Pride Month: Kalki Subramaniam says her activism was born out of witnessing exploitation, rejection, and anger

As part of Pride Month, diversity and inclusion champion Kalki Subramaniam talks to Indulge about inclusion, transgender rights, victories as a trans activist, and the unabated challenges faced by the community
Kalki Subramaniam
Kalki Subramaniam

She may be a global champion of transgender rights and a beacon of hope for many young, disconsolate trans people who are ostracised by their families and society, but life has not been a bed of roses for trans activist Kalki Subramaniam. 

Born in Pollachi, she faced a plethora of hardships during her teens as a gender-fluid person, but the rising anger against the injustices meted out to her friends from the community made her rise like a phoenix from the ashes and turn into a trans warrior. She sought refuge in myriad forms of art, which snowballed into a creative rebellion and a crusade against discrimination and inequality. She coined the term ‘artivist’ and fearlessly documented her pain, anger, anguish, and hope for the community. Her work went on to challenge oppression, patriarchy, and misogyny, earning her the title of champion of transgender rights. 

Through her NGO, the Sahodari Foundation, she has been empowering members of the community to live a dignified life, thus bringing a much-needed glimmer of hope to one of the most marginalised sections of society. As a diversity and inclusive champion, Kalki has also been sensitising people, training, and educating the corporate world on the inclusion of LGBTQIA+, transgender, gender diverse, and non-binary communities in India, Europe, and North America.

Her name is also on the coveted list of activists who lobbied for the recognition of legal rights for transgender people, which eventually led to the implementation of The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014. 

Today, Kalki dons many hats — a global activist, artist, actor, poet, author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker, to name a few. Indulge speaks to the award-winning diversity and inclusion champion on the occasion of Pride Month. Excerpts...

What does Pride Month mean to you?

Pride Month is a celebration of our identities. It’s an opportunity to sensitise the public and pay tribute to all those who have worked hard to bring inclusion in society for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

What made you turn into an activist?

The harrowing experiences I faced as a teenager when my gender identity was fluid — when I saw how my friends and people in my community were treated in public, how they were abandoned by their families, and how they had to go to the big cities and survive on begging and sex work. When they returned home, they were enervated. Later, as a teenager, I realised how badly my friends were treated, for no fault of theirs. I was enraged. My activism was born out of witnessing exploitation, rejection, and anger.

You have been penning your thoughts through various mediums of art, including paintings, poetry, monologues, and movies. Was art a form of rebellion?

I was writing poetry as a way to heal myself from the trauma and pain of being bullied and rejected as a teenager. Art gave me a lot of hope, and it helped me visualise what and who I wanted to be. Art and poetry were two mediums that helped me document my pain and were therapeutic as well. It also emerged as a clarion call for a campaign against discrimination and, at the same time, to speak up about our rights.

And you started calling it artivism...

My art is all about rebellion, but it also celebrates the diversity in identities and sexual orientation, and the beauty of being a transgender. I have documented the time when I felt suicidal and was unsure of who I wanted to be because of fear and despondence. I was fighting for my survival and my place in the world. 

It also helped me record the torment and agony of my friends. One of my them had sought refuge at my home after her brother poured kerosene on her and tried to burn her alive. Similarly, another friend of mine, who decided to live as a woman, was not even allowed to see her mother’s mortal remains because of her gender identity. All these incidents left me in excruciating pain, and eventually translated into art. 

My poetry, Amma, captures the suffering of a child who is begging for acceptance and love, and allow her to live in her house. Likewise, my artwork, Scream, is about the pain one goes through after their family rejects her and throws her on the street. Art and literature are powerful mediums of expression.

What are the current initiatives of the Sahodari Foundation?

I am planning to start a skill training school for young trans people and impart life skills. I recently launched a fashion brand as well.

Kalki Subramaniam
Mayyur Girotra on showcasing his new Pride collection at the Rockefeller Center in New York

Tell us about the brand.

I print my art on saris, kaftans, and scarves, and I sell them as part of my brand, Kals by Kalki Creations. I believe in sustainability, so when my clothes are used, reused, and discarded by my clients, I want them to return the used clothes so that we can upcycle them. It saves a lot of carbon footprint.

I have employed transgender people for the brand, and the profit from the sales goes into our activism. This is an entrepreneurship initiative, and I am trying to see how we can generate more employment for the transgender community and help them be self-reliant. My designs were recently showcased at the Bangalore Fashion Week.

What’s your fashion mantra?

