A transgender activist had just one question for President Barack Obama – and the former leader of the free world delivered.
The event in New Delhi saw Obama, whose presidency involved many positive changes for LGBT+ communities, speak to young Indian leaders from across the country.
One such leader was Akkai Padmashali, who posed the question: “I am transgender and have always faced discrimination – how can I be accepted?”
Obama, who had chosen Padmashali from the audience, said that speaking up was the first step.
“You are doing it right away by the way you are questioning me and you have found your voice,” he told her.
Change begins with “finding your voice and to be able to articulate your views and your experiences, to tell your story, and that is true of any group that is marginalised, stigmatised,” Obama added.
“Finding that voice and being able to tell a story so that the perceptions that somehow you are different are broken down because people start recognising their own experiences in you. Seeing your own humanity – that moment of recognition is the basis in which you begin to build political movements.”
Padmashali was the only trans participant to be invited to the event. To raucous applause from the audience, she also spoke out about India’s discriminatory laws against queer people, and the suffering and isolation it causes.
“I am a transgender woman … I was a sex worker, I was a beggar,” she said.
“I was rejected by all sections of the society … I have so many issues to bring before you as a social activist. How can I speak up in front of a society when I am a criminal under Section 377, which criminalises you as a transgender, gay, lesbian, or bisexual? How do I raise the voice against this?”
Padmashali also asked Obama if she could hug him, a request that was cheered on by the audience.
Ahead of the meeting, Akkai told TNM: “In the present situation in India and the United States, we don’t see an enabling environment where people have the right to expression, right to identity, right to privacy, all the fundamental, civil and human rights guaranteed to us.”
Through her LGBT organisation Ondede, which focuses on raising awareness about LGBT+ issues, Padmashali has been at the forefront of pro-trans activism in India.
Organised by the Obama Foundation, the event was part of a series designed to discuss what it means to be an active citizen.
Obama said that his aim for the rest of his career was training the next generation of leaders across the world.
Watch Obama’s incredible response here: