What would you call a person who wanted to end life at the age of 12, but goes on to fight a system that oppresses a large minority, and becomes an icon of change in India? Akkai Padmashali (35) is a ChangeMAKER, an activist who gets things done, and the voice of LGBTQ+ community in India. But the only title she wants is ‘woman,’ one which she has fought hard for.
Born as a boy in a lower middle class family in Bengaluru, her journey from Jagadeesh to Akkai is one of resilience and perseverance. During her childhood, her craving to embrace her femininity was met with aggressive response from her family and society. Her parents tried to ‘straighten’ her out by physical abuse, while in school, she was bullied and even sexually assaulted to the extent that she left school after 10th grade.
As a teenager, Akkai -then Jagadeesh - found comfort among the transgender community who were doing sex work in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park in late 1990s. Although she joined them in prostitution for a livelihood, she did not let her family know the source of her income.
Rather than ending her own life in despair, Akkai’s way was to build a world she wants to live in. In her twenties, Akkai left sex work and joined Sangama, an LGBT rights group, and decided to work for better living conditions for the transgender community. Her efforts culminated in a landmark judgement by the Indian Supreme Court, to ensure equality and dignity to all citizens, irrespective of their sexuality.
Making History in Small victories
Akkai’s life is full of achievements that may seem small to a privileged person, but is really a significant accomplishment for a whole community. For example, post her sex reassignment surgery in October 2012, Akkai became the first transperson in India to receive a driving license with her gender stated as female. She got to choose her first name – Akkai – while keeping her family’s surname, Padmashali.
Akkai got married in January 2017 to another LGBTQ activist, Vasudev, a transman. The couple registered their marriage officially in Bengaluru, in Karnataka’s first ever marriage of a transgender-couple. Recently, the couple adopted a baby boy, fulfilling Akkai’s dream to be a mother.
Akkai founded Ondede a few years ago for building awareness about sexuality, sexual diversity, and the right to choose one’s sexual orientation. The NGO conducts workshops for building gender sensitisation among cops and journalists, as well as upskilling programmes for the members of LGBTQ+ community from underprivileged sections.
In 2015, Akkai became the first transperson to receive Karnataka’s second highest civilian honour, Rajyotsava Prashasti. She was also the first transwoman to be invited to the townhall held for selected invitees by former US president Barack Obama in New Delhi in 2017. Her interaction with then-Congress President Rahul Gandhi in 2018 about the rights of the community had also thrown light on the transgender community’s issues.
The Making of an Icon
Today, Akkai is the face of a movement and a people. She was among the petitioners to decriminalise homosexuality in India. Last year, Supreme Court struck down the Article 377 of Indian Penal Code saying, “The sexual orientation of an individual is natural and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a violation of freedom of expression. The LGBT Community has the same rights as any ordinary citizen… Criminalising gay sex is irrational and indefensible…”
Needless to say, the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality is the first step towards providing equal status and rights to the LGBT community in India: something which millions like Akkai has been fighting throughout their lives for.
Honouring her life’s work, when Kerala government launched its State Policy for Transgenders in 2015, the event was marked by the then-State Chief Secretary Jiji Thomson handing over a copy of the document to Akkai.
Zip It Up. Now.
Whatever has been achieved so far does not stop Akkai from pursuing bigger dreams – a world where your gender or sexuality does not define you. “When I wanted to become a woman, all the men around me were derisive; but women were kind to me,” she says. Akkai believes that transgender rights and women’s rights have to be counted as human rights, and her activism for gaining recognition of the struggles her community has been going through continues.
As India is (finally) encouraging conversations on diversity and inclusivity, Akkai’s words ring true: “I am a woman without breasts, uterus, vagina, or periods. But I am proud to be a woman. People assume that I cannot satisfy a man sexually; but that is just the society’s notion. My identity is beyond these boxes. I am a woman with happiness and dignity.”
Akkai’s life and words convey the message that you are who you want to be, not who the society says. Her actions and victories are telling the patriarchal society to zip it up – whether it is the gender stereotypes or the expectations assigned to us at birth.
(Producer: Urmi Chatterjee, Cinematographer: Rukmangada Raja)