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Christopher Cheung (left) discusses his provocative new book about race and representation in Canadian media in this exclusive BCBookLook interview.” FULL STORY


Jay’s Story

August 04th, 2023


Sharing Our Journeys 2 Queer BIPOC Elders Tell Their Stories (Filidh Publishing $20.50) edited by Ron Kearse

Ron Kearse says in his new book that there are few stories about queer BIPOC and trans elders. “This is a segment of the community that we very rarely hear from, and it’s time to change that,” he writes. “The stories for this anthology are not only local but, indeed, international in scope. They tell us what it was like to grow up queer both inside and outside of North America.” This is Jay’s story. –Ed.

Story by Jayantha Withanage

I was born in a remote village in southern Sri Lanka in 1954. I am the eldest child with two sisters and one brother. Both my parents were government workers, and because of that we had to move from one place to the other every five years.

At that time, growing up as gay boy was not easy in Sri Lanka. No one talked about it, and even the Buddhist Religion did not mention anything about the subject. We did not have any magazines, books, or photos about queer culture. Movies were similar, only foreign movies had some images or storylines about Queer People, but all were highly censored. I eventually found some stories about Queer People by reading English novels.

In Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, where I eventually moved, there were some small bookshops with lots of English novels. These were very popular places to get novels about any subject, especially books with some queer content! It was at one of these places that I was able to buy my first book with gay subject matter, and read it within a week. We had to pay a kind of price difference as some books had higher lending charges. So, when I finished reading every book, I returned for another one.

Although I could not remember any titles, I enjoyed reading foreign books. The local library did not have any English books and Sri Lankan books did not contain any queer content. Those book shops would also let you look at sex magazines for a fee. But not gay ones, although it was still worth it to see nude guys that way! It was by reading those books that I learned about Queer Life, S&M activities, and bisexual culture.

It was very difficult to find a job in Sri Lanka. Political parties controlled the government jobs, and without their approval no one could get a job there. If someone supported certain political parties during elections, that person could get a post in the government job market. As I was not particularly political and did not support any parties, I was jobless for five years!

Jayantha (Jay) Withanage. Photo from author.

However, I eventually managed to get a job as a trainee, working in all areas of a tourist hotel in the city of Colombo. I was twenty years old, and I wanted to explore more queer culture, but I could not find anyone to talk to. So, I planned to go overseas to learn more.

However, due to the political situation in Sri Lanka at the time, leaving the country was not very easy. During that time, many young people wanted to go the Middle East for higher salaried jobs. But going overseas was a complicated process.

First, we had to bribe agencies to get working visas to Arab countries. Plus, we had to have police security clearance, and a Village Officer’s letter. This letter was like a reference document indicating the person had no criminal record and lived in his village. It required a person’s full address, their signature and the Village Officer’s signature, plus a rubber stamp seal would be placed on the document. This letter was valid for three months only.

I also needed a letter from my new workplace confirming my new position, along with a passport authorizing me to work in those countries with my job title. One also had to provide a medical report, and a letter from one’s village church or temple to prove your religion.

In the meantime, I was meeting lots of gay people from the United Kingdom and Germany while working at the hotel in Colombo. They would tell me about the freedom they felt as Queer People in their countries. They told me about freely available gay magazines, sex clubs/saunas, and parties without police raids! And although we did not have that kind of freedom in our country, I did meet some gay guys while working in the hotel at that same time.

In Sri Lanka, when people found out that you were single, they would ask personal questions, and others would spread rumours about you. To keep the questions and rumours quiet, and to protect the family name,” many Queer males felt they had to marry women. I knew that option was not for me.

I was happy to find lots of other gay people in Colombo. But the only places available to meet other gay men were in public toilets. In those days, public toilets in Colombo were very popular cruising places. Although they were not very safe due to police raids and pickpockets. However, some enjoyed these kinds of places. Old, young, government workers, and other people frequently cruised these toilets, but had to be very careful as lots of people come to use them all the time.

