Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka

Financial Status Eases Burden for Transgender People in Sri Lanka

To maintain his masculine appearance, Sri Lankan Marcus Kenny, a transgender man, works out for about two hours a day in the gym in his home in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s economic center.  
Sri Lanka

Transgender people in Sri Lanka find it challenging to maintain their gender identity in a conservative culture that does not formally recognize a third gender.

BATTARAMULLA, SRI LANKA – Marcus Kenny is coming to the end of his daily two-hour workout. He steps off the treadmill in his home gym and towels the sweat from his face. He then sits on a bench to catch his breath before cooling down with some floor exercises.

“I take testosterone. I’m a vegetarian. I exercise in my gym, and I’m particular about my diet,” Kenny says.

This regimen for maintaining a male physique is vital to Kenny, 38, a transgender man.

Kenny lives in Battaramulla, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s economic center, with his wife, son and mother. He works from home as a real estate agent.

Kenny and his wife, Durga, were married in August 2014. Because same-sex marriage is illegal in Sri Lanka, Kenny had to first change his gender with hormonal treatments, surgeries and extensive sessions with psychiatrists and endocrinologists. The process took more than four years.

Kenny asked that the details of his surgeries not be published.

The gender listed on his National Identity Card, a mandatory government-issued identification document for all Sri Lankans age 16 and older, was changed to male in September 2013, paving the way for his marriage.

Although he provided the required medical and psychological evidence of his transition, the bureaucratic process was harsh, Kenny says. He faced heavy ridicule.

“It was not easy to change the gender in the NIC, though I had the relevant documents required, as personal remarks such as saying one needs to have a penis to be identified as a male and being rebuked was part of the process one needs to face,” he says.

Kenny is proud of his now-masculine appearance. His workouts give him well-developed muscles. Thanks to testosterone treatments, he has facial hair and a deep-timbered voice. He also has multiple tattoos.

Kenny’s struggle for equality is not rare here.

Despite laws guaranteeing the rights of all Sri Lankans, transgender citizens continue to face discrimination and stigma, making it difficult to maintain their sexual identity, activists of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say. The ability of transgender people to achieve their ideal body image depends largely on socioeconomic status.

“Transgender, lesbian and gay people in Sri Lanka face a lot of harassment and discrimination in society,” says Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, executive director of Equal Ground, a nonprofit organization working to secure the rights of the LGBT community of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan society dismisses homosexuality and the desire to change one’s gender as “bad karma,” Flamer-Caldera says.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, the dominant religions in Sri Lanka, karma is the belief that the sum of one’s actions in the present will decide one’s fate in a future life. To be born in a way that differs from the norm – say, by having a disability or being attracted to the same sex – is considered bad karma by many Sri Lankans.

“Our culture doesn’t have space for these people – for anyone who is different,” Flamer-Caldera says.

But a recent government declaration gives Flamer-Caldera cause for hope.

At the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Oct. 7, Sri Lanka’s then additional solicitor general of the Attorney General’s Department, Bimba Tillekeratne, affirmed the rights of Sri Lankans of all sexual orientations and gender identities under the Sri Lankan Constitution. Flamer-Caldera, who attended the conference as an NGO delegate, witnessed the declaration.

Tillekeratne noted that Article 12 of the constitution protects Sri Lankans from stigmatization and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Flamer-Caldera recalls.

Global Press Journal contacted Tillekeratne and other officials of the Attorney General’s Department of Sri Lanka to verify Tillekeratne’s statement. They declined to comment.

One prominent Sri Lankan says family support helped her make a healthy transition.

Tall and slim, her dark brown hair tightly drawn into a chignon, or knot, at the nape of her neck, Dinesh Chandrasena likes to present an immaculate image, she says.

“My favorite color is black, and I keep my dress code simple,” she says.

Chandrasena, 42, a transgender woman, doesn’t use much makeup. She prefers to use only a light foundation, eyeliner and light-colored lip gloss.

A well-known fashion designer in Sri Lanka, Chandrasena has been designing clothes since age 17. While working with fashion label Claire’s Collection from 1996 to 2010, Chandrasena designed a wedding dress for Hollywood celebrity Halle Berry and gowns worn by Sandra Bullock in the 2000 movie “Miss Congeniality.”

Chandrasena continues to work as a consultant to Claire’s Collection. She also designs for Red Banana, a fashion label sold in England, Germany and Kuwait. Garments sold under her eponymous label sell for upwards of 300,000 rupees ($2,300), Chandrasena says.

