Kumudu and I studied together at our all-boys college in Colombo. We weren’t friends, really- he was one year senior to me: but I knew of him (everyone did). While we practiced for the Shakespeare Drama Competition at the college main hall, Kumudu and his friends practiced for their Sinhala dramas for the national level competitions. Kumudu would almost always play the female lead. For us- teenage school boys, this was quite a spectacle and Kumudu and his friends would often be made fun of. They called him the ‘p-word’ (a Sinhala expletive) and all other kinds of names. While in my first encounters of Kumudu, he seemed taken aback and clearly distressed by the unending bullying; as time passed by it seemed like Kumudu was unaffected by the endless name-calling and bullying: he even fought back a couple of times: almost as if the bullying made him stronger and more resilient.
Since Kumudu completed his A-Levels I never heard from him.
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 girl dressed in saree. There was something really familiar about Bhoomi and it didn’t take me long to realize that this was, in fact, Kumudu. 6 feet tall, with long straight hair, Bhoomi looked like any other girl you’d meet at the movies or at the crosswalks.
The consultation in Bangkok made me understand the importance of 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 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. Kumudu always felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body. 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, the hate crimes 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 flirtatious 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 Kumudu in school behind his back and I’m ashamed I couldn’t stand up for him when other kids bullied him and called names and for not making an effort to get to know this brave young person. But you can’t blame it all on them. 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 those issues. More than anything though, she is being true to herself and doesn’t have to feel like she is living a lie. 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).