Some users ignored the things going on there, while some of those who cruised were shouted at. But many were into quick masturbation sessions, or blowjobs. which were going on day and night. Interestingly enough, even some of the policemen cruised there! The toilets were a good place for some just to meet other Queer men. Since we did not have phones, and since we wanted to keep things private, and yet keep in touch, we exchanged addresses.

Since the toilets had no doors, it was very difficult to hide from others. Young boys who were hustlingfor money, worked in the nighttime. There were less people during the night, so there was less of a chance that they would be harassed.

It was at that time, with the help of one of my friends I eventually managed to get a job in Saudi Arabia.

This is one of the strictest Middle Eastern countries regarding most things including alcohol consumption, and especially gay activities. Anyone caught having gay sex would face harsh punishments: jail sentences, deportations, and even death were common ways of dealing with Queer People. Because of that fear, all the queers had to be very careful, and I felt I had to hide my queer identity all the time.

I was working at a military camp in a small city called Taif, when I met my life partner. We both had a feeling that we were gay, so we introduced ourselves to each other, and as we talked we knew we were attracted to each other. As it turns out, he was an instructor at the English Language Department at a local university.

The military camp was very strict, and there was not too much mingling. Each nationality stuck to each other’s groups, especially going out during meal time. We did not visit others in their rooms, and we hung out with our own countrymen. If someone was seen with another national in public, that alone could start a bad rumour! Some thought you might be asking for special favours like borrowing money, or trying to immigrate to other countries. But we managed to see each other at night very secretly.

We had been seeing each other for a while when we made a trip to visit my family in Sri Lanka. But we did not mention our relationship to anybody. We wanted them to believe that my partner was just a friend of mine visiting the country.

We eventually planned to get permanent visas to go to the USA and live there. However, it did not work out for us. When I went for my student visa at the US Embassy, it was denied. I was told that it had been denied due to Sri Lankans never returning to their country once they landed in The States. I ended up in Sri Lanka again.

My partner found another job and moved to Saudi Arabia again. One of my friends helped me to get a visa and I went to Bahrain. In Bahrain there were bars, clubs, cinema halls, not like the situation in Saudi Arabia. Although my partner was in Saudi Arabia I could not visit him, as Asians would not get visitor’s visas, but Americans could come and go without any trouble.

Although we were still living apart, he visited Bahrain as I could not travel to see him. After a few months, he got a job offer and came to work in Bahrain and we were together again!! We stayed three years there.

After that he found a job in Dubai, UAE, and he helped me to get a visa to live there. We lived together for another five years. Still, because Islamic countries do not like queer culture, we were very careful about our relationship. It was then, that we decided to apply to get permanent resident visas to Canada. After lot of paperwork, I went to the interview and got very positive results about my application. After waiting over 18 months, I got my visa to come to Canada!!!

Even though I was very happy, I had doubts about our future together in a new country. My partner’s job was not in the skilled workers’ category, and the Canadian government did not need Americans to apply for positions that Canadians could fill at the time. So, we spent as much time together as we could.

Then, we eventually found out he could apply under the humanitarian visa category. We went to an interview at the Canadian Consulate in Seattle. We provided letters we wrote to each other, travel photos, travel video tapes, everything we could think of to prove we had been together for a long time. And after some months he got a permanent visa to Canada.

We married on July 20, 2005, exactly the day Canada legalized samesex marriages by chance! In 2021 we celebrated living together for 35 years. We are thankful for queer elders. Without their struggle and demonstrations, we would not be able to live as a gay couple freely in this country.

During those years spent in Sri Lanka and The Middle East, I never had dreamed that one day I would be living with my samesex partner freely. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, anything Queer is taboo even today. But, we now live without fear of harassment or the need to hide our relationship from people or the government. Although our situation is still not welcomed in Sri Lanka and some other countries, we are happy to be here in Canada.

Jayantha (Jay) Withanage moved to Canada in 1996. His hobbies are cooking, working out, watching TV and movies, and travel. He lives in Vancouver.


Ron Kearse was raised on military bases and has lived in most provinces in Canada. He’s proud of his Celtic/Mohawk ancestry and honours both. His writing credits include diverse genres such as: novels and short stories; writing for TV as an assistant writer for the series Nations at War on APTN; local history; blogs; and business writing.

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