In 2022, the Tamil LGBT community has much to celebrate. The Chennai Pride Parade boasted a record-breaking 7,000 attendees after a 2-year COVID hiatus. Queer activists in Tamil Nadu have passed policies to protect the health and safety of the LGBT community, many of which are the first of their kind across Indian states. By and large, LGBT Tamilians around the world are experiencing an era of unprecedented social and cultural acceptance.
Nonetheless, the community continues to face obstacles on the path to solidarity and liberation. In an attempt to bring LGBT issues home in a relatable way this Pride Month, Khabar Magazine, an Atlanta-based publication whose tagline reads “Your Passport to the Indian-American Community,” printed and distributed the following cover:
In a word– yikes!
In a few more words, Archith Seshadri describes his relationship with his caste and queerness as follows: “Being Tamil Brahmin and Iyer, in an ideal world, I think my parents wanted someone who was vegetarian and from the same caste. For a long time, I also thought that it was something I wanted—finding someone who speaks the same language, has a similar cultural and religious upbringing, and can relate to our festivals, food habits, and films. But I don’t think caste or religion necessarily played a role in not coming out.”
Tamil Brahmins for generations have so infamously sequestered themselves off that the community even has a catchy portmanteau for themselves –TamBram. Seshadri’s response underscores the community’s distinct pride and tendencies towards isolationism, even after families have long since left their homelands in South Asia. Sameness and homogeneity are valued traits, and continuing the inherited traditions becomes an expectation for many young TamBrams. Seshadri’s comment that caste and religion don’t play a role in his queer experience exemplifies the privileged perspective that often come from members of a dominant group, similar to white people who claim to be “color-blind” or any other group who seems themselves as the default. Privilege is often felt as the absence of the weight of oppression.
Caste divisions are the antithesis of Pride Month. “Chennai Pride is not only about Queers and Queer issues. Chennai Pride gives its voice against all kinds of oppression,” says Anish Anto, queer wing coordinator of Kattiyakkari theater group in Chennai. “Apart from our queerness we all come from different cultural, religious, caste background. We proudly hold pictures of Periyar and Ambedkar at Pride – Chennai Pride is very clear about these issues.”
More than ever, Tamilians need to practice solidarity across our divisions, whether they be caste or gender or sexuality. There is a generally widespread belief that South India is more conservative than the North, a stereotype that alienates and negatively impacts all Tamilians, but particularly LGBT & caste-marginalized Tamilians. “Growing up, the majority of queer representation I saw was white cisgender male love, and almost all of the Indian representation I saw was North Indian,” says Deepti, a Tamilian who grew up in the United States. “I couldn’t fathom that I’d see those two identities (queer and Indian) together in any form, and I think if I had, I may have come to terms with my sexuality a lot sooner than I did. I’m still trying to figure out my place within both of these communities, but it helps to see that I’m not alone at the intersection.”
The last decade has seen the beginnings of LGBT representation in popular Hindi films and mainstream Bollywood culture. But for Tamilians, whose families may very well not speak Hindi or subscribe to this mainstream culture, this doesn’t always mean much. Many Tamil immigrants experience alienation when seeking community abroad, finding the broad umbrella of Indianness to be insufficient when they are distanced from their fellow immigrants by barriers of language or colorism. Such discrimination is alive and well in the diaspora, along with the casteism and other prejudices that we wield to hold one another down.
“[My parents] always portrayed Tamil Nadu as regressive and anti-queer, so for the longest time, I subconsciously tried to distance myself from my Tamil roots,” recalls Arjun Subramonian, a California-based Tamilian. For many Tamilians in the diaspora, our knowledge of cultures and norms in Tamil Nadu come primarily through our parents, which can be decades or even generations out of date, and subject to their individual biases. If our families and communities say that queerness does not exist in Tamil culture, because they did not see it during their youth, we believe them. If they say queerness is a Western concept, or a behavior for those of other caste-statuses, we believe them. We believe that we are an anomaly in our own culture, somehow an exception or a mistake.
We are not.
“I have learned a lot from new queer friends in India; in particular, their experiences have complicated the regressive, anti-queer picture of India that my parents had painted for me growing up,” continues Arjun. “I do want to visit them and explore the queer spaces that they are a part of.” Arjun and many other LGBT Tamilians around the world are feeling a hopeful renewed connection and optimism for their homeland as queer Tamil visibility continues to rise. The possibility of being a part of something bigger and being understood at multiple intersections is more healing to a lonely queer youth than almost anything else. That’s the power of Pride.
Chennai Pride fights for our right to take up space as Tamil queer people.
Read that again.
Chennai Pride is celebrated by and with people of all backgrounds and identities, culturally and sexually, but it is an event where Tamil queer people, in our entirety, get to take up space.
If you were to attend Chennai Pride in 2018, as I once did, you might have read the following protest sign: “Hindi is not the national language; heterosexuality isn’t the national orientation.”
When you first see this sign, you might wonder, what does our language have to do with LGBT pride? It might seem rather nationalistic or at the very least, distracting from the issue at hand. But this sign is radical and it belongs at Pride.
“Chennai Pride believes in diversity, inclusivity, equality, and equity. Whatever affects the harmony of our society also affects queer people. Whenever there is a discrimination, Chennai Pride never fails to address it,” says Anish Anto. “This is not only about Tamil language freedom, it’s not only the voice of Tamil queers. It’s the voice of all people who are affected by Hindi nationalism.”
In a time when the current Indian government is hastily brushing matters such as “diversity” and “freedom of religion” under the rug, Pride is a space of revolution for the forgotten people. It’s a moment where we get to stand our ground and say yes, this is who I am, in my entirety, and this is who I have a right to be. Because our sexuality lives within our cultures; it is not separate from it. Our faith, our traditions, our stories, our songs and our dance tell our queer stories. To erase the tongue that they are told in would be devastating. To erase the veritable rainbow of backgrounds that these stories come from, the castes and cultures, the traditions that queer Tamilians come from, would be devastating. To tell the stories of our love in only one language, in only one homogenized culture – would you condemn our world to that?
This philosophy of solidarity and intersectional understanding of the issues caused by both caste and anti-LGBT oppression is exemplified by the wonderful work of the people at The Dalit Queer Project. They community “challenges what it means to be Dalit, and queer the ways in which our discourse has been set by Caste.” The Project elevates the work of Dalit queer Tamilians, who fight every day for our liberation, like Grace Banu and Living Smile Vidya. The Dalit Queer Project work archives and documents the incredibly vast contributions of caste-marginalized LGBT people, many of whom have lead the charge for the LGBT rights that caste-privileged queer folks enjoy.
Resources are still sparse, finding Tamil translations and stories of queerness is still a challenge. But look at what we create when we stand together! Queer stories told in the form of dance, stories passed down of gender and sexually fluid deities. Queer rights won by inter-community solidarity, the sharing of our privileges and refusal to be divided into subgroups. What else will LGBT Tamilians create, now that our existence is out there for the world to see? When we combine our traditions and hold our similarities over our divisions, we can all rise victorious.
[Acknowledgements for this article go to all of the organizations that make up the Chennai Rainbow Coalition – Kattiyakari, Nirangal, Orinam, Sahodran, Saathii and Chennai Dost – and all the individual Tamil queer folks everywhere who shared their experiences with me. Thank you.]