In Sri Lanka, homosexuality remains a crime. Non-profit organisation EQUAL GROUND works to dismantle cultural and social stigma, and fights back against police corruption and government inactivity to seek human and political rights for Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ community. We sat down with Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera to discuss Britain’s colonial legacy of homophobia, Colombo Pride celebrations, not so secretly gay parliamentarians, and the path to decriminalisation.
What are some of the most pressing, or unique issues facing the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka?
We’ll be here for a long time!
LGBTIQ persons – effeminate gay men, transgender individuals, butch looking women – are routinely stopped and harassed on the street by law enforcement. It’s a small country, so they target some of the same people over and over again.
They know the cruising spots where gay men gather to have sex; most people in this country can’t afford a hotel room. The police patrol these areas, mainly so they can get their nightly bottle of arrack and chicken dinner by extorting money from them. They might even take these men to the station where they’re sexually abused, raped and beaten.
One person who had been routinely harassed by police told me that one night he was raped by 14 police officers, most of the officers who were at the station. It’s not just little things like a tap on the wrist: it’s violation, humiliation, and discrimination by police who have impunity.
Lesbian women are the most marginalised group within Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ community. Transgender women, because of their privileged male birth, are at least able to move around with some freedom in society, although they are also subject to abuse.
Women in Sri Lanka are already cobbled, but when you’re a lesbian it’s worse. Families break up same sex relationships, and these devastated women who have been separated from the loves of their life are married off to men. Sometimes they’re abused within these heterosexual relationships. There have been cases where women are locked up in rooms and abused, and then the police take the side of the family rather than the woman. These violations often go unreported, because nobody is willing to come forward.
There have been a lot of suicides. As far as I’m concerned they’re family assisted suicides, because these women have no choice.
Homosexuality became a crime in Sri Lanka in 1883 under British rule, but lesbianism was only criminalised in 1995. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of these laws in Sri Lanka?
In 1883 the British introduced anti-sodomy laws into Sri Lanka, which specifically focused on so called “acts of gross indecency” between men.
In 1995 a leading Tamil lawyer wanted to decriminalise homosexuality and repeal 365 and 365a of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code. The Justice Minister of the time turned around and said that the law was gender biased. For the first time in Sri Lankan history the ministers were worried about gender bias! They dropped the word “male” and made it all encompassing.
I don’t know if they realised this at the time, but by dropping the word male they caused the law to also apply to heterosexual people. The wording of the law bans “acts of gross indecency” and “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, which arguably could be heterosexual sex with a condom, for example. So in principle the law isn’t gender specific, but it’s only the LGBTIQ community who are discriminated against.
Colonial laws and homophobia have been embraced in Sri Lanka as part of our culture.
In January of this year the President and cabinet dropped the decriminalisation of homosexuality from the National Human Rights Action Plan, saying that homosexuality is a cultural rather than human rights issue. Even if it is culture, where does that culture come from? I think the British should apologise for bringing these damn laws into the colonies! If they apologised they would also show how archaic and unbeneficial they are.
People turn around and say that it’s a benign law, because no one has been charged with 365 or 365A since the British left in 1948. Because it exists, it gives law enforcement and society in general carte blanche to harass the LGBTIQ community.
How much do you think education and class impacts upon a person’s experience of being gay, lesbian or trans in Sri Lanka?
I don’t like to use the word class. I know a lot of rich people who don’t have any class! But of course, if you have money you have some protection. They should have arrested me 100 years ago, but they still haven’t. I’m doing work that has been construed as “spreading homosexuality” and “spreading paedophilia”, mainly by the previous government.
And have you been targeted?
Yes, I’ve been under surveillance and our phones have been tapped. Some of our partner community based organisations have been raided and had files confiscated. We had to go and tell them to ask us directly if they want something, because we aren’t going to stop because of their silly tactics.
What is the government’s position in general?
