Rukshana Kapali is a twenty-two years old trans woman. She works for the advancement of SOGIESC rights in Nepal. She is also an activist in the Nepal Bhasa movement. Rukshana has authored several books around SOGIESC and language in English, Nepali and Nepal Bhasa. She is currently pursuing a law degree as well as linguistics.
She started her journey as an activist and blogging at the age of 15. Her first blog was about her personal experience as a transgender person – wrote in the very initial period of her coming out. She started writing mostly about transgender and broader PoMSOGIESC (People of Marginalised Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics) issue, as well as issues of language, ethnicity and Newa people/heritage. She has faced a lot of struggles when it comes to accessing education and employment just because of her gender identity. Still, she has succeeded in being the voice for so many people of the LGBTQ+ community. Her advocacy is commendable and influential.
And, on the occasion of the pride month, the Rolling Nexus content writer team approached Rukshana Kapali for an interview blog with an attempt to understand her lived experience as a trans woman, her perspectives on employment, empowerment, entrepreneurship and engagement, her activism and her definition of allyship and more in a pervasively cisgendered heteronormative society that we currently are operating in.
Here’s the conversation that follows with Miss Kapali. Happy Pride!
What does empowerment mean to you?
I don’t have a definitive answer for this. Empowerment means different to each individual, but for even myself, the notion keeps on changing. I feel that achieving what I’ve dreamt of is empowering. Looking back at my past and evaluating where I am today also feels empowering.
What do you do for a living? What sort of challenges have you come across while looking for employment opportunities? And, what are your plans for the future when it comes to employment?
Currently, I do freelancing work. My experience with work is mostly in the NGO sector. I write and publish books. My work also involves proofreading, transcribing, and translation.
I am also in law school now, so having a full day class means I can’t do a full-time job. Freelancing work does not bring much. A lot of work especially around LGBTQ+ rights that I do is volunteering. Due to a lack of funding or investment in the sector, the work I love to do does not feed me. Another big challenge is being transgender. I remember that in my initial days of looking for a source of income, people refused to hire me because of my gender identity. The work didn’t require an academic qualification, but just skills such as in a cloth shop or curio shop. Then I got into the NGO sector, where things may be relatively easier because people working in social justice may be relatively not transphobic. However, most posts that give a good income needs Bachelors or at least a Master’s degree. I should have graduated with my bachelor’s degree this year, but I was denied university registration due to a lack of legal and policy mechanisms for transgender people to enrol on the university and gender recognition. This has created adverse impacts on my employment too. Currently, I prefer the self-lead kind of works, because then I could get to do what I am interested in, and don’t have to worry about being discriminated against. But it is not as easy as said.
In future, I want to be publishing more books. I have taken up law school, so of course, I will want to be employed as a lawyer. I also want to pursue being a linguist, and contribute to my native language Nepal Bhasa. I will probably be working in between these various, switching around and in the intersections of fieldworks.
What myths about trans individuals are you tired of debunking?
There are a ton of such myths. Some of what I can think of right now is that transgender people are the third gender which is not true. Transgender people are not the third gender. Also, people often think that transgender people are of a ‘different gender’ which is wrong. The term ‘transgender’ often shortened as ‘trans’ is a descriptive term that states someone’s gender identity is different from their gender assigned at birth. Trans men are men and trans women are women. Transgender people also have a sexual orientation. Trans people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Gender and Sexuality are two different things. The more I interact with people in society, the more myths and misconceptions I come across. It is very hectic and not even possible to list down all these myths.
What is the significance of allyship? How do we differentiate genuine allyship from performative one?
The first step to being an ally is to start educating yourself about transgender issues. There are lots of resources available that trans people have created. Allyship isn’t a one-time thing where you do some bare minimum and call yourself an ally. It is a process of learning and engagement with trans people. As allies, please don’t speak on behalf of us. Please don’t take spaces on issues about us. Being allies means amplifying our narratives because we are capable of raising our voices. So as allies please help us amplify our voices. Occupying spaces to raise issues that concerns trans people is not allyship. You need to have trans people on the table and let us raise our voice.
The representation of trans individuals in entrepreneurship is very little and oftentimes they do not get the support and appreciation they deserve. How can the government and responsible figures help LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself for better entrepreneurial and employment opportunities?
For now, eradication of barriers would be really helpful. The legal barrier is what government needs to proactively remove. The laws of Nepal are very much outdated and exclusionary to transgender people. Just due to the law, transgender people are facing exclusion and denial of access to education and employment. If legal barriers are ought to remove, at least transgender people will be able to access education and employment. The next thing is protection. Barrier removal is one thing but also keeping in mind that transgender people are subjected to discrimination and stigma, and there need to be legal measures to ensure that they’re not subjected to it or can get a remedy if they’re subjected to it.
