For ‘Mind and Soul’: Sri Lanka Eases Way To Legal Recognition of Transgender People

Bhoomi Harendran, a transgender woman, plans to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate under new guidelines which aim to ensure that people who request a gender change on official identification documents receive fair, consistent responses from government officials and medical staff. Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Under new guidelines, which carry legal authority, medical professionals and government officials have clear mandates for how to handle requests aimed at changing a person’s gender on birth certificates and other identification documents. People who identify as transgendered, regardless of whether they’ve gone through the prohibitively expensive process of having their physical characteristics altered, can obtain a legal gender change.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Bhoomi Harendran, 26, has begun hormonal therapy to physically change her gender to reflect a woman’s anatomy.

She has had regular consultations with a psychiatrist to help manage the process.

Up until recently, Harendran would likely have had to continue being legally recognized as a male. But in June, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine released guidelines, criteria and a specific process for the issuance of Gender Recognition Certificates for anyone seeking a legal gender change. People who seek a legal gender change will be required to fill out a single form as an application to amend all pertinent government records.

The change “is a revolutionary move that paves the way for my community to live respectably,” Harendran says.

She hopes to apply by the end of this year or early next year.

The guidelines are the first of their kind in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans have always been able to apply to alter details on their birth certificates, whether to correct errors or request a legal gender change. But, while possible to do so, securing that legal gender change was difficult. Officials say those requests have become more frequent in recent years.

With the new guidelines, medical professionals and government officials will have clear mandates for how to handle the requests aimed at changing a person’s gender on birth certificates and other legal identification documents.

One key change, based on the new guidelines, is that people who identify as transgender, whether or not their physical characteristics have been altered, can obtain a legal gender change. Before the guidelines were released, only people who had formally undergone gender reassignment surgery and other medical procedures could apply, says Lakmali Kothalawela, project officer of Equal Ground, an LGBT advocacy organization.

“Only few surgeries can be carried out in Sri Lanka, and one has to go abroad to complete it, spending about 2.5 million rupees for surgeries alone,” she says. (That’s about $16,900.)

This meant that those who could afford the expensive surgeries abroad could apply for the gender certificate, but others could not, Kothalawela says.

“The mind and soul of the person are more important for being a transgender person than a surgery,” she says.

The mind and soul of the person are more important for being a transgender person than a surgery.

Under the new guidelines, people who request a legal gender change must show evidence that they’ve received a psychiatric evaluation.

The guidelines aren’t as powerful as an act of Parliament, but they do have legal authority, says Chithramalee De Silva, director, mental health, of the Directorate of Mental Health at the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine.

“Any official who disobeys or ignores the circular can be cited as having infringed or denied a citizen his or her rights, which is a punishable offense,” she says.

Before those guidelines were released, changes to legal documents were often left up to individual government official’s opinions, LGBT activists say.

Under the new guidelines, gender changes will be tracked through a Transgender Notification Register.

The goal of the register is to ensure that those people receive the services they’re due from the government, De Silva says.

Kothalawela says the register can serve a helpful function, but also notes that it should remain confidential.

“If the confidentiality is not protected, then it’s possible that this information is misused to bring shame on individuals or stigmatize them,” she says.

Five people applied for legal gender changes between late June and October, De Silva says.

While the process for getting a Gender Recognition Certificate is becoming easier, the law still only recognizes a male or female, and relationships “against the order of nature” are criminalized under the country’s Penal Code. Sexual minorities face widespread stigma, and often abuse as well, according to an August Human Rights Watch report.

Ranketh, a transgender man who asked that only his last name be used to protect his identity, says he spent years looking for doctors and psychiatrists to help him through his gender change, but at first he couldn’t find anyone to assist him.

“Instead of understanding me, they tried to change me, or they chased me away,” he says.

After finally finding willing doctors, he underwent five years of treatment. And in 2008, he applied for a Gender Recognition Certificate. But when it finally came, he was disappointed.

“It is not a new birth certificate, but an amendment made to the same certificate,” Ranketh, 38, says. “It mentions my previous gender too.”

It is not a new birth certificate, but an amendment made to the same certificate. It mentions my previous gender too.

That means that anyone who asks to read the certificate, including government officials or people interviewing him for a job, can see that he is transgender.

“Why must we expose the former gender identity for a job?” he asks. “Aren’t the educational qualifications and experience sufficient for that?”

Ranketh says his job search has been impossible. He remains unemployed.

“The problems faced by our community cannot be resolved by merely changing some documents,” says Harendran, the transgender woman who hopes to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. “Everybody must contribute to change people’s attitudes, in parallel to changing the documents.”

Sri Lanka’s LGBT community needs even more legal recognition, services and support, she says.

“My parents still can’t accept the way I look, as a woman,” she says. “In such a society with such attitudes, how can this certificate bring any consolation?”


Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe translated this article from Sinhala.