself has faced so many obstacles during her time and it’s difficult to imagine what circumstances Revathy amma would have seen in her days. She was the director of her organization. She is a very loyal and honest person and knows how to clearly differentiate between work and personal life. She worked sincerely during work hours but outside she took care of the community and kept them happy.
In her words…
“When you write my story, focus on my learning. I have learnt a lot during this entire journey. I have been with so many people and have learnt a lot each day. There are two-faced people who are good to us on our face but behind our backs they spoil our names. I have met all kinds of people and learnt a great deal on tackling them.
Also please focus on LGBTQ, don’t focus much on me, I want people to know about my community. I want people to read through it and understand about my community. So please focus on it.
I want people to change their perception about LGBTQ, people are ready to sacrifice their children but are not ready to accept them like how they are. Community really needs to understand that we cannot force others to live their lives our way. It’s their life and they have to choose how they want to live.”
Sankari’s organization: Nirangal
– Written By SAP Volunteers for SAP stories
Ayesha Siddika Ameer