On March 19, 2023, law graduate Padma Lakshmi made history by becoming the first openly transgender lawyer to enrol with the Bar Council of Kerala.
Padma’s enrollment garnered a lot of attention from the media as well as the legal community. Even State Law Minister P Rajeev put up a congratulatory post on his official social media accounts.
Since then, the graduate of Government Law College, Ernakulam has been engaged in TV and radio interviews as well as various appearances at college and school annual days and the like.
In a free flowing conversation with Giti Pratap in Malayalam and English, Padma talks about her journey of self-identity, the recent media attention she has garnered, attitude towards queer persons in the legal community and more.
Translated excerpts from the conversation follow.
At the entrance of the Kerala High Court Advocates Association building adjacent to the High Court, Padma is engaged in conversation with a young female lawyer. Several lawyers pop by to say hello and ask her how she is doing. Clearly, the newly enrolled Padma has made her mark as more than just a transgender lawyer, but as an active member of the legal community in Kochi.
A visibly excited Padma says that she has just filed the first case in which she has vakalat. Earlier in the day, she had appeared in a matter before Justice TR Ravi of the High Court and obtained a stay order.
However, she is also worried and desperately trying to find a job as a junior lawyer after having been let go from a job recently.
Padma is quick to point out that she is most definitely not the first transgender lawyer in Kerala. Rather, she is the first openly transgender person who was enrolled with the Kerala Bar Council.
"I had no intention of being known as “the transgender lawyer” or getting this kind of media attention. Before my enrollment, a senior lawyer saw my details and called me up to ask if I was the first transgender lawyer to enrol with the Kerala Bar. I told him no, I cannot possibly be the first trans lawyer. The first, second and third trans lawyers are probably standing amongst us but perhaps they are not out about it. Being transgender is something that has existed forever."
Padma emphatically underscored that even across India, there are many invisible transgender lawyers. And this invisibility, she feels, is a result of the fact that the legal fraternity is not exactly welcoming of members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
"Even across India, those who are known as the first transgender lawyers in their respective states are only the first openly transgender lawyers. There are hundreds of closeted lawyers, trans, gay and others who fit into the LGBTQIA+ bracket. And it is understandable. Look at what is happening with Senior Advocate Saurabh Kirpal. It is being said that he is not being made a judge because he is openly gay. That is the situation."
Some lawyers at the Kerala Bar itself weren’t very welcoming when Padma was searching for internships, and later, for jobs. But she will not be filing complaints against those who discriminate against her anytime soon.
"There were a few lawyers who weren't very welcoming at the time. People viewed giving me any work or opportunities as a form of charity. These days, many have advised me to complain against lawyers like that who discriminate on the basis of my gender identity. But I don’t do it because even that would just give them the attention they crave. We unfortunately live in a society where even negative publicity is good publicity. I won’t give them that satisfaction."
However, she fondly remembers her stint with advocates Abdul Hakim and Anil Kumar.
"Anil Sir helped me with name change etc. Only at Abdul Hakim Sir's office did I enter with my old name. Even now, there are those in the legal community who discriminate on the basis of my gender identity. But there are even more people who are friendly and accepting. But unfortunately, that is not enough right? I need a job. Just empty words are not enough. People like me also need jobs."
Her most recent stint, however, was not without its issues.
"In November, I joined the office of an advocate who is very active with social causes. I had high hopes for this job and I worked very hard to do my job as perfectly as I could. I used to go above and beyond, even finding ways to reduce administrative costs of the office. But I was never included in the vakalath even though I used to work on those cases. I was doing the work of an advocate's clerk while donning a lawyer's coat and gown. An off-the-cuff remark I made to another lawyer about it reached the ears of the lawyer I used to work for and I was let go from that job."
Working at this office made Padma realise that many in the community view giving her a job as a favour or a form of charity.
"There were always small instances that used to make it feel like I was just a charity case. That I was given a job despite the fact that I am who I am. They make it sound like they are doing some charity work by giving someone like me a job, regardless of whether I do the job well. Many such activists, even activist lawyers, have this attitude when it comes down to directly helping a member of the community they advocate for."
