Mumbai: When Santosh Londhe enrolled at the University of Mumbai’s (MU) Institute of Distance and Open Learning (IDOL) for BA (Psychology) four years ago, she made history as the first varsity student to identify herself as a transgender. She has now successfully completed her course and is a proud degree-holder – a rarity in the transgender community.
It was by no means an easy journey for the 35-year-old Mumbai resident, who likes to refer herself by her adoptive feminine name Sridevi. During this period, she moved out of her parents’ home and supported herself through various jobs, while continued facing discrimination and abuse. Though it took her a year more than the regular duration of the academic programme, her resolve to educate herself is stronger than ever. She has now been admitted for an MA at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), the largest distance learning institute in the country.
“I couldn’t live without education. I wanted to learn and achieve something unique for the society to see,” said Londhe.Sridevi is indeed unique, and not just for a trans person. She works as a circuit designer at an electronics firm, while teaching underprivileged children at a non-governmental organisation (NGO). She is also a make-up artist, Bharatnatyam dancer and actor. She also actively participates in efforts to sensitise people about gender issues.
There might have been other transgender students at MU but Sridevi was the first to be recognised as one. While enrolling herself at IDOL in 2015, Sridevi chose to identify as a transgender, instead of opting for more convenient male or female options. The development came three years after University Grants Commission (UGC), the higher education regulator, directed all universities and colleges to treat transgenders as third gender for the purpose of admission and various scholarship schemes and programmes. MU had introduced a separate ‘transgender’ column, in addition to traditional “male” and “female” columns in 2015-16 – the year Sridevi registered at IDOL.
Londhe was already working as an interior designer when she enrolled for higher education. Anxious to stand on her own feet, she, in early 2017, with the help of her mother and some generous friends, set up a small cosmetics shop. However, the shop was soon shut down due to low profits. She found employment in the non-profit sector where she worked towards creating awareness about gender issues. Around a year and a half ago, she moved out of her home as she didn’t find much support from her family – her father and siblings hardly spoke to her despite living together. It took her around six months to find a place for herself.
“It was very difficult to find a home. The landlords I approached for renting a place would take me for a girl and were ready to lend their rooms. But as soon as I reveal my gender identity they would refuse,” she said.
After a Christian priest from Kalyan saw one of Sridevi’s posts on Facebook, he contacted her and offered her a teaching job at a convent school in the city. While she enjoyed teaching, it was difficult to make ends meet due to her low salary. Few months later, she ran into Newton Gomes, a city-based businessman and philanthropist who hired her as a designer for his firm Emmanuel Electronics and to teach at his non-profit Emmanuel Foundation which provides remedial coaching to underprivileged children.
“Everyone has their struggles, but they are a bit more for trans people, be it while traveling, going to a hospital or seeking a job. For others, trans are aliens. They judge us on our appearance and our other activities. They don’t judge us on our talent, as there’s a large gap between the mainstream and our community. Unless that gap fills up, we can’t interact [with the society],” said Londhe.
Sridevi’s life journey is a testament to this struggle. She was brought up in a poor South Indian family residing in a slum locality of the city. From a very young age, she figured that she is a female “trapped” in a male body and adopted feminine ways. When her parents discovered her “abnormal” behaviour, they took her to a priest in the city with the hopes of “curing” her. She kept visting the temple where she was brought up in the devadasi tradition.
While struggling to to determine her gender identity from a very young age, Sridevi faced avoidance from her own family, abuse in her all-boys school and college and even sexual harassment at the hands of few boys in the locality. “I couldn’t say anything to anyone due to fear and family pressure. But I would pick myself up and keep doing what I did,” she said.
While still a class nine student, she started tutoring children to pay for her education. Her father earned a meager salary, much of which was wasted due to his drinking habit.
After completing school education, she enrolled herself in a junior college in the city, with an aim to pursue medicine. Bruised by her traumatic experience in school, she maintained a low profile and kept to herself during the two-year period, which proved to be much calmer compared to her school days. “Students entering junior college after class 10 find a new environment. But it was shocking to me. Everyone looked at me in a strange manner while I would avoid eye contact with anyone. I would merely stay in the library. I never enjoyed my college life,” she said.
Her dream of becoming a doctor crashed after she failed the class 12 examination. She said that she was very stressed due to uncertainty about my gender identity and the family’s money woes.
After working at odd jobs for a couple of years, Sridevi enrolled herself in a Diploma in Medical Laboratory Technology (DMLT) course but left it mid-may as she was unable to pay the fees. Later, she completed a three-year interior designing course at a college in the western suburbs. She continued facing harassment at the college at the hands of boys.
While working as an interior designer, she got herself trained as a make-up artist and started her career as a beautician. A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, she also earned some money by dancing at social gatherings.
Londhe hopes that her example will help change people’s perception of transgenders. “People don’t understand who we are. They consider all of us to be the same. They think all of us are sex workers. They don’t think that we are capable of anything else,” she said.
She believes that the government also has to do its bit to change these stereotypes. “The government should interact with all the main trans community persons and interact with them. Laws are there, but the government should make policies for the welfare of transgenders,” she said.
Sridevi also has a message for the transgender community, “As for my trans sisters, they should come out, learn and educate themselves, whatever be their talent. [Architect of Indian constituition] Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar has given the right to education to everyone – male, female or transgender,” she said.