Carefully serving hot rice porridge or thukpa to partygoers near Viva City discotheque is a 44-year-old street hawker, Penjor Tshering. Originally from Punakha, Penjor is now settled in Thimphu. Penjor is male biologically male but her mental orientation makes her a female trapped in a man’s body.
Penjor has no contact with her two brothers but lives with her younger sister along with the sister’s three sons in a hut in Hejo, Thimphu. Penjor’s sister is a divorcée and has a chronic disease undergoing four major surgeries.
Penjor’s three nephews are all studying in school. Penjor and her sister inherited a hut on 2.5 decimals of land from their late parents. The siblings may have a roof over their heads and a patch of vegetable garden, but they are still living in poverty.
“People might be thinking that having a hut and selling thukpa makes for a comfortable living. However, my sister cannot do any hard work as she has undergone several operations. This is why I am the only income earner in the family. I earn by selling thukpa thrice a week,” Penjor said.
His income is around Nu 2,700 per week. The chunk of the money goes into educating her three nephews. “I could somehow manage to send my eldest nephew to a private school till class XII. I will make sure the other two also finish class XII by any means, and I will work hard for that,” she added.
In another act of kindness, Penjor donated one of her kidneys to her neighbor in 1991. She said, “During my school days, they (neighbors) used to be good to us, which is why I promised and decided to donate one of my kidneys to save a life.” She said it was done with no expectation of any reward.
Penjor hid her voluntary kidney donation plans from her family, and she had to sneak away with the patient for the kidney transplantation surgery in India. According to Penjor, the family of the patient gave her Nu 100,000 as token of gratitude and insisted on offering her a small shop for helping them, but the latter promised never came to fruition.
She is left with both emotional and physical scars. “I used the 100,000 for my father’s funeral. Two years later, my mother also expired,” she said.
She recalled a time when she had borrowed Nu 1,500 from the same neighbors to travel to Punakha. They had called her sister to get the money back.
“I don’t regret giving them the kidney to save a life. But it is really disheartening to know that, knowing our situation, they are doing this to us rather than helping us,” she said with tears.
Penjor said she faces a great degree of discrimination from people ranging from the illiterate mass to highly qualified people. “People call us with different names but I never react because reacting would only hurt us, and to how many people should we react to?”
She said people show no respect for transgender people like her.
Penjor initially faced stigma while selling thukpa. “People hesitated to buy thukpa from me because of a myth saying that if a person buys anything from people like us, they will have bad luck,” she said.
However, people are no longer as superstitious about transgender persons. “I have people who love me so much. I help people as far as I can, and I also get a lot of appreciation, help and good advice in return. With such encouragement, I walk tall, like any other normal person,” Penjor said.
She said while it is sad for her that she will never have any children of her own, but she still has her sister and nephews. “No matter what, my sister and her three sons are supportive of me. They never left me behind and they never discriminated, and accepted me as I am. This is why I am lucky to have them in my life.”
Apart from selling thukpa, Penjor visits some of the drayangs or clubs to dance as dancing is her hobby. “Some people in the club or drayangs give me a small amount, however I don’t get much and I don’t go frequently,” she said.