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From Sex Work to Studio: Shanthi Breaks Boundaries

This story was originally published in the Guardian on 21 January 2016


In India every growing child is conditioned by the family to recognise only two genders right from the beginning where the blue baby blanket is reserved for the boys and the pink frock for the girls.

Any signs of an anomaly are met with stiff resistance in a bid to stop it from occurring. In this transgender people live a life of internal commotion, dejection, rejection by family and society, stigma, extreme discrimination and violence. Their sexuality gives rise to issues that go beyond just relationships and identity but percolate down to their livelihood avenues and survival.

Many live their lives pining for a chance to disclose their sexual orientation but instead they live unable to sum up the courage to tell their families, succumb to family pressure, get married on their insisting and even have children. And then there are those who choose to tread a path most dare not take.

The office of Radio Active 90.4, Bengaluru’s first community radio station, is abuzz with activity and, in the recording studio, Shanthi Sonu is getting ready for her show Ghanateya Dudimegaagi Naavu Manushyaru, a series on sexual minorities and sex work. She handles this tough job of hosting a program that challenges the moral policing associated with sex work and advocates for decriminalisation of sex work from a human right perspective.

Shanthi is a confident male to female trans person who found success when she embraced her true identity. Her conviction and grit comes from having stood up for her rights even at the face of stiff family opposition and living life trans. Her testimony is one that makes people stand up, take notice and believe in listening to your heart.

She recalls how reading out a poem she had written on the life of a trans person in a public event had made Pinky Chandran, Director of Radio Active notice her. She adds smilingly, ‘I was offered the job of RJ at Radio Active the same day after the event. My life changed in a moment.’

She recalls how she never knew that talking about the pitiful life she had led as a trans person, of being completely rejected by the society and even by her biological parents would get her success.

There is empowerment in disclosure; in being able to say who we are to the world and, most importantly, to ourselves.

Shanthi Sonu, 34, radio presenter, Bengaluru, India

For Shanthi it was not less than a giant leap to be here from the life she had led as a sex worker who also engaged in begging side by side as most trans people do to support themselves in Bengaluru, one of the fastest growing cities in India.

Trans people who get into sex work live a difficult life marred with danger. The police see them as criminals and beat or harass and arrest them. They are not safe on the streets where they solicit clients at night, are raped and kidnapped by goons and made to indulge in unprotected sex forcibly. The goons take their money and their mobiles and they abuse them physically as well as verbally. In addition, they bear the burden of catching infections like STIs and deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Shanthi’s life has changed dramatically. She is far placed from the many dangerous situations sex work brings and now works in a safe and friendly atmosphere. Radio Active changed her life in a moment.

Shanthi found self- respect, contentment, success and fame at the end of the tunnel. Today the same brother who used to beat her loves her a lot and her parents who once locked her up and isolated her from others are coming back to her.

For the first time, India’s census counted the trans population and there is finally an official number that stands at 490,000 transgender people in a country of 1.2 billion. While trans activists estimate the number to be six to seven times higher, they are thrilled that such a large number of people identified themselves as belonging to the third gender. With education and raising awareness, maybe a day will come when a new colour will be weaved into the baby blanket for the special newborn and trans people will get to complete school without interruption.

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