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Beyond “Funny Boy” Towards Solidarity

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Contradictions

Funny Boy is a courageous, groundbreaking novel by Shyam Selvadurai centering a young, Gay Tamil boy in Colombo, [Sri] Lanka/Ilankai during the 1983 massacre of Tamils. As the novel — which had unearthed oft-silenced truths about the lived experiences of Intersex, Trans, and Queer Tamil-speaking communities — makes its way to the big screen, we find ourselves once again working to break through the false narratives around our communities’ experiences.

As a novel, Funny Boy’s storytelling brought one of the more silenced Tamil-speaking experiences to a global audience. Despite ancient Queer, Trans, and Intersex Tamil and Muslim histories, the space for our communities has violently narrowed due to persecution and disinformation advanced by colonization, casteism, religious patriarchies, authoritarianism, economic exploitation, disaster capitalism, and war. By the time of Funny Boy’s publication in 1994, a false binary had emerged that there were no real LGBTQI+ Tamils or Muslims, and if you were “Vityasamana” or “different” or “funny” in this way, you were influenced or converted by Western society.

This narrative has had painful impacts on Intersex, Trans, and Queer Tamil-speaking communities already impacted by the violence of war. It justified censorship, abuse, torture, and murders of LGBTQI+ Tamil-speaking people; it fueled isolation, self-hate, shame, polarization, and fragmentation within communities. Though Funny Boy lacked insight into the caste, religious, and class dynamics that impact the most persecuted within our communities, Shyam Selvadurai’s words subverted this false binary and opened desperately needed space.

Recently, Funny Boy made its leap from novel to film through an adaptation by Deepa Mehta, with emotionally charged responses ranging from support to critique for the film’s intimate slice through painful dynamics of Tamil communities. Significantly, one faultline of critique has reverberated painfully through Queer, Trans, and Intersex Tamil-speaking communities — a critique which centers discourse on the limited representation and existence of Tamil actors, the poor implementation of Tamil language in the film, historical inaccuracies, and whether Deepa Mehta remained silent or complicit with an authoritarian state and war crimes in order to make the film.

While these are valid concerns to discuss, our communities have witnessed the failure of many in the Tamil diaspora to demonstrate solidarity and accountability toward LGBTQI+ Tamil-speaking people on the island. The consequences of this failed solidarity are polarization, further silencing of marginalized folks, and a dangerous atmosphere that fails to ensure the emotional and physical security of communities already facing life-threatening circumstances compounded by the recent cyclone. These circumstances hold nerve-wracking potential to intensify, and this heartbreaking dynamic reveals how much care and attention is needed towards arts, healing, solidarity, and liberation within our Tamil communities.

Vityasamana Tamil-speaking people in the North & East of Ilankai face especially extreme conditions that present many insights for solidarity with people facing authoritarian or fascistic conditions — but we begin with this recommendation for cis straight Tamils choosing to take space in this discourse. Lest you want to be complicit in abuse, isolation, murders, illnesses, or suicides:

  • articulate love, care, and affirmation of LGBTQI+ Tamil and Muslim peoples,

  • demonstrate a commitment to shifting the dangerous conditions we face inside and outside the island, and

  • align your response to the film — whether support or critique — with the aspiration for safety, dignity, and liberation of LGBTQI+ Tamil-speaking people, especially those in Killinochi, Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Puttalam, Malaiyaham, Ampara, and other regions fighting for dignity amidst the aftermath of war, economic exploitation, disaster, and violence.

 

Conditions

It has been extremely difficult for Trans, Queer, and Intersex people, particularly in the Northern & Eastern Provinces, to be public. In addition to assault, harassment, and slander, communities experience barriers to housing, education, collective worship, and medical care. Most LGBTQI+ people have had to be underground and covert — unable to coordinate, gather, or tell their stories openly.

This space was narrowed by decades of war, disaster, authoritarianism, religious patriarchy, and militarization, with the myth that “Tamils or Muslims ≠ LGBTQI+” narrowing space even further. During the war, LGBTQI+ people not only contended with war crimes, militarization, police violence, and targeting by the Sri Lankan state, but they also contended with patriarchal policing and persecution by Tamil rebel and paramilitary groups.

During this time, another polarization — another false binary — emerged: that you either quieted your difference(s) and amplified your allegiance to Tamil Nationalism, or you were considered a traitor and rendered an outsider to Tamil society. The reality was, of course, far more nuanced, and many Vityasamana Tamil-speaking people have found themselves in a complex navigation, fighting for survival against multiple forces of violence seeking to erase their existence.

In the face of war, abduction, torture, and murder, a diversity of coping, survival, and resistance strategies took root. The discreet, underground work of pluralistic resistance required skills in countering disinformation, providing mutual aid, cultivating health/wellness, subverting polarization, developing defense and security protocols, collaborating across difference(s), and maintaining covert networks. For those in the diaspora or in certain regions of Illankai’s south, hoping to support the survival and resistance of LGBTQI+ Tamils in the North and East, solidarity must be precise. The slightest mistake can have life-threatening consequences.

We offer the following tips regarding solidarity with the hope that we can continue to deepen our dialogues around Funny Boy in a manner that centers love, safety, dignity, and liberation for LGBTQI+ Tamil-speaking people. In doing so, we hope to create an atmosphere rooted in solidarity that moves us towards the liberation not only of all Tamil and Muslim people, but also of all Afro-Ceylonese, Wanniyala-Aetto, and other persecuted, minoritized people.

