By Jack McLaughlin
Arts & Features Editor
The Center for Digital Humanities hosted Gowthaman Ranganathan at the Ecumenical Center for a lecture titled “The Oral History of Queerness in Postwar Sri Lanka” Nov. 9.
The lecture also hosted Angel Queentus via Zoom, who is the founding director of the Jaffna Transgender Network (JTN). The JTN advocates for the rights and livelihood of queer and trans people in Sri Lanka.
English Professor Bart Brinkman began the lecture by first introducing Ranganathan and Queentus to the audience.
He explained that Ranganathan is a Ph.D. student at Brandeis University, and has worked for decades in India as a lawyer advocating for queer rights and has taught in law schools in India.
After this introduction, Ranganathan was invited on stage where he first acknowledged how digital humanities has affected how he feels about his work.
“Digital humanities kind of rejuvenated me in ways I didn’t realize I needed to be rejuvenated, and inspires me to take this project to completion,” he said.
The audience’s attention was brought to a map of Sri Lanka displayed on screen, representing the regions that were divided when the Sri Lankan Civil War occurred in their country in the 1980s.
After this context was provided, Queentus spoke on the JTN and their mission more in-depth.
Queentus explained how the JTN originally began because “there was no space to gather and meet and be ourselves.
“So we created things for ourselves. Now we do a lot of work in aspects of cultural engagement and other workshops and so on,” she said.
The JTN began their archival project on trans lives in Sri Lanka in 2019 because previously there was not a lot of information on the topic, said Queentus.
“Because of the Civil War, there was not much documented on trans lives. And this was because many people died during the war, or they were displaced, or they lost their belongings, and were scattered around,” she said.
Queentus continued to explain the stories they were able to archive on trans lives in Sri Lanka is important to preserve for future generations to have knowledge on these people’s lives.
Their archival work is easily accessible and available for viewing on the X (formerly known as Twitter) and Instagram accounts run by the JTN.
Ranganathan continued the discussion by talking about how he initially became involved with working with the JTN.
He initially started due to his curiosity of what was occurring with LGBTQ+ rights in Sri Lanka, and decided to visit and find out what was happening.
“And I noticed that there was a lot of solidarity between Tamil-speaking people in Jaffna and Tamil-speaking people in India, where I have worked … for many years. So I realized that maybe I should go explore what’s happening in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Ranganathan’s contributions included organizing public discussions on LGBTQ+ rights and hosting workshops to teach on writing ethical reporting on LGBTQ+ issues.
It was within these workshops that someone suggested that documenting the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals in Sri Lanka was important, which was later pursued by the JTN.
This transitioned into the retelling of stories collected by the JTN, the first of which followed a grandmother from Jaffna, who - along with being a priest - was also a performer.
The roles that they would take on were normally female roles in dramas, as women did not perform in these productions.
When asked about her dance performances, Ranganathan recollected that she wants “to be celebrating the sound of the dancing.”
The second story focused on an individual who left home at the age of 13 to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was a militant group in Sri Lanka.
While serving with the LTTE, the individual began to question their gender after spending extended amounts of time around other women.
“I lived like that for 17 to 18 years. We did not know the outside world, when we lived with girls we shared affection with each other and spoke about happiness. When I was with women, I thought I was attracted to them because of living in such a context,” Ranganathan said, retelling this to the audience.
The third story followed a transgender woman who talked about the journey she took with her significant other.
The couple met at 18, and after getting to know each other after a performance, their relationship blossomed, Ranganathan said.
“He then attended a performance where she [the story’s narrator] performed the female roles and asked her if he could photograph her. She agreed to it and a friendship blossomed that has lasted until today,” Ranganathan recollected.
They primarily contacted each other via letters - which the story’s author admits to have lost because of the circumstances of the Civil War.
“None of those letters are with me anymore. During the troubles we couldn’t hold onto anything.”
The couple’s relationship saw hardships during the Civil War, he said. They lost contact for a number of years after her lover fled the country, but eventually came back searching for her.
“He came and searched high and low everywhere. He looked for places I used to live in and asked for me with many people,” he recounted.
After these stories, Queentus went into detail on how they were able to have these available to share and the special opportunity that came with being able to have these people come together to tell their stories.
“We gathered a lot of information on these stories, and we were curious as to what these pieces of different stories are doing and where it’s good to converge.
“These stories are critical for us as we look towards the future,” she said.
Queentus gave a specific example of two people recognizing each other during one of these gatherings, and gave insight to how this interaction allowed for a more welcoming environment for transgender people in this group.
“A parrot is becoming a tiger - which is basically to say that this woman who’s, you know, brought up like a cage parrot, is then becoming a tiger,” she said.
After this, the discussion opened up to questions from the audience. One attendee asked what their thoughts are on the history of performance, the appropriation of it, and what performers can do in the future to embody the culture they are a part of.
Ranganathan answered this by expressing the importance of performance in the work that they do. He suggested that a future project for him and his team would be to look further into how performance is used as a livelihood and a way to express gender identity.
Another question asked by the audience was how digital humanities can be used to assist Ranganathan and Queentus in carrying out the mission of the JTN.
Ranganathan explained that it allowed for the JTN to create more engaging content with the stories that they are posting. Artifacts like photos can be used to enhance the story and offer context for the time in which they took place.
He also explained that because they are able to use technology to bring these stories alive and publicly accessible, it allows for them to be properly connected to the time in which they occurred.
“It’s a web, you know, like a web - that connects these stories among each other,” Ranganathan said.