New Delhi: Padmalakshmi does not remember making a lot of friends or being involved in the co-curricular activities in her school. Growing up in Kerala, studying in guardian angels’ public school in Manjummel, Ernakulam city, for Padmalakshmi the conflict between the gender assigned at birth and her real gender identity happened when she was still quite young. All of six years old, Padmalakshmi struggled to come to terms with the realisation and the confusion that ensued within her about how to express her feelings or whether what she was feeling was right or wrong.
Formative Years of Kerala’s First Transgender Lawyer
The struggle for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community begins within when the realisation of the gender conflict dawns on them and then battle moves outwards when revelation happens to the world outside, starting with the family. Padmalakshmi was raised in a loving home in a lower-middle class family in Edapally, Kochi, where she was born as the youngest of three siblings. Her mother Jaya worked as an advocate clerk, while her father Mohan, a ncfamily always had constructive conversations about a variety of topics, she never confided in anyone about how she was feeling and continued to internalise the struggle right upto her adolescent years.
I was fearful that my classmates, teachers and my family would consider me insane. I was dealing with gender dysphoria. During my high school years, I decided that I would convey my truth only through my education and profession, she said.
Padmalakshmi’s Struggles During College Days
Padmalakshmi went on to pursue Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the Government Law College, Ernakulam, in 2019. It was an unnerving feeling for her when she had to enrol herself as a male in the admission form.
There were only two options in the form – Male or Female, and no third gender. I had to go with the male option because then I had to change in all the documents and get all verified, which I hadn’t till then. I had to protect my profession and concentrate on studies at any cost and did not want any delay on that part.
The graduation years were miserable for Padmalakshmi as she was discriminated against by
other students. She was called names, isolated from various friends groups and shunned by many. But she made sure that nothing stood in the way of her academic goals. It wasn’t until she received a call from her father during the last semester, as a routine, that she realised that she might not have to live with a lie for the rest of her life.
I want you to know that we know everything, we do not require any explanation. Just keep one thing in your focus- your education. You may hear people calling you names or distancing themselves from you, but let nothing deviate you from achieving your goal of becoming a lawyer. Put the energy into working towards your goal. You are beyond any stigma.
That one call with her parents sorted out most of the complications in her mind. Padmalakshmi says, love acceptance of your parents is half the battle won. It can resolve the mental and emotional obstacles an LGBTQIA + community person goes through. Many in the community continue to suffer violence within their families – from abuse, forced marriages, house arrest to barriers to pursue education and employment opportunities.
My parents are equal fighters in my journey. It is their support that has gone a long way in paving to my journey of becoming a lawyer.
In the midst of pursuing LLB. Padmalakshmi had also applied for a Transgender identity certificate and made changes in all her documents and cards. After completing her degree, the 27-year-old enrolled herself in the Bar Council of Kerala with her revised documents. The officer-in-charge in the department told Padmalakshmi that she was the first transgender person to have enrolled in the council. The news spread like a wildfire, and she became an inspiration for many. When the state law minister, P. Rajeev, was informed about it, he lent all the possible support to her and conveyed his words of encouragement.
Padmalakshmi has worked as a legal trainee under several advocates during her graduation. At present, the 27-year-old is a successful independent lawyer, enrolled at the Bar Council of Kerala in 2023, working on judicial, criminal and family matters cases.
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The Struggles Of The Transgender Community In Finding Justice
PadmaLakshmi has fought several cases in court, including the cases of the transgender persons as well. She says that the community is fighting for justice despite being recognised as the third gender by the apex court.
In a case she is handling currently, her client, a transgender person, was sexually assaulted by a man, following which the victim had approached the police, as per the law. The department filed an FIR under the Section 18 Clause D of Transgender Persons Act, 2019 (Anyone who harms or injures or endangers the life, safety, health or well-being, whether mental or physical, of a transgender person or tends to do acts including causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine). Later, to protect himself from imprisonment, the accused filed a counter FIR which was filed under section 326 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), according to which the victim was being put behind the bars. Under the section, the imprisonment could either be a description for a term which may extend to ten years. The perpetrator stated that the transgender caused grievous hurt by dangerous weapons.
Padmalakshmi filed an anticipatory bail application for her client, and the case is currently ongoing. But this showcases the gruesome reality of today’s time, she said.
The perpetrator of the sexual assault can be acquitted after a maximum of two years, because the complaint by a transgender person is only filed under the sections mentioned in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, while the victim of the crime may face up to ten years as the complaint has been filed under IPC. This is the biggest problem in this Act and there are various such loopholes in the subsections of the Act.
Padmalakshmi quoted several such examples of cases of transgender persons in Kerala, which have still not been closed due to some reason.
You will be shocked to know that several cases, wherein, the transgender people were murdered, their cases are still not closed. Whenever I have asked the police officials about some of the cases, they say it is under investigation. In most cases, it has been more than four to five years. There are cases such as a thread of murders of three trans people – Shalu, Gowri and Maria. This highlights how side-lined are the cases involving the transgender person.
The lawyer further said that the penalties for the sexual assault of a transgender woman in comparison to a woman are very lenient. Sections 375 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 that pertain to rape conform to traditional gender norms, referring to a man as a perpetrator and a woman as the victim of an assault. The maximum punishment for rape under the IPC may death penalty punishment in heinous cases, whereas, under section 18 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse of a transgender person is punishable with imprisonment between six months and two years, with a fine.
Padmalakshmi says that the Act has failed to address the gender disparity in current rape law. According to her, regulations protecting the transgender population need to be stricter, and the present Act needs to be amended to make the penalty more severe. Besides, the transgender persons, who have been abused, their complaints must be filed under other sections apart from the Transgender Protection Act, the lawyer added.
Padmalakshmi also said that the judiciary needs to be sensitised about trans violence. She highlights the need for more transgender help desks in police stations, which would not only make it easier to report crimes but also create a secure environment in which community members could discuss their issues and ask for support. Additionally, the desk must offer assistance in submitting complaints against discrimination, emotional, physical, sexual, or verbal violence.
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