Calgary

More resources needed for LGBTQ South Asians ready to come out as gay, advocate says

Dakshima Haputhanthri’s parents wondered if it was Canada that made their daughter gay. Trying to come to terms with the news, something had to be to blame.

Dakshima Haputhanthri says strict traditional families and values can make coming out much harder

Dakshima Haputhanthri is hoping to help South Asians through the coming out stage, working with families to avoid some of the emotional hardships she experienced after coming out to her own parents. (Submitted by Dakshima Haputhanthri)

Dakshima Haputhanthri's parents wondered if it was Canada that made their daughter gay.

Trying to come to terms with the news, something had to be to blame.

Coming out to her family in Sri Lanka after moving to Canada brought an elation and freedom Haputhanthri had dreamed of for years — but it also caused irreparable damage.

"When I was young, my friends were having relationships with boys and I thought I was weird, 'What's wrong with me?'" Haputhanthri said, speaking about growing up and realizing she was different.

"It was really tough figuring out this whole thing."

She hid her sexuality from everyone around her for many years, including her parents.

"We have to do everything we can to make our parents proud," Haputhanthri said. "And in South Asian culture, the only way of living is if you're a man, you marry a woman. And if you're a woman, you marry a man and have kids."

Eventually, she had to leave Sri Lanka and the high expectations that loomed over her.

"I came to Canada and realized there's a whole world out there. I saw people holding hands and kissing. This is the freedom I've been looking for," she said.

After studying to be an attorney in Sri Lanka and working as a lawyer, she returned to university after moving to Calgary to work towards a social studies degree.

Haputhanthri came out as gay in one of her classes. Soon after, she came out to her family back home in Sri Lanka.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't go well.

"My mother cried for months. She worried what the community would think, what the neighbours would think. She was worried," Haputhanthri said. 

"Then my father stopped loving me. We were very close, but I brought shame to him."

Coming out can involve losing friends and family. It can involve being told it's just a phase or even a form of mental illness that can be cured.

"I have a friend who is a therapist here in Calgary and she gets approached and asked by South Asian families here about accessing conversion therapy. They think it's an illness," Haputhanthri said.

"The struggles coming out are tremendous."

Thousands celebrate pride on the streets of downtown Calgary every year. Dakshima Haputhanthri says some gay South Asians never come out for fear of bringing shame on their families. She wants to help families navigate that process. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Haputhanthri said that in these South Asian cultures, the only way of living is getting married to a man or woman and having kids.

"Our societies have patriarchal norms where we have to respect men and do everything we can to make them proud," she said.

She said many gay South Asians stay in the closet and even get married and have kids for fear of bringing shame on their families.

Haputhanthri is now happily married and is a registered social worker. She's hoping to help others in Calgary's South Asian community who need help coming out as gay.

She is also a board member on the gender and sexual diversity board of the Calgary Police Service and an immigrant advisory table member with the Calgary Local Immigration Partnership.

She said attitudes to having a gay family member aren't changing much and resources for gay South Asians are lacking.

Haputhanthri started her own website, called Dilipani — which is also her middle name — targeting South Asians who might need help on their journey.

Dilipani means "lighted lamp" and Haputhanthri said she sees herself as a guiding light for others.

"I thought, I can use my own journey to support other people," she said.

Haputhanthri said she wants to help individuals and their families work through the coming out process.

"I want to bridge the gap between them and the family, because we need our families and communities," she said. "Our communities live in their own world and beliefs and they think being gay is a western value thing.

"They think, 'Somebody made my child gay,' or 'Canada made them gay.' When I came out my mother even asked me, 'Did Canada make you gay?'"

Haputhanthri says there's a long way to go to when it comes to acceptance and challenging the status quo.

She said more outreach and resources need to be directed towards South Asian communities. In addition, she said there needs to be more conversation among family members and friends about homosexuality and LGBTQ+ issues, with much more education.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, only using an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca or tweet him @DanMcGarvey

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