> I needed to figure myself out as a human being, especially with regard to my sexual identity.
GROWING UP during the civil war, when I was seven years old, our school was bombed. When I was 12, we had another major suicide bombing. I’m Sinhalese and I had a Tamil friend and she came to me crying and told me that her mom had passed. Me being 12 and the majority culture there, my first response was, how could she die? She’s Tamil. And I remember her as a 12 year old telling me that bombs don't know the difference between Sinhalese and Tamils. I couldn't process it at that point, but years later, I recognized the power of those words and recognized that this is where racism gets to.
When I was 14 or 15, I wanted to watch the first ever queer panel that was being shown on TV and my mom said, no, you can’t watch that, you're going to get corrupted. It was very confusing for me because I was already asking questions about my sexuality. So hearing my mom say I shouldn't watch it because I’d get corrupted, and also saying that it was a Western construct...I was like, wow, so am I already corrupted? Coming to the US was like I had a blank slate, because I just felt so constrained and stifled in Sri Lanka.
Tw: suicidal ideation, rape, sexual assault
I love my parents, but at the same time, there's a lot of conservative ideals that they hold on to, and there was a lot of baggage that came from living in that patriarchal culture. For instance, discovering I had a half-brother when I was 18. The reason is because in places like Sri Lanka, it’s totally okay for the man to get divorced, but for the woman, even if she gets her divorce completely legitimately, you don't talk about it. So I didn't know that my mom had been married previously and that she had a child from a previous marriage until I was eighteen, while at the same time, I have a good relationship with my half-brother from my dad's side.
I WAS MOLESTED as a seven year old child by my cousin, and that had a major impact on how I perceived myself and the world. When I went home as a college student and opened up to my mom for the first time about that experience, her first response was, oh, that happens to everyone, it happened to me. That just shut me down and I felt like I was just not going to talk about it with her again. When I came to the US, I was raped my first semester as a freshman by one of my friends, and I didn’t know how to process that either. The combination of never processing being molested or raped, having to live two lives (in Sri Lanka and the US) because of my sexual identity, working as a sexual assault advocate on campus, being in an abusive relationship at the time...all this was really messing with me.
It just hit me at the same time. I was having suicidal ideations. It was so nuts that it had to get to that point where I realized that I was making plans. But I was lucky enough to recognize that this was not normal for me. And I also recognized that I didn't have the capacity to stop myself because I was decomposing very quickly. It’s funny because I remember my grad assistant was looking at me and said, how do you do it? You seem so put together. And I just wanted to scream and tell her, I was not, I was completely unraveling inside - but I couldn’t. Because at that point I was on a work visa and I felt if I talked about my mental health, I was compromising my job. I was super fortunate to have a supervisor who was an immigrant, and was very understanding of what I was going through. And that helped me take that step that I needed to get help.
> I have never felt attractive in Sri Lanka.
When I was four years old, I remember one of my uncles coming to me and telling me, your parents are so fair, what happened to you? Also when I was four or five, I was in the playground, wanting to play on the swing and heard a couple of kids telling me, don't let the dark girl use the swing. I’ve been feeling more comfortable in my own skin in the US than back home, but recently I’ve been living in more conservative spaces and have felt more uncomfortable, not just not because of the color of my skin, but because I'm in an interracial relationship. Just two days before the riot at the Capitol, a self-identified white supremacist had DM'd my husband and had told him that our child was going to be genetically and mentally defective because she's a product of interbreeding. And that really hit me, like wow, I’d created this biracial child and she's being targeted and she's not even two years old.
I CAME OUT as bisexual when I was twenty-eight because it was just so difficult to live two lives and I felt like I needed to at least come out in the US because I was so tired of being stifled. And so that was one of the first things that I did when I started doing the diversity inclusion work that I was doing. I actually came out during a conference and it was just such a wonderful experience for me to come out in front of people who are so supportive. Now at Vassar College, I'm the director of the LGBTQ+ center and that's my label. And I had to say that to my parents when I did the visa letter so that they could come to see my first kid's birth. My dad actually told me, hey, can you change your title because in Sri Lanka, it's still a criminal offence to come from the queer community, we might not get our visas because of this. I told them, you should be fine.
ONE OF THE REASONS I am doing the work that I'm doing at Vassar is because I realised very quickly that in these spaces there are so many students who are only now navigating their queerness and don't feel comfortable even to walk into the center because they don’t think they’re queer enough to come and use our resources. So that's something that I've been really working actively on: helping students understand, like hey, wherever you are in your journey, this space is for you. Me being the director of the center has also helped a lot of South Asians and international students feel more comfortable using the space because they’re coming from cultures and communities where this is still a stigma.
With my kids, I really want to break those cycles. It's so important to listen to your kids - that's something that I'm learning to do more. With my daughter, she can't talk yet, but once she can, I want to make sure that I'm constantly listening, instead of telling her that hey, this is my experience, this is what I went through. I want her to understand that she always has a choice and she has agency and she has someone who will always listen to her and be there for her.
DANUSHI FERNANDO (she/her) is a nationally certified queer mental health practitioner and social justice advocate. She is the Director of LGBTQ and Gender Resources at Vassar College where she heads the Womens' Center and the LGBTQ Center.