One of the significant tenants of queerness is thriving beyond normative ways of living and making sense of lives. First and foremost, queerness begins with a critique of heteronormative beliefs and practices. This critique is born when one realises that they do not resonate with the dominant world designed through the lenses of heteronormativity. Since this inception, it evolves throughout the lifespan of every queer life. Be it at the level of an individual or a community or a nation, queerness profoundly shapes the lives lived as queer and those around them. Often, there is a strong sense of community around queerness and queer politics.
Time and again, many queer lives across continents have reiterated that queerness does not fall into any rigid categories. It is a spectrum and always fluid as any other identity. Neither queerness nor queer politics could promote prejudices and divisional politics. If they do, that must be critiqued. There are various ways to be queer (although primarily associated with sex/gender identities and/or sexual orientations). Also, people have different ways of connecting with queerness. It is always contextual and grounded in everyday realities of people from all walks of life, especially those that are marginalised!
I do not think there is any queer person on this planet who does not understand the realities of a marginalised life. I firmly believe that queerness provides an essential lens not only to be critical of heteronormative beliefs and practices that marginalise the queer but also to be self-critical of their privileges across various other hierarchies and power relations. A profound sense of consciousness emerges in this journey of continually navigating a heteronormative (and lately homonormative) world. This consciousness often leads to shaping and reshaping a dynamic queer politics that does not compromise critiquing at any cost.
I wish to emphasise the word critique. It is NOT a criticism, which is to engage in the act of criticising based on beliefs that do not allow nuances to emerge (that queerness must not associate itself with)!
Critiquing is very popular in academia. However, I first learned it from intersectional feminist queerness. Over the past couple of decades, it has become the essence of life in the process of evolving with queer experiences from different countries. It started in Sri Lanka [I use the name Lanka from this point onwards – the most ancient name of this beautiful island (Jayewardene, 2017)].
Due to centuries of colonisation and a protracted ethnic war, Lankans have learned the hard way that divisional politics – known as divide and conquer in colonial terms – take us nowhere. This learning is yet to be translated into actions – like in policies and practices. We are a wounded nation and it takes time to heal these wounds and start moving towards positive changes based on progressive politics, including decriminalising and ‘normalising’ queerness. Lankans understand what we have lost in the past 30 to 40 years due to the ethnic war. We are still grappling with the consequences of colonisation. The population in the North and the East of the country holds a profound place in bearing the direct effects of a brutal war that only ended in May 2009. We are communities who have already lost a lot and still struggling to be alive and make ends meet. Due to the ethnic war and it’s focus on Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic identities, the notion of identity politics has been dominated by nationalistic ideologies, which was also primarily determined by language politics that did not recognise nuances within each language or the ethnic group. In the fight with the dominant ‘other’, they brutality crushed the ‘minorities’ within.
Simultaneously, many critiqued this binary with the hope to build a better Lankan society where, despite the differences, everyone is treated equally, with dignity, and most importantly, not violated! Lanka has an aching history of persons who were brutality murdered for voicing such critiques. However, never silenced. Over the years, we have learned that every challenging situation reminds us to be creatively innovative and expand critiquing practices.
Queerness in Lanka is one such platform where critiquing has a history of challenging limited perspectives based on classism; castism; nationalisms that promotes exclusions, sadly violence of all forms, and othering; tokenism; patriarchy/sexism; cultural relativism dominated by social hierarchies; heterosexism and homophobia; and the gender binary. I am a proud queer from Northern Lanka. That makes me a Tamil queer who has survived the brutal ethnic war. Although I escaped the war in the late 1990s by moving to Eastern Lanka where there was no shelling and bombing every day, I chose a life that never let me lose the sight of complex realities of people from the North and the East. When my life was embraced by queerness sometime in the early 2000s, it brought a lot of contradictory emotions and experiences – yet, never compromised the practice of critiquing – that primarily meant to point out and/or challenge one or more elements in dominant norms and practices that oppress or marginalise people and invalidate their feelings and experiences. Also, critique my friends and colleagues as I nurtured the practice of self-critiquing, which paved the way to embrace meaningful collaborations and friendships that lasts long!
I learned the essence of critiquing from feminists, queer feminists, leftists, journalists, rights advocates, practitioners, artists, activists and many more who did not identify with such labels, however, carried out same and/or similar ethics/work. The kind of critiquing that I am talking about is always grounded. It is not hypocritical. It critically locates itself with the painful history of this land and it’s people. It makes genuine efforts to understand the ‘other’ by making themselves available to listen with an open mind. It is mindful of continually searching for those who are left out, even within progressive/equal spaces. It not only acknowledges privileged positions of the self but also continue to be critical even at the cost of losing some or all of their privileges. It is never tokenistic. It embraces friendships with like-minded people. It believes in building solidarities – sometimes based on the unlikeliest sense of connection.
Earlier, I said – it makes me a Tamil queer. I do not identify as Tamil queer. Because often, the Tamil identity is not inclusive of Tamil speaking population of Lanka. Besides, I am critical of the dominant Tamil identity that is oppressive towards me as a woman-identifying person. However, I am a proud queer. That does not mean that I do not speak of the intersections of queerness in relation to my ethnicity, which is heavily marginalised in the context of Lanka. However, I do that to add nuances to queerness and NOT as a point of reference to differentiate from the ethnic other, including Sinhalese. Also, Sinhala and Tamil are not the only two ethnicities in Lanka. Hence, the queer experiences in Lanka are not divided by ethnicity. I say this as a Tamil speaking queer person from the North who’s life has been shaped by many acts of marginalisation based on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. I have also been painfully aware of privileges that are available to me due to specific social locations that I belong to – for instance, caste, class and the dichotomy of sex and gender. The narratives of queer lives in Lanka have been mainly controlled by the legal status of sexualities other than heterosexuality – yet, not limited by it.
