In Conversation With The Trans Rights Activist Who Stood Behind Bars To Bring Reform
In the early hours of August 10th, 2020, Julie was carelessly frolicking in the courtyard of her residence free of care when, in mere minutes, her safe haven was destroyed by several uniformed policemen who had broken in with a common cause - to muffle her roars for trans-rights in a society that outright rejects them.
Julie Khan is one of the most prominent and outspoken Pakistani trans-rights activists who is primarily known for her web series, Naked Truth, where she dissects and uncovers any and every subject matter that is considered taboo within Pakistani society. Despite being raised in the heavily paternalistic society of Rawalpindi, as a transgender woman, Julie has always tirelessly championed self-love and acceptance.
While countries like Germany have acknowledged their trans-community by offering the “third gender” option on birth certificates, Pakistan’s transgender population continues to fight battles to obtain basic civil rights. Pakistan's transgender community, known as khawaja seras, has faced abuse and isolation for decades - with the passage of time, their social status has diminished significantly. Transgender people now live on the margins of society as entertainers, beggars, and sex workers. Often denied access to education and healthcare, they face extreme discrimination, poverty, abuse, and other violations of basic human rights.
In the midst of such turbulent times, I had the opportunity of sitting down with Julie Khan to reflect on the state of trans-rights in Pakistan, following the #JusticeForJulie movement.
Since the #JusticeForJulie movement, have there been any differences in the communities around you?
There’s definitely a big difference. Before the movement, our identities were not acknowledged - let alone our rights. Following the movement, we were finally acknowledged as human beings for the first time. Despite this being the bare minimum, it was a big milestone for my community.
Do you believe that social media movements have contributed to shine a light on the issues surrounding trans-rights, or are they mere trends?
I am of the belief that, in this day and age, we are living two kinds of lives - our physical lives and our social media lives. We can not deny that social media has brought forth change and reform. For the most part, if people choose to positively use their social media accounts, I don’t see why it can’t create the change that we so desperately wish to witness in the world around us.
If there is one thing that you wish the world could understand about the transgender community, what would that be?
I wish, rather yearn, for nothing more than a world where people would stop imposing their opinions on the trans-community based on one or two controversial transgender figures. I hope that people can grow to understand that, just like in any other community, a single transgender person isn’t representative of an enormous group of people. We are individuals, not just headlines. We are not solely the subjects of your fancy documentaries, we have feelings and aspirations.
You have openly talked about the fact that the transgender women and men of Pakistan have been caged into doing sex work due to the fact that society doesn’t allow them to exist in workplaces. Could you elaborate on what this means?
I have a million things that I want to say about this. Firstly, by what logic does society judge trans women and men for partaking in sex work when it is the sole reason why so many of us are forced into this profession? When you don’t give us jobs in your big firms simply because we are transgender, do you not realize that, by one way or another, we need to put food on our tables?
Secondly, just because you don’t see transgender people working at big companies, doesn’t mean we lack potential or skill - it simply means that the CEOs of big companies have small, narrow mindsets. It overfills my heart with joy to witness transgender women like Nisha Rao overcome countless adversities to accomplish astronomical milestones. Her journey, which started from the streets of Pakistan, led her to working at one of the biggest law firms in the country. Her story is one of resilience, and I believe it sets a beautiful example for the youth of my community.
It is no secret that stigma surrounding the trans-community trickles down into schools and other educational facilities, causing many transgender students to back away from attaining their basic right to education. In an attempt to combat this, the Pakistani government has created separate institutions to accommodate transgender children - do you believe this is a productive initiative?
While I acknowledge that the government has done this to bring forth positive change, I believe such initiatives end up doing more harm than good. Wherever you create a division between transgender and cisgender people, even if it is done with the right intentions, you contribute to the existing social divide that continues to haunt my community. Why must we be separated from them? Why don’t you teach them to detach themselves from their toxic mindsets?
Even if the government successfully separates trans and cisgender children at a school level, how long will they be able to keep up this division? Will they create separate law firms to employ transgender people? Will they create separate hospitals for transgender doctors? The divide must end, and the time for that is now.
Your story of grit and resilience undoubtedly inspires trans youth from every corner of the globe. What is one piece of advice you would give to them?
My advice is simple, but, unfortunately, it is one that many aren’t delighted to hear - be patient. Being part of a minority group, you have weathered big storms throughout your life. A good future awaits you, but the path to it requires your utmost patience. We have fought for our rights, and we will continue to do so until it isn’t considered a sin to be ‘one of us’. Instill faith within yourself and champion for the causes that you hold dear to your heart.
I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking out the time to do this interview. I wholeheartedly believe that your words will greatly touch and inspire not only the trans community but all those who have faced adversities for reasons beyond their control.
Thank you for giving me this platform - without young people like you raising your voice in the fight for trans-rights, stories like mine would’ve been swept under the rug.
Written by Manahil Naveed