Em thamizh makkallin perumai
(Pride of our Tamil People)
If you were to ask a randomly selected group from the London Tamil diaspora if gay Tamil people existed, they would probably say no. They would most likely tell you that it is a concept that only exists for white people. This sad reality is a contradiction to the truth: queerness has existed within Tamil history for eons. Although people have erased and rewritten history repeatedly over the course of time, some of the texts and sculptural artwork still stand. An example of this is poetry written by Pisiranthaiyar, a poet, and his “friendship” with King Kopperuncholan (1). Even highly regarded scholars such as Kacchiyappa Sivachariyar, a Hindu priest famously known for writing the highly revered Kanda Puranam, used homosexuality as a vehicle to describe his relationship with God (2).
Erasure of queer Sri Lankan Tamil history and a suppression of identity increased significantly with the invasion of colonialism, particularly from the British in the early 19th century. In Sri Lanka, the British notoriously introduced Article 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal code in 1883 which says “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is a criminal act (3). In the modern day, its implementation is de facto, but this doesn’t mean that homophobia and its impacts on mental health are not present: LGBTQ+ people in Sri Lanka are deprived of education, employment, healthcare access and are socially ostracised. This is acutely worse for those who are Tamil: they not only face intra-community discrimination, but also the additional hostility as an ethnic minority. Not only does this add to the mental burden of those in Sri Lanka, but these attitudes and inequalities have been transferred through migration too (4).
Understanding the struggles of queer Tamils cannot be understood without acknowledging the Civil War between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aka Tamil Tigers. Such large levels of overt violence remained a mainstay in the country’s fabric until 2009: now such violence is more insidious. This separation has even seeped into how LGBTQ+ issues are dealt with in the country, with few Tamil activists even being open about their work. Not only does this leave native Tamil people behind in these conversations (5), it also has knock-on effects in diasporic communities too.
The nature of living in the Tamil diaspora means taking into account the multiculturalism of living in a city such as London. This means that policy makers and healthcare professionals involved in mental health conversations merge queer Tamil experiences with those within the South Asian diaspora at large: something that is both positive and negative. There are shared experiences: most queer South Asians can relate to parents projecting their own unmet dreams, and the expectations that come from that. The need to surpass standards in all walks of life: education, career and in finding love, are highly relatable for most young Desis. A large proportion of Desis feel the additional pressures to conform to heteronormative practices to uphold and maintain family pride and respect within their communities. Not only this but they rely on their families to live in safe environments in order to avoid social ostracisation.
But there are unmet issues of intergenerational trauma that young people have as a result of the Sri Lankan civil war. The impacts of truly horrifying human rights violations: torture; displacement within and outside Sri Lanka; losing family and friends through violent means, are all traumas that leave unspeakable physical and mental scars on first generation Tamils. From this, first generation Tamils migrants have had to carve a new set of societal norms for themselves. Anything that deviates from these norms entrenches this fear of further loss of identity through loss of support networks and social standing, and therefore loss of social capital. And so, second generation children are subjected to a trauma that they don’t truly understand – a loss of a culture and a sense of identity that seeps into everyday life and choices. It could be argued that such hurt is what makes parents so afraid of change further than their comfort zones – and young queer Tamils to hide their identities to accommodate this fear and in order to avoid adding to the pain that their parents are already experiencing.
There is no doubt that mental health issues are prevalent amongst the queer Tamil diaspora – but to provide statistics to back this claim is difficult: so little intersectional research has been conducted on “BAME” LGBTQ+ people, let alone people within this diaspora specifically. It begs the question of how can the NHS support those with intersectional characteristics if they don’t understand what lived experiences are? Even when looking at generalised LGBT data, around 52% of those who identify as LGBT have experienced depression in 2018, with 25% stating a lack of understanding from their health professionals (6). The fact that these issues have not been acknowledged in the statistics due to heavy stigmatisation around both queerness and mental health within the Tamil community sheds some light on the extent of these problems and how they continue to be perpetuated.
So how can we work towards helping those who are queer and suffer from mental illnesses within the diaspora? It is clear that better training needs to be available for those delivering mental health services, but we also need to slowly work towards eliminating the shame in talking about queerness with loved ones within the community.
One powerful way of breaking this cycle is through seeing realities reflected in artwork or real life – it also acts as a vehicle for conversations with older generations of Tamils. Another is to have specific safe spaces that allow queer Tamil people to engage and further validate their existence. Recently online spaces such as Inclusive Tamil Arts (@inclusivetamilarts) and Queer Tamil Collective (@queertamilcollective) on Instagram have paved a way for queer Tamil dialogue for those who have been struggling during the Coronavirus pandemic. Collaboratively working with Tamil creatives such as The Tamil Channel (@thetamilchannel), these spaces have been providing queer Tamil people language to describe themselves, but also describe the trauma they have undergone, which can act as a springboard for conversation. Finally, education on Tamil Queer history – having spaces where all generations can collectively learn about our hidden heritage. Although the Tamil community is resistant to acknowledging the existence of queer Tamil people, we can only have hope that one day Tamil people will finally reclaim their rightful place in queer history.
1. Shrikumar, A. No more under siege. The Hindu. [Online] 18 10 2013. [Cited: 23 02 2021.] https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/no-more-under-siege/article5247859.ece.
2. Muthukumaran, Sureshkumar. Sources for a Queer Tamil History. London : Queer Asia and SOAS Tamil Society, 14 10 2016.
3. Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Sri Lanka: Treatment of sexual minorities, including legislation, state protection and support services. Ottawa : Immigration Refugee Board of Canada, 2012.
4. Nandakumar, Viruben. Tamil LGBTQ voices face even greater risk in Sri Lanka. Tamil Guardian. [Online] https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-lgbtq-voices-face-even-greater-risk-sri-lanka.
5. Equal Ground, Sri Lanka. Our Work - Where we work. Equal Ground. [Online] n.d. [Cited: 28 02 2021.] https://www.equal-ground.org/our-work/.
6. Bachmann, Chaka L and Gooch, Becca. LGBT in Britain: Health Report. London : Stonewall, 2018.