The stigma attached with HIV is clearly evident when several people refuse to shake hands with Indian transgender activist, Amruta Alplesh Soni on a daily basis. Soni, who is HIV+, has been invited to speak at the 14th Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Centre in the United States. Soni currently works as an advocacy officer with the Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT).
She shares her journey about coming out as a transgender, social stigma around HIV and her gender identity in an interview with NewsGram.
Nishtha: Being a transgender in India who is HIV+, what sort of social stigma do you face from the society?
Amruta Alpesh Soni:I came out as a transgender at the age of 16. My life has been a struggle with names like ‘chhakka’ constantly thrown at me. Things got worse when I was diagnosed with HIV. But then I decided to stay strong and pursued my masters in Marketing from Symbiosis.
The reason why I decided to come out as HIV+ is because I felt that if I keep my situation under wraps with my sexual partner and he ends up having sex with someone else, this virus will spread.
I am fortunate enough to work at a place where there is job security, but several people with the HIV virus are still struggling for their rights and protection. They have no social protection schemes. The government runs different schemes but there are no clauses for the HIV patients. I understand that there is stigma and discrimination in the society with respect to my gender identity but I have to overcome that.
N: You are actively working for the rights and social welfare of HIV+ patients. Do you face any challenges on the field?
AS: If someone refuses to talk, I usually tell him/her that I am HIV+ and if I am not frightened by the society, then why are you? I face challenges in government offices. First, they question my presence in their office and once the word ‘HIV’ is used, the officials refuse to cooperate. I provide the officials with field studies explaining about the ground realities about the disease. Most importantly, I motivate patients to speak about their problems. We try to give the patients as much support as we can. Now if they have any problem, they simply contact me. Their faith is important to me and I will ensure I never break it.
N: How did your parents react when you told them about your transition?
AS: At the age of 16, I started living as a transgender. My parents got to know after a year and a half that I have changed my sex. They did not accept me. But my mother kept in touch with me and because of her I continued communicating with my family. When they saw my work in the media, things started becoming normal again. Although my parents have passed away, I still stay in touch with my stepmother and continue to visit my hometown as well.
N: You were granted the US visa after initial resistance by the US Consulate General Office in Kolkata. What was the issue?
AS: The online application of the passport has an option ‘T’ (for transgender) whereas I was surprised to see that there was no such option for the US visa application. The US consulate got confused about how to identify my gender. They kept asking me how I recognized myself – as a woman or a transgender? I said I am a transgender. Why should I be identified as a woman? When the government is giving me that identity why should I change that? I have an Aadhar Card and a passport as a transgender. They had a discussion with the higher authorities. After the media took up this issue, a few days later I got my visa.
N: While India has recognized transgender as the third sex, the LGBT community continues to fight for their rights. What is needed to make the society more aware about the community?
AS: We don’t need any special attention. We want to be treated equally. Have people ever thought over why transgenders ask for money at signals or in trains? The social segregation has its economic costs too. If we want to rent a place to live, we have to pay extra. If we sit in a bus, nobody will come and sit next to us so we have to travel by auto, which is again a financial load for us. Then they allege that we fight with the commuters. No one likes to sit silently and get showered with abuses. People respond to them. We do the same thing. We can’t live with the person we love due to societal pressures. The mentality of the society needs to change. We are ready to change but is the society ready? The government might be issuing orders but the officials’ point of view still remains the same.