A slur that robs us of all dignity

To commemorate International Transgender Day of Visibility on 31st March, Sri Lanka creates first breakthrough message for its transgender and gender diverse community.

Bhoomi Harendran, the Executive Director of the National Transgender Network Sri Lanka (NTNSL) who is a forerunner of the trans movement in Sri Lanka, imagined a country where trans people could excel without being reduced to a slur.

To bring her dream alive, she teamed up with queer advocate and social change communication person, Sriyal Nilanka, and multi-awarded Creative Director, Ruchi Sharma, the Founder of HumanSense.

Ruchi spearheaded the creative collaboration that transpired through the partnership of NTNSL, Pragna Collective-the LGBT+ Communication Partner and HumanSense.

Through this collaboration #PonNaha was born.

Taking the bull by the horns, #PonNaha addresses the slur used commonly in Sri Lanka – “Ponnaya”.

Ponnaya is a common, colloquial, and crude slang with multi-layered meanings. It is used as a scornful characterization of same-sex, transgender, and gender diverse person. It is the Sri Lankan slur equivalent to “faggot”.  The idea was to change this word with the innocuous homophone ‘Na-Ha’ – with a simple finger wag and educate people that it’s not okay to use it.

Sri Lankans are fun loving people, so it was decided to take the route of a music video to entertain while giving a strong message to the masses. In the process of the campaign, great care was taken to be inclusive and authentic. The soundtrack was created in all the three languages spoken in the country- Sinhala, Tamil & English. It was written, sung and enacted by the community, and allies.

Sriyal Nilanka expands, “To participate in the video, we extended an open invitation to the LGBT community and allies. The final cast of performers represents persons from Jaffna, Batticaloa, Kandy, Galle, Gampaha and Colombo. The campaign represents men, women, trans masculine, trans feminine, queer, gender non-conforming, cisgender, gay, lesbian, and intersex persons.

Five years ago, when I started to work in the LGBT movement, I couldn’t find five people to appear in a similar project due to dire consequences of being identified as person from the community. Today it makes me proud to see over 20 persons from the community face the camera, embracing their identity”.

According to Ruchi Sharma, “I started HumanSense, with a vision to work on projects that leave a heart-print on Humanity. And that’s what this campaign attempts to do – to touch hearts and remove divisive vocabulary. World over, DEI values are becoming the norm rather than the exception, and we need more education and knowledge about these values.

Intrinsically, Sri Lankans are an accepting race, but often ignorance leads to people using slurs as common parlance. We need to make people aware of this. Just as calling a woman “Bossy” is no longer cool or accepted, so too, calling trans people “Ponnaya” needs to stop.”

“We have tried to credit all the people who have helped us but the sad reality for some of us is such that we can’t risk our names being up there for even a millisecond. We hope this campaign will add yet another step towards acceptance.

Our hope is that after watching this video, more people will be empathetic towards us and help us remove the social obstacles that stand in the way of a dignified life for trans, gender diverse and the wider LGBT+ communities.” Bhoomi concluded with an intense glimmer of hope in her eyes.

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