Sept. 1, 2021

A guiding light and a safe haven for LGBTQ2S+ immigrants

A story of coming out: From Sri Lanka to Canada, UCalgary alumna is providing support and safety for the queer immigrant community
Dakshima Haputhanthri: Love Wins
Alumna Dakshima Haputhanthri is creator of Dilipani, registered social worker and youth program facilitator with Immigrant Services Calgary.

Dakshima Haputhanthri grew up feeling isolated from her peers throughout her childhood in Sri Lanka. While other girls played with dolls, she preferred playing cricket with boys. In a community where she was expected to meet traditional expectations for gendered norms, Haputhanthri felt she wasn’t part of a community that made her feel welcome and safe.

“It’s not only looked down on to be part of the gay community, but illegal — it was part of my life to be in the closet,” says Haputhanthri, BSW’19. “I thought I was going to live a dual life for eternity.”

Haputhanthri was a private legal practitioner in Sri Lanka, often taking on pro-bono cases to aid underprivileged clients in the community. It wasn’t until she immigrated to Canada in 2016, however, that she felt there was another path to providing support for marginalized groups. She enrolled in the University of Calgary’s Bachelor of Social Work program shortly after, where she felt the courage to speak up about her sexuality.

A supportive UCalgary community helped build confidence

“I am a proud lesbian,” says Haputhanthri. “I am in a community where I feel comfortable to express myself and my sexuality.” Haputhanthri made the decision to come out to her peers during a lecture in 2017 with support from her classmates and professor, Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, MSW’06, PhD’17. Her positive experience at UCalgary, where she found the confidence to come out, also helped her propel her newest project, Dilipani.

Dilipani is a service that Haputhanthri provides for queer immigrants, offering support and counselling for those struggling to come out to their loved ones. “Immigrants can carry their own belief systems and baggage from colonization where LGBTQ2S+ people aren’t always welcome,” says Haputhanthri. “For queer immigrants, there’s fear for their safety and ostracization from their families and communities.” As a youth program facilitator with Immigrant Services Calgary, she felt there was a gap in support for immigrants — a space that supported queer newcomers who are struggling to come to terms with their own sexualities.

The queer immigrant experience

Dilipani means “lighted lamp” in Sinhala, and also happens to be Haputhanthri’s middle name. Inspired by its meaning, she sees herself as a “guiding light” and a sign of hope for those struggling with their sexual identities. “I understand the difficulties of coming out, especially for diasporic or first-generation immigrants,” says Haputhanthri. “When we’re closeted, we’re figuring things out in the dark, and I want to create a safe space to share my expertise and lived experiences with others that are struggling to come out.”

Challenging homophobia in immigrant communities

By sharing her stories publicly, Haputhanthri aims to create a culture of safety and comfort for queer newcomers, particularly in removing the stigma on same-sex relationships across immigrant communities. “There’s a lot of unlearning when you have been surrounded by homophobia and stigmas … but Dilipani provides options to show others what it means to feel comfortable in your own identity,” says Haputhanthri.

Reflecting on her experience at UCalgary, Haputhanthri says it is important to connect with peers who provide comfort and safety. “The social work program [is] full of people who want to help others … they are empathetic and understanding, and this environment ultimately supported my journey to come out,” she says.

For queer immigrants looking for support, Haputhanthri echoes the significance of Dilipani’s support services: “I see you and I understand you — if you are in the closet, liberation and freedom is within your reach. It’s all about taking the first step.”

If you or someone you know is looking for counselling support on coming out, please visit the Dilipani website.

UCalgary strives to create and maintain a positive, productive learning and working environment where there’s respect for the dignity of all persons and fair and equitable treatment of individuals in our diverse community.

To learn more about how UCalgary is connecting with the community and other community events, click here.