In addition to designing, Chandrasena is a lecturer in fashion design at the Raffles Design Institute in Colombo.

She recognized at age 12 that she was essentially female, Chandrasena says. Family members accepted her new identity, making the transition easier.

“Since I have a very close-knit family, the support, love and warmth made me what I am today,” she says. “My higher education in [the] USA gave me the opportunity to think differently. I wanted to be in my own skin and developed myself and my career as an international fashion designer and lecturer.”

Chandrasena’s success enables her to get first-rate medical care. She started getting hair removal treatments in 2009; the facial laser treatment she undergoes every six months costs about 6,000 rupees ($45), Chandrasena says. She also spends about 39,000 rupees ($300) for each four-month supply of the estrogen injections she takes every other week. Those prices are average in Sri Lanka.

Nonetheless, Chandrasena faces discrimination, she says.

“I am very conscious of the fact that there is much gossip regarding my gender identity since I don’t join the social circles much,” she says. “It’s worse when one is popular as a fashion designer, but my upbringing and culture have helped me maintain my stature.”

Transsexuals must make every effort to appear as their chosen gender, she says.

“Misconceptions in gender identity arise when a person remains a male while trying to look like a female as well – say, sporting a beard, wearing tight clothes and adding makeup,” she says. “He makes himself a freak.”

Madusha Sampath, a transgender woman who grew up in a small fishing village, has faced more severe discrimination.

It is hard to distinguish Sampath, a tall and dark-skinned 28-year-old with a slim figure and muscular frame, as a woman unless she dresses in drag.

Most of Sampath’s family members and former neighbors in Dickwella, her native village in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, have rejected her.

Because of all the ridicule and name-calling she endured over her feminine appearance, she has stopped visiting the village. She stays in touch with her mother by phone.

Sampath’s life took a hard turn a couple of years ago. In 2012, Sampath accompanied a foreign boyfriend on a trip abroad, she says.

She and her boyfriend separated in Singapore. Lacking income, she went into sex work. She was ultimately arrested for solicitation and deported to Sri Lanka six months ago.

“Since then, I have had a hard life,” she says.

She had to pick up the threads of her life again without any regular income. Still a sex worker, she now earns an average of about 30,000 rupees ($229) a month, Sampath says. Commercial sex work is illegal in Sri Lanka, but so far she has not been arrested.

Members of the LGBT community have a high unemployment rate, Flamer-Caldera says, judging by participation in Equal Ground’s vocational and skills-building programs.

Kenny, who participates in an informal support network for transgender people in Colombo, agrees.

“I find many of them struggling with their NIC status, as they can’t find suitable jobs, and if they do, [they] become a subject of gossip and are ridiculed,” he says. “Most of them end up in beauty salons or as hairdressers, while the lower rung are sex workers.”

Since returning to Sri Lanka, Sampath has lived near the ocean in Dehiwela, a suburb of Colombo.

She spends about 3,000 rupees ($23) to 4,000 rupees ($31) every month – about 10 percent of her monthly income – on clothes, body extensions and cosmetics, Sampath says. When she goes out to work or attends parties thrown by clients, Sampath wears a long wig and pads that make her bust and buttocks shapelier.

“I don’t use any hormones,” she says. “I cannot afford it.”

Hormone and surgical treatments don’t guarantee freedom from harassment.

Despite achieving a more masculine appearance, Kenny continues to face discrimination, he says.

In June 2013, a local lifestyle magazine, Life Times Sri Lanka, featured Kenny and Durga in a cover story about love in various forms in Sri Lanka. Kenny, Durga and their son, Mattias, were featured on the cover.

Several parents at Mattias’ school responded negatively to the article, asking Kenny if he was truly able to father a child, Kenny says.

The reaction was hurtful and embarrassing, he says.

Because of the negative reaction to the Life Times Sri Lanka story, Durga declined to be interviewed for this article.

Not everyone thinks members of the LGBT community deserve equality.

Malinda Liyanage, 34, an electrical engineer and head of an engineering consultancy firm, says transgender and homosexual behavior should be banned. Such behavior should not be encouraged or even discussed in Sri Lanka.

“It would ruin the Sri Lankan culture and image,” Liyanage says. “The trend would spread among the youth, causing moral degradation, and infiltrate the society today, making it repulsive.”

Despite negative reactions from others, Kenny is determined to maintain male characteristics, ensuring that his family does not face open discrimination.

He wants to spare his son any stigma, but he will not hide his birth gender, Kenny says.

“I will disclose the facts to my son when he is older,” he says.



GPJ translated some interviews from Sinhala.