Interview with Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana
APTN, 9 June 2019
Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana is a researcher, educator, political analyst, international consultant and journalist, specialising in the areas of gender politics, the politics of deeply divided societies and international relations. Originally from Sri Lanka, APTN is excited to have her join the APTN Regional Steering Committee. The RSC responsibility will be to represent the work of APTN and provide mission-based leadership and strategic governance.
We look forward to the insight she will provide APTN and we are excited to share an interview with her!
What has your involvement with the trans community has been?
I am a board member of Venasa, Sri Lanka’s oldest trans rights advocacy group that works at the grassroots with a bottom-up approach, focusing on empowering non-cisnormative Sri Lankans. I was the LGBT+ Officer of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland, where my work carried a strong movement-building dimension, bringing in a transfeminist conversation on reproductive justice, and centring people of colour, and people from migrant backgrounds in my work. I am also an advisor to the Community Welfare Development Fund, a rapid-response fund – the first of its kind – intended at providing immediate support to trans and queer Sri Lankans in situations of urgent distress.
In addition, one of my major community engagement initiatives has been an effort to develop a dialogue on trans and queer liberation, through a series of articles written to the Sri Lankan press since 2016. It was perhaps the first time at which a trans woman, a Sri Lankan citizen and someone with a specialisation in international politics would publicly engage with Issues such as trans politics, trans-inclusive reproductive justice, queering the Sri Lankan polity, a queer critique of political advocacy. This body of work has had a strong public outreach, and is increasingly getting translated into Sinhala and Tamil. A collection of my writing on Sri Lankan politics [which is very much a collection of a queer-feminist reading of Lankan queer politics and ‘queer-ing’ Sri Lankan politics, will be published before the end of 2019.
Can you share with us how the culture and trans community through Asia Pacific (or your specific country) is unique?
Sri Lanka is home to a highly literate, educated and diverse people. Our diversity in terms of our ethnicities, religious traditions, languages and backgrounds is our primary strength. The trans community in Sri Lanka is very vibrant and as diverse as Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan society in general. We have trans rights advocates working for the welfare of trans people through organisations they have created, as well as trans people who may not be very vocal in trans rights advocacy, but are nonetheless making a very important imprint, by living their lives, studying, entering many professions and making their mark.
However, we still have a long way to go, especially in terms of empowering fellow community members from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, especially in provincial areas, and also in empowering trans and queer people in the predominantly Tamil-speaking and Muslim Eastern Province, as well in northern Sri Lanka. I see trans rights advocacy as carrying a great deal of input and strength to challenge forms of ethnoreligious extremism. In terms of the Asia-Pacific region, we are talking about a very big part of the world. Diversity is the key word here. It is beyond fathomable. Our communities, especially indigenous trans/queer/gender-plural peoples continue to live very challenging lives – hence the importance of focusing on people, communities and developing bottom-up strategies for empowerment in our work throughout the region, from Pakistan to Fiji.
Why did you apply to become an RSC member for APTN?
Out of all the trans rights organisations in the world, APTN is one organisation that I hold in very high regard. Many trans rights, and broadly-speaking LGBT+ rights organisations and movements often originate in the West and then move on to, or trickle down to, places in the global South. The APTN, however, was founded by trans women, especially Thai trans women, and other trans women from indigenous backgrounds, who understand, and have direct insights to trans-specific realities in the global South, and the intersections of trans rights advocacy and the rights and empowerment and dignity of indigenous peoples. This is why I have a great deal of respect for APTN.
Today, APTN does great work in the Asia-Pacific region, working effectively with our country partners, developing our global donor networks, and focusing in communities in all our work. Although APTN is indisputably an Asia-Pacific, and consequently an ‘international’ platform. However, it is also an organisation that is rooted in the Kingdom of Thailand. As Sri Lankan woman, I must affirm that my country shares extremely strong ties of kinship, shared his/herstories, cultural and religious traditions with Thailand. This I believe is yet another personal reason that drew me to APTN.
What unique perspective do will you be taking into the regional dialogue as a RSC member?
One key thing that I bring with me is a focus on internationalism. As someone who has spent a lot of my adult life outside my own country, navigating different languages, cultures and knowledges, I am very keen to focus on international cooperation in all the work I do. Another inter-connected point is the body of work I have produced on de-colonial transfeminist perspectives and trans/queer feminist perspectives on decoloniality. These perspectives a strong sense of internationalism, and intercultural communication skills are absolutely vital to any role with APTN, as we are dealing with two of the most diverse regions of the world.
Where do your interests and experiences overlap with APTN’s goals/mission?
My focus on ‘locally grounding’ all our trans and queer liberation work, focusing on empowering grassroots communities, and strengthening their capacities an agency.
What do you hope to accomplish while on RSC with APTN?
I hope to work productively and proactively with my RSC, TFB and Secretariat colleagues in ensuring efficient delivery, developing strong policies and in strengthening APTN.
Why is trans activism in this region/country important?
Primarily because of the large numbers of people and communities concerned, and because of continuing forms of misunderstanding, misinformation and ill-treatment of our communities. So there is a great deal of work to be done, in terms of understanding specific local challenges, and providing meaningful forms of support.
What progress have you seen for the trans community?
We can see a good deal of progress, although there is still a very long way to go. For example, Sri Lanka today has a system of legal gender recognition which works quite well. Although we are still in a system that ‘pathologiszes’ trans people, it is a system that benefits the community. Similar legislative developments have also taken place in Pakistan, as a result of the tireless work by our community members there, including organisations such as Wajood.
We also see increased preparedness for trans people’s empowerment in India, especially in the aftermath of the emphasis on the spectrum of LGBT+, or SOGIESC rights that we can observe since the Indian Supreme Court took repealed Section 377 of their Penal Code. In terms of indigenous peoples, especially in the Pacific, there is increased focus on Indigenous gender identities, and in ensuring the agency of Indigenous traditions. However, we have ‘miles to go’ to quote American poet Robert Frost.
What still needs to be done? What would you like to see change in the current political/social atmosphere?
Continuing advocacy and effective strategising. We have a lot to learn from the work done in different countries, and we need to emphasise the absolute necessity of framing trans rights as a crucial element of fundamental human rights, and also in ‘locally-grounding’ trans rights advocacy, coming out of NGO-focused moulds.
What is one thing we need more than anything?… and how will that move the agenda forward?
A commitment to the empowerment of trans and all non-cisnormative peoples – this has to be a critical commitment – with a strong focus on empowering, and ‘normalising’ the existences of trans peoples [as opposed to the popular inclination to sensationalise trans peoples lives and existences]. This focus should be able to drive us forwards in a constructive way.
What is APTN doing for trans and gender diverse people throughout Asia that is meaningful for you?
Everything. All of APTN’s work in the entire region.
When you think of the future, what is one word that captures your hopes?
#Liberation… How will that happen? by working to ground our trans rights work in local contexts, challenging cisnormativities, political and legislative strategising, supporting each other, and focusing on empowering as well as #normalising the existences of trans peoples.
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