Of grit & courage

Of grit & courage

By overcoming stigma and breaking the shackles of gender stereotypes to get where they are today, artist Shanthi Muniswamy and RJ Priyanka offer much inspiration to many from the LGBTQ community, writes Nina C George

Shanthi Muniswamy

This year, the LGBTQ Pride month may not have been as celebratory as its previous editions but the persistent plight of sexual minorities has only heightened their pride and strengthened their resolve to assert their right to dignity.

Two transgender women recall on the occasion how their defiance, assertiveness and pride are intrinsic to their very existence as they have had to overcome stigma not only at workplaces but also in families and the community at large to break the shackles of gender stereotypes to get to where they are today.

Artist Shanthi Muniswamy was born male but was drawn to everything that women did or liked. Shanthi remembers sitting beside his mother when she drew a rangoli in front of their house and admire it as a little boy. “I once tried drawing a rangoli. My mother rushed out of the house and pulled me back into the house, saying that these things were done only by girls and not boys. But my fascination for rangoli only grew deeper and I drew designs on my notebooks in school,” recalls Shanthi, a mural artist with Aravani Art Project, a collective of diverse artists who have been involved with art in urban spaces. Shanthi recalls that, as an artist, her first painting in a public place was indeed a rangoli design.

Shanthi underwent sex reassignment surgery four years ago. “I was never accepted by my parents. I left home and returned after 10 years when my parents understood me and welcomed me back home. It’s been a struggle, but my job as an artist has not only earned me respect but given me dignity and hope,” says Shanthi, who has her artwork displayed across prominent junctions in Bengaluru and across the state. She has had one of her works put up in the US as well.

RJ Priyanka, a full-time radio jockey with 90.4 FM, was barely 14 when her parents discovered her sexual orientation. “I went to live with the people of my community because my parents didn’t accept me. There were times when I was scared, lonely and afraid that I had nowhere to go. I have done all kinds of jobs before I was accepted by my family after eight years,” recalls Priyanka, who says that she began feeling one with the society after she turned an RJ. Shanthi too admits that her job has changed her life for good. “There was a time when people would stare at us and walk away with a frightened look. Now, whenever I paint in public spaces, people walk up to me and start interacting and talking about art and how much they love the work,” she says.

While Shanthi regrets that society has still not opened up to transgenders, Priyanka hopes the government will draft policies directed towards the welfare of the transgender community.

The pandemic has posed another challenge for the transgender community, the duo says. “The source of livelihood for transgenders is begging and work which involves a people-to-people contact. We have had no help from the government,” says Shanthi, who has joined a few voluntary groups in distributing ration kits to more than 300 transgenders in Bengaluru and on the outskirts. “Thanks to organisations dedicated to working for the welfare of transgenders we have survived. Many among us haven’t got the vaccination and are scared to take it fearing its repercussions,” says Priyanka. “Protecting our life is our priority at the moment because it doesn’t look like anybody else cares much,” she adds. 


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