Kumudu and I studied together at our “all-boys” college in Colombo. We weren’t friends, really- (Kumudu was one year senior to me): but I knew of Kumudu (everyone did). While we practiced for the Shakespeare Drama Competition at the college main hall, Kumudu and friends also practiced for their national-level Sinhala drama competitions. Kumudu would almost always play the female lead. For us- teenage school boys, this was quite a spectacle and Kumudu and friends would often be made fun of. They called Kumudu the ‘p-word’ (a Sinhala slur) and all other kinds of names. When I first encountered this, Kumudu seemed taken aback and clearly distressed by the unending bullying but as time passed by it seemed like Kumudu was unaffected by the endless name-calling and bullying: Kumudu even yelled back at the bullies.
Since we completed our A-Levels our paths didn’t cross.
A couple of months back, an email invitation I received from the International Planned Parenthood Federation through the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka said that I’ve been selected for a youth consultation on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The two other young people who were selected from Sri Lanka were Chamathya from the Girl Guides movement and someone by the name of Ms. Bhoomi Harendran.
At our first preparatory meeting at the FPA I met Chamathya first and then Bhoomi walked into the room: this tall young woman dressed in saree. There was something really familiar about Bhoomi and it didn’t take me long to realize that this was, in fact who I remember as Kumudu. 6 feet tall, dressed in her shiny saree, if I had met her at the movies or the crosswalks I probably wouldn’t have made this connection.
The consultation in Bangkok was my first introduction to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and the need to ensure that all people are aware of and exercise these rights, they are entitled to, by virtue of birth. That one week we spent in Bangkok together also allowed Chamathya and I to actually get to know Bhoomi and listen to her story. This week also allowed us to witness, first-hand, the stigma and prejudice that she experiences on a daily basis.
Chaz Bono once said that gender is between the ears and not between the legs. Bhoomi says she always knew she was a girl. She grew up watching Madhuri Dixit, she wanted to be like her, to dance like her. She was her idol. As she grew up, she started nosing around her mom’s closet. She had no examples of people experiencing what she was: this only reinforced the shame she felt. Playing female roles in college productions allowed Kumudu to be herself. It was probably her inability to blend in that made her audition for drama. That opportunity to feel like being true to yourself, even for just a moment, was worth all the bullying and the name calling. Ironically, even though stages are actually built to act, for Kumudu, it was as if she was acting everywhere else, trying to please the world, and she really felt like herself only onstage.
But drama couldn’t drown the loneliness and the confusion. She was scared and felt like there was something wrong with her.
After she left school, Bhoomi started to grow her hair and nails and wear makeup. The changes “made me feel more like myself” she said. She decided to undergo treatments and take hormones. Soon her parents and relatives excluded her from family gatherings and finally she was asked to move out of the house. But no one offered her a place to live.
The look on the immigration officer’s face when he saw Bhoomi’s passport, the judgmental stares and sexualized whistles of passers-by in the streets of Colombo (and Bangkok) mirrored how people are just used to a binary of black-and-white.
Looking back, I am ashamed I made jokes about Bhoomi in school behind her back and I’m ashamed I couldn’t stand up for her when other kids bullied her and called her names and for not making an effort to get to know this brave young person.
We were all products of an education system that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of, let alone the rights of people with non-binary gender identities
Today Bhoomi has come a long way. She is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate trying to change societal attitudes about these issues. More than anything though, she is being true to herself. Her passion, is to be a model and an actress (this is on the verge of coming true!) One day she will have a sex confirmation surgery- she wants to fall in love, get married and be a mother and she wants to be happy (if that’s not too much to ask for).