Born as the third child to a lower middle-class family in a suburb of Kochi , Padma now lives in the more bustling Edappally region with her parents. Her mother is an advocate clerk to advocate Abdul Hakim. Her father, who used to work at the Cochin Shipyard, now runs a small shop.
Even though she was a recluse in school and faced demeaning taunts from fellow students, she has fond memories of the teachers who were kind to her.
"I still remember the time when Mercy teacher handed over ₹200 to my sister and asked her to buy me something since I was looking a bit haggard. This was a time when my family was struggling a lot. I have not and cannot ever forget such incidents," she recalls.
Her tale of discovering what her gender identity means is one that is familiar to most members of the LGBTQIA+ community of this generation. Padma turned to the internet, which replaced the dictionaries that older generations relied on, to understand what her identity really meant.
"I did not even know the meaning of transgender at the time. I just knew I was a girl and I had no idea how to express it...I was hiding myself, turning myself into a recluse, because I did not want to reveal who I really was. It would have been really difficult especially at that time, around 2010, if I had revealed who I was. Society would have categorised me as an unsound person. I used to pray before going to bed that I would magically wake up as a girl the next morning. It was after the 10th standard that I first got internet access. I went to an internet cafe and searched “how to become a woman.” That is when I saw the term transgender for the first time."
I used to pray before going to bed that I would magically wake up as a girl the next morning. It was after the 10th standard that I first got internet access. I went to an internet cafe and searched “how to become a woman.” That is when I saw the term transgender for the first time.
Going into higher secondary school, Padma chose the Science stream and later pursued a B.Sc. degree. All through her education, she ignored the snide comments that her classmates often passed.
"And I knew I wanted to live as who I am. But I didn’t know how. This was in 2016. At that time, we (transgender persons) did not have legal recognition. It was a back and forth process which started in 2012, but there was nothing solid at the time. At that time, transgender was a dirty term that was always mentioned in association with honey traps, theft, assault. I knew I could not be open still. It was difficult to keep myself hidden."
All the preliminary research that Padma had done until that point had only left her more concerned. About the medical expenses of gender affirming procedures, about the social standing of transgender persons in India.
"At around the same time, Manorama (a leading Malayalam news daily) published an article which said that people who are this way, are unnatural and sexually deviant. And at that age, I believed it. At only 15 years old, I believed that I was a sexual deviant, that my life was over."
"The media needs to be more responsible," Padma said, highlighting a recent incident where a print publication had run a story falsely saying that Padma's parents made her transgender.
Under these circumstances, after she completed her B.Sc. course, Padma started selling Kerala PSC (Public Service Commission) bulletins, which enabled her to earn a small sum. More importantly, it enabled her to go to PSC classes in the hope of getting a salaried job. She needed the money to pay for hormone therapy and laser hair removal.
"Without hormone treatment and surgery, it is very difficult. Take something small like the shoes I am wearing right now. These would never fit on a man’s feet. They are not wide enough. But after taking hormones, my feet slide into these women's shoes so easily. The joy of that! This is not a feeling that anyone can understand no matter how many people like me explain it. You have to experience it for yourself. Even buying clothes is such a better experience now."
Without hormone treatment and surgery, it is very difficult. Take something small like the shoes I am wearing right now. These would never fit on a man’s feet.
Unable to crack the PSC test for any of the jobs she wanted, Padma decided to attempt the Kerala Law Entrance Exam (KLEE) after having managed to send in her application on the very last day.
She cracked the KLEE on her first attempt, quickly got admission to GLC Ernakulam and started on the path to becoming a lawyer.
While in law school, Padma took tuition classes for school kids. The money she earned from the classes soon enabled her to start hormone therapy and get laser hair removal. But these procedures did not come easy.
It was in law school that Padma finally came out to a professor.
"In law college, I finally confessed everything to one of my professors, Mariamma ma’am. She was very supportive and told me not to listen to the noise of irrelevant opinions, and just focus on studying. Everything else will fall into place."