To our precious Vityasamana Makkal, we love you. Thank you for your courage, resilience, brilliance, and magic. May we reclaim our sacred roles of transmitting ancient wisdoms towards glorious liberatory futures.

 

Tips for Solidarity with Communities Contending with Violence, Oppression, Polarization, and Authoritarianism

Practicing precision and consistency: Take the initiative when there’s an incident, imminent danger, or emergency: “I heard things are intense/hard/dangerous; we’re available to support. What do you need? Here are some ideas of how we can help.” Be realistic about what you can deliver: When people’s lives are at risk, false promises can be deadly. When people are survivors of violence, false promises can be triggering, fragmenting, and eradicate trust. Be precise about your promises as well: Know your wheelhouse and what you can reasonably offer. “These are my skills. This is what I can offer with ease. This will be harder for me to do, but I can try. This is where my experience is. This is where I am growing. These are my limits.”

Creating a culture of care and accountabilityWhen we’ve been conditioned into authoritarian patriarchal hierarchies, self-accountability and responsibility can be difficult practices to adapt into. Cultivating a culture of care increases accountability without relying on top/down modes of operation. Even if you are working anonymously with a group, care, radical consent, and wellness can be cultivated. An atmosphere where people are honest when they’ve made a mistake or can’t meet a commitment is vital to increasing consistency, reliability, and, ultimately, the safety of the people you are in solidarity with.

Sharing skills/information, facilitating exchange, and supporting decision-making of those most impacted: People with more access and privilege have a responsibility to democratize that access by sharing skills, information, and “expertise” that has been structurally kept from exploited and oppressed peoples. In paternalistic modes, using the guise of “more expertise,” people with more access make decisions and speak for oppressed peoples. Solidarity requires overturning this mode, supporting people most impacted by oppressive forces in making informed decisions for themselves, and facilitating exchange with other oppressed communities in order to strengthen alliances, strategies, and impact. People with greater access can offer recommendations or options based on a persecuted community’s aspiration and articulate how options can advance visions, aspirations, and goals. However, final decision-making power should rest in the community most impacted.

Cultivating alignment, mutual understanding, and support across difference: In the case of LGBTQI+ Tamils, we’ve seen how strenuous conditions and disinformation can inhibit pluralism and instead foster fragmentation and polarization across difference. Pluralism is a necessary and beautiful part of liberatory practice, and creating solutions that meet multiple needs and desires is the path toward a just and equitable society. Often, privileged groups will participate in bigoted tokenization by picking who they think “best” represents an oppressed community. This tokenization can create power dynamics that fuel further fragmentation and distrust within and among communities. In reality, what is needed for communities targeted by violence is support to connect, heal, and align across different experiences and perspectives.

Survivor-centered organizing: Conduct a harm analysis and prioritize the needs and desires of those who have been most impacted by violence and harm. When a person shares that they have been harmed, listen with care and understanding. The priority is to support a survivor in accessing safer conditions. If a person is unable to leave a harmful situation, supporting safety may look like additionally serving as a thought partner around harm navigation. If a person is trying to flee harmful conditions, solidarity can look like helping them escape and locating safe shelter. In conditions of harm, the goal is to support with preventing, interrupting, and addressing harm. Remember that your role is to support the person in harm’s way, and that self-determination, and consent are even more important in these circumstances. Power dynamics become more acute when people must rely on those with more access for safety.

Using appropriate tactics: Amplifying messages from the ground is often a useful tactic of solidarity, but certain initiatives may need to remain discreet. Sometimes, the perception of being innocuous is an advantage. Design solidarity strategies and tactics based on the lived realities of the people you are in solidarity with; media visibility without an on-ground strategy can sometimes leave targeted communities in precarious security positions.

Preventing co-optation: As is the case of many LGBTQI+ Tamil-speaking peoples, many communities must conduct their organizing work underground. This reality can leave discreet organizing vulnerable to co-optation by more privileged communities who have greater space to be visible and vocal. When working in solidarity with communities that must, for security reasons, remain covert, it must be a priority to prevent co-optation without undermining security. There is a significant distinction between speaking for a community and amplifying the aspirations, analysis, or insights of a community.

Examining power and collaboration: Collaboration provides an opportunity to converge skills, insights, and capacity towards more meaningful impacts and intervention, but a common exploitative dynamic exists where privileged communities request more oppressed communities to “plug into,” “support” or “amplify” initiatives and interventions driven by the privileged. Under this dynamic, targeted communities are used to legitimize the work of the privileged, and communities with less access are pressured to redirect time and energy from their needs and aspirations in order to please those with greater resources and access. Solidarity requires sensitivity to these power dynamics and consistent examination of how privilege must be wielded to advance the aspirations of most impacted communities.

For a Tamil version of this article see here.

Angel Queentus is Founder-Director at Jaffna Transgender Network (JTN), a trans-led LGBTQI+ community organisation based in the North.

YaliniDream is a touring performing artist, organizer, somatics practitioner, consultant, and co-cordinator of Maynmai, where this article was originally published.

Photo courtesy Maynmai.

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