The next thing is to offer scholarship and reservation for transgender people. Many transgender people are struggling to meet basic livelihood because of the complex social realities we face. Many of us are forced to leave our homes or get disowned by our parents. Many of us are forced to drop schools due to the stigma we endure. There are many transgender people, who don’t even have an SLC qualification which is seen as a bare minimum in the context of Nepal. Government can encourage those who’ve dropped out, to re-join school and continue their studies if the government can ensure a safe learning environment. Many transgender people who’ve at least graduated school, won’t join college because their paperwork still shows their deadname and gender assigned at birth. Many of those who’ve left their homes, lacking educational qualification or vocational skills, are living a tough life. If government allocates a certain per cent of scholarship to transgender people, this will increase transgender students in various fields and areas. Once we have qualification or skill, we will be able to navigate our ways to earn money.
Many transgender people are denied employment despite their educational qualifications. The government may not be able to change everyone’s mind but can ensure legal protection so we don’t get discriminated against just because of our gender. Government jobs should reserve a quota for transgender people, including intersex and gender diverse people. This will ensure participation and inclusion of people in the state mechanism, which will then have a snowball effect on government policies and decisions to address concerns of transgender people without an external effort or pressure.
There is this mindset that LGBTQ+ individuals have to be successful and in most cases upper caste and upper class too, to get respect from society. Does this make you anxiously ambitious? Or do you not give in to that pressure?
Yes, it does. I have felt the pressure of this notion too. Many queer folks have taken upon themselves that they’re going to do something or achieve something in their lives. This is a very positive thing. This has helped break stereotypes among people. For instance, many of my relatives assumed that (after I came out), I will be going to train stations to beg for money. Many of my school friends also bullied me saying that my future will be that way. I proved them wrong. Not because I deliberately did things to prove them wrong, but because they were wrong in the first place to believe in such stereotypes. I just did what I had always wanted to, like everyone else in the world. At the same time, there is a harmful notion about ‘performative figure’ that to gain basic human dignity, queer folks need to portray themselves as outstanding and successful in their lives.
Even within the queer community, there are intersectional experiences. People of certain backgrounds which provides them privilege become the fastest to climb the ladder of success. So many people give this example of Brahmin cisgender gay men from privileged backgrounds and tell the rest of the queer community to see them as an example. But as a cis gay man, he will never have to face a basic barrier about his documents not being correct, like a transgender person would face. Or basically for someone from a family who has to think about what to eat the next day, even going to school means a luxury they have to trade-off for working to get food on the table.
I don’t think much about this notion, for me and my goals. Because it hasn’t affected who I am today. I am not doing what I am doing today because I face discrimination and prejudice and that I want to prove the society that whatever they think about me as a trans person is wrong. I’m just following my passion, and it is consequently breaking those stereotypical notions too.
Would you like to suggest policies in companies that will help empower more LGBTQ+ people at work?
Anti-discrimination policies in place that ensure no one is discriminated against on basis of caste, class, religion, gender, etc should be inclusive and cover queer targeted discrimination and harassment. Policy in place can help enable the environment. But if everyday work becomes a fight, it is not an ideal space to work in. So policies don’t help every time. We need to think of how people can be educated to eradicate these forms of discrimination against queer folks, so as a snowball effect all spaces become safe spaces. One of the best ways to do this is to include it in our education.
Financial Independence is one of the most empowering things for any individual. How can people from the LGBTQ+ community be financially independent in Nepal?
This is a difficult one to answer because I am not financially independent. I believe once people are ensured of access to education and employment without any discrimination then that will certainly open doors to independence for LGBTQ+ individuals. But again, employment and decent earning is a huge issue in Nepal. In our socio-economic context, even cis-het people of my age group and beyond also struggle with financial independence, while trans people are disproportionately affected by this. Financial independence for many queer folks ensures that even if they’re disowned by families, they won’t end up in the streets. However, it does not eradicate the discrimination one faces. I may have the money to rent a flat, but people don’t want to rent me a flat because I am transgender. I may be able to buy a house of my own, but people in society won’t accept me. The fact that we aren’t just judged by our skills and qualifications, being able to be financially independent is further challenging.
What does “discrimination in the workplace” mean to you? And how can one become an ally in the workplace?
Discrimination may not always be hostile or visible. Some are subtle and some are even unconscious. Such as you don’t make friends with transgender people in the workplace for the only reason that they’re trans. I cannot make a point by point recommendation on how to become an ally. It is a learning process. For starters, educate yourself about what LGBTQ+ means.
What new changes do you think are required for explicit inclusive development and empowerment in the country regarding the LGBTQ+ community?
The first step would be to provide spaces to the LGBTQ+ community in all sectors. This is going to take time. For instance, say, the government provides a one per cent quota in Loksewa for trans people so that means in the next year, we will have one per cent of people who are transgender in all sectors of the government. Eventually, transgender issues will be raised within the government authorities and agencies, consequently leading to form decisions and plans according to the requirements of the trans people as well. I think even with the reservation there will be lots of power dynamics that will play and trans voices may be sidelined as a minority. It is so challenging to ensure that everything is addressed.