Dr Mariamma AK is an Associate Professor at GLC Ernakulam. It is with her husband, advocate Anil Kumar, that Padma interned after her stint at advocate Abdul Hakim's office.
By this time, Padma's parents began catching on to her situation, especially as her physical changes became more noticeable. However, they stayed patient and waited for the end of her final exams to ask her to join them for a counselling session.
"They told the doctor that they have already accepted me, but wanted the doctor’s help to alleviate the sadness they saw in me everyday. I was shocked. I was afraid that the doctor would send me to some sort of conversion therapy, but my parents just wanted to make sure that I would be alright and to improve communication between us. This is when I finally got my confidence back."
Despite her parents' acceptance and support, Padma insisted on paying for all the gender affirming medical procedures by herself.
"I know how hard my parents had to work to put me and my sisters through school and college."
Padma mentioned that even though the Kerala government has some schemes for the welfare of transgender people, including for gender affirming care, she has not been able to apply for the same.
"None of the transgender people I know are getting it. I am eligible, but I need to apply for a particular card but no one knows where to get it from, not even people at Akshaya Kendras. If I could get that money, I could at least complete hormone therapy."
Padma is no stranger to red tapism, having had to face it several times - while trying to get hormone therapy, while getting her name changed on the Aadhaar card, etc.
"I wish I could have an Aadhaar card where I am marked as a woman and not as a trans woman. It is not because being a trans woman is anything to be ashamed about. It is only because for so long, I just knew I was a woman, just a woman. The term transgender entered my vocabulary much later. Our school curriculum is wholly inadequate in this regard. If we had been taught from the beginning that there are men, women, transgender persons, etc, then I would have been aware from an early age and could have accepted that term for myself."
Padma never imagined that her enrollment would garner so much attention, not just from the media, but from the general public at large. The response has been largely positive.
She chooses to go to schools and colleges to speak on her experiences.
"I don’t like institutions or people who advertise or utilitse any religion to carry on their work. A few days ago, I went to such a school as a guest for an event, and I openly talked to them about why religion and caste are useless. The school administration was not happy, but it was the kids who invited me. Even when the kids called me, they had told me that the management was against calling me, but I attended the event and I spoke my mind.
Another school that I went to had a huge moral policing problem. So I spoke about sex, sexuality, gender identity and acceptance. Several students in these schools have approached me and told me that they are in the same situation that I faced. If all these media and school appearances can help even one of those kids, it would all be worth it," she said.
She has the same advice to give to all those who might be facing situations that she has faced through her journey.
"There will be very loud, regressive and critical voices. Just ignore those voices as much as you can. No one can affect you if you know beyond doubt who you are. Some people tease me saying I am dark, I sound like a man, etc. So I tell them, yes, I know I sound like a man and that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, so that is their problem. So none of them can actually damage me."
Padma also urged the parents and families of young LGBTQIA+ individuals to shower unconditional love on them so that they can focus on their studies instead of fretting over their gender and sexuality.
Regardless of her employment status, Padma is sure that her interest and hopefully her future, lies in litigation.
While in law school, Padma would visit district courts by herself just to watch trial proceedings.
"Trials are so much more interesting because we need to be vigilant at every point of the proceedings. In other cases, we prepare ahead of time, hand over precedents, finish our arguments and we are done."
Apart from litigation, Padma is also interested in constitutional law.
"I don't want to be known as someone who fights only for LGBTQ rights. I want to work in all fields of Constitutional Law. I need someone to guide me in this path so that I can try to be the voice for the voiceless."
Whatever the future holds, Padma will move forward with her head held high.
"On my first day in the High Court, my father dropped me off and told me with tears in his eyes to just hold my head up high and do my job well. My mother told me that my father was moved when he saw me in the lawyer's coat and gown. I don't know where all this is going, but I know it will move forward and that I will do something worthwhile. Something good will come of all this."
A week after this interview was conducted, Padma secured a job at MK Associates in Kochi.