Wall of Fame

Tahir Ali Khilji

Picture this scene: A lawyer is questioning an appellant in a courtroom- a father seeking custody of his little boy- when the presiding judge asks,

“And what does the father do?” He seeks to establish the facts of the case so he can rule justly.

The lawyer spitefully side-eyes the father and replies, “He is a lawyer. A respectable profession”. He wrinkles his nose in disgust.

“But he has chosen a line of work no respectable man would have.”

He turns to the judge, spreading his hands wide, appealing to reason.

“Sir jee, he does something no respectable person in the world would do. He teaches transgender individuals to use condoms! And then he has the audacity say he’s fit to be a parent!”

The lawyer then turns to the appellant, ready to drive home the nail in the coffin.

Tell me Sir jee” he asks, his incredulity plain to all, “would any person with even an iota of self-respect choose such a career as this?”

The judge looks down at the appellant, gently chiding: “Respect your profession, at least! You too are a lawyer! You should not be involving yourself in such filth and wasting your time.”

The year was 1998. That father at the stand? None other than me.

I was seeking custody of my son but it seemed an impossible task. I had contested the case for five long years in two countries. It was a case for the law books, literally, to be cited as precedent for years to come. It was a case I lost.

These are the well-known facts of the case.

Less well-known is that in that courtroom they called my career choice as a witness against me. Apparently, my passion for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS among transgender communities was a punishable offense, unbefitting of a father of a young, impressionable mind. An offense for which I could be, and was, denied custody.

1998 was also the year when VISION was born. Its mission: Universal access to basic human rights for under-served communities, and social justice for all.

Thinking back to that time, I lost certain things and gained others. They said I was crazy for wasting my legal talents on such unglamorous, unprofitable causes.

My closest friends think I would have been an asset to the nation’s judiciary if I had continued to hone my legal skills. I do think they exaggerate. They are my friends, after all. But I’m not sure I think of success in the same way they do either.

Recently, my niece saw a photo of Team VISION’s artwork on one of walls of our family home, and asked excitedly: “Does the Wall of Fame and VISION’s logo at our home mean it is now VISION’s office?”

Yes. I wanted to say. But it’s more than just an office.This is, after all, where VISION came into being. More importantly, this is where the idea of a transgender movement was conceived for the first time, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My journey, and VISION’s, has been an arduous one but also full of hope. This small section of wall that you see in the photo, or even the entire boundary-wall could never accommodate prints from all the hands that helped me on this journey.

This wall reminds me of the AIDS quilt that had humble beginnings in a few swatches of fabric, but became an enormous, beautiful thing.

Similarly, VISION’s peaceful struggle and journey may have started small, but all its different pieces are now coming together to make it a beacon of hope among the trans youth community across the country.

It was VISION that laid the foundation for so many of the community’s successes, and VISION will always work to take it further. Because no struggle or movement is ever without its unique and evolving challenges and oppositions.

I may have lost custody of my son. I don’t live lavishly. I don’t drive a fancy car. But my ‘craziness’ drove me towards goals none of my friends dared to seek for fear or censure of failure. And I hope to leave a legacy of several generations of transgender leaders who will take this movement forward.

For now, I tell my niece we painted the wall at our home office for the same reason she planted a sign supporting black lives outside her home in 2020. Simply put, it is because when we truly believe in a cause, no amount of ridicule or fear of backlash has power over us.