Shakthi Wijeratne is a proud 26-year-old gay man. He grew up in Surrey in a close family with a tight social network. He was one of the lucky ones.
“To live a normal gay life in a society which might not really accept you is an ongoing challenge,” said Wijeratne. He watched episodes of bullying, harassment and abuse against queer peers. It took a long time for Wijeratne to recognise his identities of being Sri Lankan-Canadian and gay.
“These are two sort of separate things that often do not [seem to] intersect but they do,” said Wijeratne.
Wijeratne is a peer facilitator with a group called Sher Vancouver, a non-profit that provides support and counselling to help LGBTQ+ South Asians.
Sher Vancouver also provides safe spaces, peer-support groups, and social activities to foster a feeling of belonging. The organizers put on social events like Bollywood Nights as a creative way of community outreach.
Wijeratne helps with one-on-one counselling at Sher. He is also responsible for organizing meetings and socials for interested individuals.
“For me to not have that sort of negative experience, I wanted to reach out to people and give back. We need to have better queer role models. And that was my motivation to join Sher,” said Wijeratne.
The group has grown since Alex Sangha started it in 2008. As a young man, he himself struggled himself to come out and, as he started his career, he realized he was not alone.
“When I was working as a social worker, there were a number of suicides among LGBTQ+ youth. I felt I should do something for my community because I wanted them to be safe,” said Sangha. “I had a really hard time coming out. I was suicidal. I had a hard time being bullied in school. I didn’t like myself. Being gay, it took me a long time to deal with internalised homophobia.”
Efforts are underway but still not enough
Now, more than 12 years after Sher Vancouver was founded, many people live open lives. But some South Asians continue to struggle finding the balance between their culture and identity.
Karan, a 41-year-old gay man, is the principal of a private school in Metro Vancouver. He was born in England and raised in Canada. He comes from a Hindu background.
“I always knew since the age of four that there was something different with me,” said Karan. “Being the oldest and the only son, you are raised to believe that one day you will get married and you will bring your wife and that will help your mum.”
He said it’s always a challenge to strike a balance between his sexuality and family and culture. (The Thunderbird agreed to change his name for this story.)
Besides overcoming conflicts with family, LGBTQ+ South Asians often face hurdles in professional and social venues.
Pam Hayer, a 40-year-old lesbian woman studying accounting at Langara College, has faced double standards and racism within the LGBTQ+ community and ignorant comments at her workplace.
“Being a woman of colour and being gay, I find that there is discrimination,” said Pam. “When I came out, my manager treated me differently. I wasn’t taking seriously, hearing ignorant comments like ‘Have you guys ever done like a threesome or something?'”
Hayer, a Punjabi-Canadian living in New Westminster, talks more in the clip below.
While Karan and Hayer continue to integrate their identities and different aspects of their lives, many South Asians in their home countries continue to face challenges.
In Wijeratne’s Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhism and the current legal status of homosexuality in that country continue to impact his extended family living there.
“In Buddhism and Buddhist culture, the display of sexuality is frowned upon. It continues to be a taboo which won’t go away until legal changes are brought,” explained Wijeratne.
In Sri Lanka, homosexuality is still considered illegal. Afghanistan and Maldives have the harshest laws against homosexuality with people continuing to face whippings, execution and death penalties. India and Nepal are by far the most progressive in their LGBTQ+ laws, with Nepal leading the way.
Though many groups like Sher Vancouver are working transnationally with a mission to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ South Asians, there is still a long way to go. Wijeratne believes that there is a need for accurate representation of LGBTQ+ South Asians in the Canadian society.
“We need to create our own identities and what it means to be queer within the context of our cultures.”