It is time for Kiran to leave for the airport as we had just wrapped up the final session of the National Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability. I assist Kiran, who is a wheelchair user, to the car. After we take a selfie to preserve the fun memories of the past four days, Kiran says, ‘It is always important to have empathy and compassion in our work – that will bring a lot of happiness.’
‘Always remember that you have the reasons to smile and be happy,’ he says, as he waves goodbye.
Kiran’s words remain with me. Compassion. Empathy. Happiness.
Life has been a mixed bag of struggles and accomplishments for 31-year-old Kiran, who is a disabled transman. But Kiran never fails to find happiness in every single moment, whether the going gets tough, or not.
Kiran, who was assigned female at birth, was born in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. He contracted polio and eventually started using a wheelchair.
At the age of 12, when Kiran was enrolled in a school, he started to feel that he was a boy. ‘There was a lot of confusion in me about my gender which affected my social relationships. I did not have enough friends. I used to ask my teachers where I should be seated in the class. The boys shunned me, so did the girls, so I used to go sit at the back,’ he says.
Eventually, during school years, Kiran avoided using the female name he was given by his family, and instead picked his gender-neutral middle name.
Educational institutions often become the primary spaces where people are boxed into strict, static gender identities and roles through uniforms, et al and anything out of the box is reprimanded. For Kiran too, the school environment wasn’t conducive but there were some who stood by him.
It was in the class tenth when Kiran’s best friend’s sister, Kavya, confessed her love for him. ‘Honestly, I felt great when she proposed to me but there was a question mark,’ he says with a slight grin.
While early marriages are prevalent in the adivasi community to which Kiran belongs, it was unimaginable for him to get married to Kavya as it is forbidden for two women to fall in love. Such a sanction – both societal and legal – to heteronormative unions is not limited to Kiran’s village, but the whole of India where homosexuality is still criminalised.
Despite all the obstacles, the two decided to tie the knot in 2008 at the Tirupati temple. This was also when Kiran came out but soon there was a sense of impending doom.
‘Since such unions were not allowed, our own families targeted us, harassed us. Negative reportage in the media made it even more difficult,’ he says. As the two had some friends in Bangalore, they moved with the thought of starting afresh but the flak didn’t die down; it followed them even more vigorously.
‘That was the time we contemplated suicide. We were almost on the verge of killing ourselves when we got a call from Sangama Crisis Centre, thanks to the media reports which reported positively on us,’ he says.
For Kiran and Kavya, Sangama was a silver lining. Kiran soon took a fellowship with the organisation which provided him with other support such as a vehicle, Kannada language classes, among others.
All was well and the two soon moved to Devanahalli, a town in Karnataka. They rented a house, worked as gender and disability activists in the community, intervened in crisis situations. Until one night, when their landlord, a well-connected man, barged into their house, broke their TV and called them sex workers. ‘He also objected to us speaking with sex workers and transgender people,’ says Kiran.
Now, there were looming questions about safety, identity and well being but this unanticipated attack did not deter Kiran from working in the community. In fact, he was even more determined to work with the transgender and disabled people.
Kiran had already been working as a disability rights activists for a number of years but it was when he came out as a trans man and began working with transgender people and sex workers that he faced tremendous hostility. This is quite telling of the discomfort caused to people when normativity is shattered and when multiple marginalisations of caste, sexuality, gender and disability intersect.
Elaborating on the distress his multiple identities cause to many, Kiran says, ‘I remember this one time during the census in Karnataka, a volunteer wanted to know about me. I told him I was a transgender person, disabled and an adivasi. With the disbelief that how one person could be all three, he asked me to choose an identity for pension benefits!’
After this, began Kiran’s work with the transgender persons’ community.
‘We began with the identification of transgender people and planned to form a community-based organization (CBO) NISARGA. Members included sex workers, transgender people, HIV positive people and those with disabilities. I was truly stunned by the lack of awareness about HIV so we began organizing with even more vigor,’ he says adding early demands included access to government entitlements, livelihood, loans, among others.
Eventually, the CBO was registered as Karnataka Vikalachetanara Sanghatane which gained wide recognition. And this is just the beginning for Kiran. He aims to deepen his work with people living with HIV-AIDS, people with disabilities. He wants to work on advocating with the government for entitlements for trans people and others target groups in Chikkaballapura and areas in and around Bangalore.
As Kiran scrolls through his PowerPoint to show us some photographs from the discussions he has organized, protests he has taken part in, other participants applaud loudly when he is photographed receiving a state-level award for his work on gender and disability. Soon, the applause turns into warm hearts and smiles as we see Kiran and Kavya’s photograph on the big screen.
‘There were times when we were asked about our sexual life. Many were curious to know how we have sex as I don’t have a penis! Well, if Kavya wants peno-vaginal sex, then she is free to go her way but so far, we are very happy,’ he says.
Questions abound on Kavya and Kiran’s sex life, Kiran’s sexuality, identity and work but for him, these struggles are a part of life. While he is happy he has come so far, there is a long way to go.
Here is a video based on Kiran’s story:
(This essay is based on the presentation by Kiran, who works with Solidarity Foundation, Bangalore at Point of View’s National Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability. It is the fifth in a series of posts documenting the workshop sessions, in addition to the Storifies shared earlier.)