In my experience from the past couple of decades, queerness is something that profoundly brought us together beyond the apparent divisions based on ethnicity, language, religion, class, caste and region. Sinhala speaking queer friends have saved me more times than I could count. I have had the pleasure and the privilege of making queer friendships and sustaining them. Our collaborations expand to South Asia and beyond. Our ideological beliefs continue to evolve progressively through practices of knowing and relating to experiences of people of colour across the globe. Coming together beyond our differences NEVER meant that we assimilated with the dominant identity – which would be the Sinhala Buddhist identity of a particular class in the context of Lanka. That never happens. If it does, then we are not critical enough.
On the contrary, we make sure that everyone’s experience is heard. It is complicated! The process of nurturing safe spaces where everyone feels at ease and trust one another beyond what has been the bitter experience of the past – especially alongside ethnic divisions – is tenuous. However, never impossible. It took me a while to be able to relate to someone from the Sinhala community. It took me a while to make an effort to learn the Sinhala language.
Until I left Jaffna in 1995, I thought all Sinhalese are bad and Sinhala is the language of the oppressor, which I must never dare to speak. When I first started to make friends with Sinhalese sometime in the latter part of the 1990s, it felt like I was betraying every experience of oppression that I and other Tamils, Tamil speaking people and other minorities of Lanka have undergone. For a late teen, this was profoundly overwhelming and daunting. So, do not get me wrong. I am not trying to romanticise the alliances/collaborations that we worked hard to build across divisions and fractures. Not just between ethnicities. Often, within too! It was/is never easy. However, it was the critical consciousness around our identities – including queerness, but not exclusively so – and how we addressed those to make our lives better that helped us to move forward with hope. Indeed, there is much more to be done and we remain hopeful!
In this context, I am super excited to watch the film “Funny Boy” by Deepa Mehta. I had the pleasure of reading Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy sometime in the early 2000s when my English language skills developed to the point of understanding a novel written in English. At that point, as a Tamil woman from the North who has gone through painful experiences due to my Tamil identity (not physically though), I remember struggling to identify with Tamil characters in the novel. I knew it was a different kind of Tamil experience. However, everything about the nuances of love and connections – again beyond our apparent and assumed differences – and navigating lives amidst everyday violence were profoundly relatable. Reading the book was an awakening experience on so many levels. I instantly developed an intellectual crush on Shyam Selvadurai. Almost 20 years later, I am thrilled that he collaborated with one of the eminent and talented filmmakers of our times – Deepa Mehta – that had resulted in the film Funny Boy. In one the interviews of Deepa Mehta, Mehta points out the challenges of making this film – including the time it took to get the permission to shoot in Lanka and the post-production work in the wake of a global pandemic. I thought to myself – well, it is based on lives in Lanka. Anything related to Lanka can never be simple or easy. We are known for the complicated relationship with power and hierarchies that profoundly influence everyday lives. I see strength when people navigate through such complex realities to make the best out of them in relation to the external conditions.
I gather from what I have read so far is that the team of the film Funny Boy seems to have done that too. They negotiated and waited for a year to get the approval and to find the appropriate cast. I also learn that there are criticisms of the film based on sentiments of ‘Tamilness’, representation and it’s intersection with queerness. Again, in the light of everything that I have shared above, I wish to reiterate strongly – queerness in Lanka (and across the world too) is anything but limiting and compartmentalising based on narrow politics and/or political benefits. It must be beyond prejudices and divisional politics. As for the claims of the kind of Tamil that is spoken in the film, I like to remind that the Tamil language has a range of dialects in practice across Lanka. The kind that is spoken by the Hindu elitist from certain castes in Jaffna is NOT the only Tamil to be accepted or recognised. I also like to remind that the conscious public of Lanka does not believe in divisional politics. We have experienced enough to be critical of it. So, if anyone wants to help Lankan society to heal and move forward, do not try to destroy voices even before they are expressed. Indeed, critique it within the ethics of critiquing to move forward together for a better future. Do not try to seek alliances to promote hate and divisions. In Lanka, we understand what could be at stake if we give in to this divisional politics a little too well. Finally, let us always remember that beliefs that practices that want to marginalise the ‘other’ tend to speak the language we recognise and relate to get across their messages effectively. One sensitive word that triggers a lot of emotions pretty much does the work of grouping people against one another. It is time we push ourselves to see beyond such manipulations!
However, I understand that it is challenging to resist the portrayals/symbols used by those who promote divisional politics. They use material that are often too personal and emotionally devastating. Their aim is to thrive on people’s pain and suffering. The assumed authoritarianism and ownership of experiences in such portrayals must be rejected and/or critiqued.
The fact that we even have a film based on marginalised experiences in Lanka must be celebrated. Thank you to the team of Funny Boy for producing it despite the challenges and compromises. It is a step forward in the struggles of marginalised communities in Lanka. Makes me hopeful of generating more dialogues around the issues that need to be addressed. We need to have those difficult conversations that challenge the core of our prejudices about one another. Films and books like Funny Boy provide the space for it. Let us use it, innovatively!
#Funny Boy #Queerness #Lanka
Photo credit: Hasanah Kavitha
Selvadurai, S. (1994). Funny boy: a novel in six stories. Penguin Books India.