Leela, a gay Tamil refugee being held at an Australian detention centre, has experienced homophobic violence in Sri Lanka – and continues to face harassment and abuse from other detainees as authorities delay his release from the centre. He spoke with Andrew John-Brent.
Leela is 21 years old and openly gay. Like many gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and sex and/or gender diverse young people, he has suffered homophobic and gender-based harassment, violence and isolation.
Unlike many of the young people I have worked with in the queer communities in Sydney, Leela’s coming of age and coming out is happening behind the walls of Villawood Detention Centre in Australia
I found out about Leela, a gay Tamil refugee currently housed at Villawood, through my association with activist group Community Action Against Homophobia. Having worked with LGBT young people for the past 15 years in housing, counselling and case management, and being openly queer, I decided to visit to see what provisions were being made for Leela’s release and support.
Leela has been in detention in
I spoke to Leela about why he left Sri Lanka in September, 2009, paying US$10,000 to secure passage on a small boat with 43 others to sail across the Indian Ocean in an attempt to reach Australia. He said, “Because I am gay.”
“As a young Tamil male, I am at significant risk of being seriously harmed at any point when I come into contact with Sri Lankan armed forces, police, other authorities and paramilitary groups.
“There remains a high level of checkpoints, and monitoring of Tamil persons continues. I legitimately fear that I am at great risk of being harmed or killed if returned to
Leela has experienced intimidation, arbitrary detainment, abuse and torture due to being both ethnically and sexually marginalized in his culture.
Speaking to him in Villawood, Leela comes across as very polite and soft-spoken. Despite his shyness, and his experiences, Leela wanted to be open and honest about his background and his journey.
He believed being open about his sexuality might have hurt his chances at being accepted as a refugee, but upon arrival at Christmas Island, he disclosed his sexuality to authorities.
Forced to disclose very intimate details about his sexual history and identity to immigration officials, I cannot imagine a less supportive environment for ‘coming out’, but Leela retains the hope that, in Australia, he will not have to “lie” anymore, and that he will be safe.
At the moment, though, Leela’s sexuality and gender identity still make him a target for harassment and intimidation.
As a feminine gay man, Leela explains his identity as biologically male and emotionally feminine: “I have both woman and man in me.”
While non-hetero sexualities attract their fair share of marginalisation and abuse—across cultures and including the homophobic aspects of our own country—it is obvious that gender ‘difference’ (sex and/or gender diversity) compounds the negative experiences of queer people, making them targets for discrimination, harassment and violence.
Leela’s openness whilst in detention has made him the target for almost continual abuse and harassment from other detainees.
Like any prison, experiences and incidents of abuse are compounded by the restrictive and regimented environment. Leela’s fellow inmates constantly refer to him as a ‘nine’. ‘Nine’ is a translation of a Tamil insult, ‘ombodhu’, which is used primarily as a derogatory term for feminine homosexual men; its English equivalent would be ‘pansy’.
When the other inmates know I am visiting, they taunt Leela, saying: “Your nine is visiting, your nine is visiting.”
Doubly isolated from community support, as a queer refugee in detention, it became apparent that one of the most important things I could do, as a visitor, an advocate, and a friend, was to be as ‘out’ and open about my sexuality and gender identity as Leela: when visiting him, and in my everyday life.
I believe it is an ethical imperative to meet the courage of the young people I work with, and to be out as a gay, femme man to everyone I come into contact with.
The other detainees, especially the ones who have targeted Leela, know who and what I am. Leela’s courage, and desire to live an honest life, draws into sharp relief how important it is for me, and for other activists and advocates, to respect his openness by meeting it with our own.
This is not to say that homophobia and gender-based discrimination and harassment is limited to the penal environment of a detention centre, or to any specific culture.
My own sexuality and gender has not been accepted or celebrated universally during my life in Australia, and I too, am part of a ‘queer diaspora’. Globally and locally, many queer identified people leave their homes, are abandoned by, or must abandon their culture of birth due to familial, social or cultural rejection.
Though there is a vast difference between rural NSW and Sri Lanka, this does not mean there is no point of connection between the diasporic experiences of Australian and international queer migrants.
It is my hope that in being honest with Leela—respecting and returning the honesty he shows me and other representatives from the Sydney community—that we can find an ethical way to work with and across difference, and support the specific needs of queer refugees.
Leela’s almost daily experiences of homophobic and gender-based harassment has led to the facility moving him to another section of the centre—an acknowledgement by the centre of how serious this abuse is—but isolating queer refugees in ‘maximum security’ areas is not a sustainable, or fair, way to treat asylum seekers and detainees, already marginalized by their status as supposedly ‘illegal’ immigrants.
The specific needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, intersex and sex and/or gender diverse people within detention centres needs to be addressed. Refugees, on the whole, face enough discrimination, bureaucratic delays, and ill-treatment, without being punished further for being sex, gender or sexuality diverse.
Inner City Legal Centre is currently working on Leela’s case, in an attempt to address his delayed release, which is allegedly due to the large backlog of asylum seekers awaiting ASIO security clearances.
Twenty10, a local queer youth service, is also working with Leela to provide ongoing case management and housing upon his release.
Andrew John-Brent is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.