‘Wear your self’! Through my bold, unique, and vibrant art on fabrics, I want to make a significant impact by breaking down barriers and celebrating the uniqueness in every human.

Model wearing Kalki's creations
Model wearing Kalki's creations

Among your works, which is closest to your heart?

The first sari I created with my Frida Kahlo painting will always remain special. I wore it in Times Square, New York, and had two photo shoots amid hundreds of people. It was wonderful to receive compliments for my unique creation.

Who are your role models?

Frida Kahlo, Coco Chanel, Princess Diana, Joan Crawford, and Sridevi.

You don multiple hats. What do you do in your free time?

I love to write and paint. I also read a lot, space science fascinates me.

What’s your take on trans representation in films?

It is a tad better now. Earlier, there was a lot of mockery about trans people, and the audience would laugh at our expense. We are not a laughing stock. I want more queer people to become filmmakers, producers, camera persons, production managers, costume designers, musicians, lyricists, and background workers. 

We have very few actors from the community today. I want to create a feature film where I can narrate a commercially viable, entertaining story, and at the same time, spread the message of equality. I want to make people laugh at good humour. I am working on a script right now, and my fourth book, which is a collection of queer short stories, is also in the pipeline. 

Kalki flaunting her art work
Kalki flaunting her art work

Your speeches at Harvard University have earned accolades.

I’ve been speaking about inclusion at Harvard University, Yale University, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, the California State University, Northridge, and The University of British Columbia. I have been trying to create an impact across North America and Europe by strengthening and voicing our rights.

Do you find a difference in the way sexual minorities are treated in the West and in India?

In the West, the community fares better on economic grounds and social life. Having said that, I would say that India is a better place to live because, though there is a lot of bullying, no one picks up a gun and shoots you. Due to the gun laws, some nations are unsafe for the community. Moreover, in India, we come from a culture and history of being inclusive, courtesy of our legendary stories and sculptures.

If there is one area where the community has to break the glass ceiling, what would that be?

Education! That is the way forward for them. When young people step out of their homes, they end up taking shelter with older transgender people. But in the process, they get deprived of formal education and turn into sex workers or beggars. The state and union governments should take drastic steps to offer free education for transgender individuals at educational institutes across the country.

Is that the primary reason that the community is unable to break barriers in the corporate sector?

Absolutely! I regularly get calls from corporate companies asking for recommendations. But I am unable to suggest many names because the community didn’t have the opportunity to get a formal education. The government needs to have a vision and invest in their education. That is how you can actually bring about change, from beggars to scholars!

What would you call the biggest challenge for the community today? 

Family inclusion. If thousands of transgender people are begging or doing sex work, are homeless, or are living with other transgender people, it is primarily because their families disowned them. When families are inclusive, trans people will have the chance to get educated and ‘correct’ their lives. Their lives will be safe, and their future is assured. They can contribute to the nation.

You have been an activist for over two decades now. What changes do you witness after all these years of advocacy?

It's been 25 years, to be exact! When I was a teenager, there was absolutely no hope, protection, or law. There was no system that guaranteed our safety. No corporate company came forward to give us jobs. The media didn't highlight our issues. We were left in the lurch. Today, technology has made sensitisation possible in society. The Supreme Court of India legalised transgender rights with The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014. It also decriminalised Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code after relentless lobbying by activists. These are huge legal milestones for the entire community and massive victories for activists like me. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, the constitution of Transgender Welfare Boards, and the recent observation that queer people living together should be considered families are making headway on that front.

The Tamil Nadu government and the Union governments are working on policies that are inclusive. The corporate sector has opened the doors for the LGBT community, and workplace policies are now more inclusive because they believe that our lives matter. This generation of the LGBTQIA+ community is quite open about the way they live and is much more liberated than us. Trans people are slowly feeling that they belong to society. These are the results of unwavering activism.

Tamil Nadu, however, has been a model state on that front, right?

Of course! And now, Justice Anand Venkatesh has asked the Tamil Nadu government to finalise a policy for the upliftment of transgender people. In fact, we need two policies: the transgender protection policy and the LGBTQIA+ protection policy. While I stand up for transgender rights, I want to protect my LGBTQ, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer friends. It will be a wonderful initiative, and I hope the MK Stalin government implements it.

Is there a particular area that still needs a lot of work?

Well, people are becoming more inclusive and sensible, but it is mainly restricted to metros and big cities. We have an immense amount of work to do in small towns and villages. If we are able to bring love and inclusion from Manipur, Ladakh, and Rajasthan to Kanyakumari, that's when we will be truly successful.


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