The cloudless Colombo sky hung above me threatening to scorch me into a pile of ashes, but in my excitement to meet Bhoomi it didn’t bother me. Bhoomi Harendran is both a boss girl and a lady in her most authentic form. Julie Andrews’ line in The Princess Diaries, “A queen is never late, everyone else is simply early!” was at the top of my mind when Bhoomi whizzed into the National Transgender Network of Sri Lanka 10 minutes late for her interview. She was wrapped in a red and white saree, all glammed up, as usual, her charisma so vibrant she commanded instant respect.
Sitting down for a quick chat, it wasn’t long before I realised she had an incredible understanding of the world around her, the status of Lankan society and why the world needs her. “I can’t point out an exact moment when I knew I was in the wrong body,” she reflects. “Somewhere deep down I always knew, and the feeling came and went throughout my life. I was 21-years-old when I decided to go through the gender reconstruction process. I never told my parents.”
Bhoomi sees my look of shock and laughs, “I couldn’t tell them! But, they found out through an interview they saw on TV!” According to Bhoomi, her parents weren’t angry: “On some level, they always knew, but they only had one request of me: to move out of the house and away so they wouldn’t have to bear the burden of having a transgender child,” she says.
To Bhoomi, this was a reasonable request. She’s still in touch with her parents—her mother called her several times throughout our interview. “I can’t blame them,” she says. “It’s just the way society works.”
The stigma around transgendered folk, sex work and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has existed for decades. Once the world is asleep at night, the ones who wander late into the wee hours of the morning for a drink or two may have seen them out and about, dressed in miniskirts. Bhoomi doesn’t dispute the rumours, but questions why anyone who is a transgendered person is driven towards sex work. “Employment opportunities are scarce,” she states, matter-of-factly. “No one wants to employ my people. They don’t have jobs but they need to eat and pay their rent. I don’t aid sex work, but in this situation, my hands are tied. I cannot condemn the only way they can survive without offering them an alternative. I can’t ask them to starve.” Ultimately, we’re all human beings and we find a way to persist.
Being a transwoman in a conservative environment has its challenges: “People look at me differently, not because they’re afraid or they don’t like me, but because they find me unique. Something they haven’t seen before.” she shares. Despite her roaring #BossGirl personality, Bhoomi has kindness pumping through her veins. “I don’t want the fame nor the money. I don’t get paid for what I do at the NTN—I just want to help,” she says.
The process of gender reconstruction is very complicated. “Before going through the procedure, it’s mandatory we live the life we want before we transition,” Bhoomi reveals. “If we want to transition into a woman, we have to live the life of a woman, and the same goes if you want to transition into a man.” When Bhoomi began her process, the minimum requirement was 2 years. Today, It’s much less.
This process is done to ensure that the individual transitioning won’t have second thoughts once they transition. Plus, it provides an opportunity for the people around them to get used to seeing their loved one in such a setting. “Some stick through it and some don’t,” she says. According to Bhoomi, your sexual organs don’t decide who you are. The hormones can be obtained in Sri Lanka at health clinics, but to transition completely requires a lot of money with the possibility of going overseas to do so.
The obstacles which exist when transitioning in Sri Lanka are entirely different from what you might experience in other countries. Bhoomi tells me that even though some health officials are empathetic towards them, some can be downright unpleasant. “I know people who’ve been raped by their brothers, brother’s friends, cousins, relatives and friends just because they believe that trans-folk haven’t had good sexual experiences,” she shares.
Bhoomi’s story is a vast source of inspiration for many on our island—we may not see them but they survive hidden beneath the thresholds of cultural dictum. Despite society’s prejudices, the fact that you’re born in the wrong body doesn’t mean you’re any less of a human being. As Bhoomi rightly states, “You should never compromise your identity to conform to societal standards and expectations—don’t ever lose yourself.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.