Amruta Alpesh Soni’s story has all the usual factors that affect majority of transgender people in this country – crushing poverty, sexual abuse, rampant violence and disease and estranged families. But there is much more to Soni’s story that suggests both hope and possibility for others like her. Battling daunting odds to give herself an education and a life of dignity, Soni has embraced her transgender identity as well as her status as an HIV positive person to ensure a better life for others. For the last two years, Soni has been working in Chhattisgarh as an advocacy officer for HLFPPT (Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust), under “Project Vihaan” targeted at improving the survival and quality of life of people living with HIV (PLHIV) and especially working with High-Risk Groups such as Female Sex Workers, Men Having Sex with Men, Transgenders and Injection Drug Users (IDUs). Now, Soni has had another career first, and is on her way to the Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Centre, USA, where she has been invited as a speaker.
Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us a little about the paper topic you’ll be addressing at the upcoming conference?
My topic, when I submitted the paper for the conference, was “double stigma” of being a transgender living with HIV in India. Due to this stigma, the person cannot access health benefits and without the health benefits, is prone to first infections, which leads to a tragic end. Project “Vihaan” works to support them and make their lives better. In my paper, I talk about how important it is for these people to be mentally and psychosocially settled, because until they are, they cannot think about anything more. They live with the fear of being a “hijra” and living with HIV. They ask themselves if society would accept them, and if they reveal their HIV positive status, will they be able to earn a living at all.
When did you join HLFPPT and Vihaan?
Vihaan was launched in 2013 June and I joined in November, the same year. It is now working in 19 states across India, and I am proud to be associated with it. I’m the only transgender in advocacy in the programme.
It’s been two years since you joined though, and since the project works especially with the transgender community, why haven’t there been more people from the community joining the programme?
My fears were slowly removed, but my community is still scared. This is largely due to low levels of education and the belief that society won’t accept them. So they don’t come forward. I do try and remove their fears. In Punjab, some outreach workers associated with the programme are from the transgender community, and many who first enrol themselves for help join it later. At the advocacy level, there are no other transgenders mainly because of the lack of higher education.
Your own educational journey has also been tough. Tell us about that?
Economically, I had no support from family after class ten, when they threw me out. At the age of 16 I had my sex change surgery and came into the transgender community completely. I managed to continue studying and in class 12, I became friends with a man I call Aggarwal bhaiya. I could go to his house, sit and talk to him. He talked to my mother also who told him that I was very good academically. She thought that if I studied and made something of myself, my family would accept me. But she didn’t know that I had had my sex change operation. So Aggarwal bhaiya motivated me for college, got my forms and filled them out to enrol me in the Indira Gandhi Open University. Then in class 12, I joined a call centre to earn money for college. But in college I had to hide my identity or people would call me chhakka, hijra etc. There were classes on Saturday and Sunday but I couldn’t go and sit amidst everyone, so Aggarwal bhaiya talked to the teacher and got me my books, which I studied myself and made notes of the problems and questions I had which I’d ask teachers to solve separately.
Despite your educational background, was finding a job as difficult?
Yes. So, after I completed my graduation, I went back to my guru in the community. My guru said that now after all this graduation etc, let’s see if I could still work on the road and ask for money. But sitting in call centres in the A.C. and studying, I had lost the habit of working in the heat and asking for money. Then my guru commented that I dance well, and could try bar dancing. So I joined it and had to dance everyday from evening 7pm to 3 am in the morning. In the start, I got 30 percent of the money people gave, then it slowly increased to 80 percent, but just then, the dance bars closed down. I had to do sex work. It was during this time that I was raped, and then taken to the hospital. There, they ran blood tests and I got to know that I was HIV positive.
I thought that my life was over. I had studied so much, struggled so much, all for nothing. I didn’t know how I had got it. When the person in front of you doesn’t tell you he has HIV how will you know? I went into depression, tried to commit suicide. My friend took me to my community people who were like me. They told me to hide it; they said there was no need to tell society about this. Their logic was, if we have gotten it we will give it to everyone. But I thought what’s the point of ruining someone else’s life? A friend who worked in an NGO called Maitreyi in Kohlapur told me that I could join her, so I did. I used to go to the transgender sex workers and convince them to use condoms, but they were resistant. I could have made them listen more by sharing my own condition but that time I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it till much later, in Vihaan.
And how did you join Vihaan?
I changed my guru after my education and Abhina Aher, who is the national programme manager for Pehchan, became my guru. When the Transgender Alliance Board was getting set up in Maharashtra, one of us from the community had to speak in front of the Chief Minister. It was a big challenge, and people were reluctant. I decided to volunteer and I spoke about my own childhood, and about education reservation. Abhina Aher heard me speaking and sent my CV to Vihaan, where there was a vacancy. I went for the interview to Chhatisgarh and got the job. From the first month on I was taught everything – how to dress so that people respect you, how to draft proposals, how to write official letters. And then I was told that I was free to go to the field, talk to people, identify issues. There, when I first started, there was a gap, and people would be hesitant, but when I told them of my own HIV positive status, the gap closed. That’s when I realised that hiding my status was not helping me or anyone, but by disclosing it, I could help hundreds of people.
What changes have you witnessed over time, with regards to the transgender community and their mainstream integration? What more can be done?
There has been progress. I can see it myself because while when I first approach government officials to talk to them, there is hesitation and reluctance, but when I show them my official visiting card they are more interested and want to listen to what I have to say. There has been slowly a building of respect and today in Chhattisgarh, I just have to call and say my name and I’m treated like any other person. My own confidence is helped by the fact that I have HLFPPT behind me, and the team’s normal behaviour towards me gives me self respect and confidence too.
But there is still a stigma in the larger society. The transphobia present in society has to be removed.
The community is ready to take ten steps forward, but to make a real change happen, society has to take at least five steps forward too.