The government we had until 2015 was an extremely authoritarian dictatorship. He (former president Mahinda Rajapaksa) was controlling the armed forces, judiciary, and media. Until January of this year the media had been extremely critical, vitriolic and homophobic. The only area the government couldn’t control was civil society; most civil society organisations were the subject of smear campaigns, shutdowns, or had their funds frozen.
The new government came into power on a good governance and democracy platform. As part of that platform we went into constitutional reform last year and all citizens of Sri Lanka were asked to suggest what they wanted to see in their constitution. From all 25 districts it was apparent that people wanted sexual orientation and identity to be protected by the law under Article 12.
They also talked about Article 16, which currently makes the constitution much weaker than the laws. So even though the constitution guarantees equality, there are laws that violate people’s rights that can’t be challenged. The constitution should be supreme.
Under the new government, things have been a lot better for us. They’ve opened up a dialogue about decriminalisation and we are working closely with the Human Rights Commission, whereas we weren’t allowed in the door before. We were able to run a media sensitising program in January, and reporting has gotten a lot better.
We’re hopeful that decriminalisation will take place before 2020. I think it’s going to happen, but people tell me I’m living in a bubble! I don’t think they’d be starting the conversation if they weren’t serious.
To change a law, it must goes through parliament. The current government are bragging that they have a two-thirds majority in parliament. So to change these laws all they have to do is put a bill in for decriminalisation, and ensure that their MPs vote accordingly. What are they waiting for?
I get the sense that being gay or lesbian is tacitly accepted in some circles here, despite the law. I’ve also heard that there are even gay parliamentarians. Why aren’t they advocating for legal change?
It’s a well-known fact that there are a number of ministers and MPs who are gay. Some have wives, others don’t.
The irony is that the public voted them in, even though they know they’re gay. People don’t really care, but politicians make out like the public are the reason they can’t change the laws. Politicians haven’t really done jack-poop to help the LGBTIQ community!
They should be pushing this in parliament. They’re our representatives, they’re working for us, they’re public servants, but they do what they want – it’s bullshit! We have to be the voice, and we have to bear all the threats and insults that come our way.
Can you talk a bit about the relationship between religion and anti-LGBTIQ sentiment in Sri Lanka?
Nowhere in Buddhist texts does it say that homosexuality is sinful. Buddhism is a way of life and philosophy, not a religion. People have taken it and made it into a religion here.
In Hinduism, homosexuality was at one point a way of life. Temples have depictions of same sex relationships, and one of their gods is transgender!
Some Buddhist nationalist groups have resorted to violence against Muslims and Christians, but they’ve generally been okay about homosexuality. There was one group that threatened over social media to attack us at a market stall we were planning to hold. The market ended up telling us that we could come, but they didn’t want us using our name or flags. There was homophobia from them too.
We’ve received threats for other events and just taken the bull by the horns and marched into the police station and asked for protection. They’ve responded really well and sent plain clothes policemen down, alongside our own serious “gym bunny” security guards who tried to look inconspicuous!
As well as from outside forces like religion, there are fractures within the community.
Are those divisions between Sinhala and Tamil people?
No, it’s nothing to do with that. Some gay men hate the fact that a lesbian woman is running an organisation that they’re not a part of. They’re not a part of it by choice; we’ve always had an open door policy.
Patriarchy is alive and well in the gay community, let’s not beat around the bush about that! Very recently I was reading a very derogatory article that a gay man had published, basically blaming EQUAL GROUND because our application for funds was successful where his failed. He called me a dictator and compared me to Rajapaksa!
Are there other active LGBTIQ groups in Sri Lanka?
There are organisations working with HIV and marginalised groups, but we are the only advocacy organisation that works with every section of the LGBTIQ community.
There was another organisation called Companions on a Journey, but they closed down in 2011 due to issues with funds disappearing and allegations of embezzlement. There was backlash from the public when things came out; it’s sad that the alleged actions of their Executive Director Sherman de Rose brought disrepute to the entire LGBTIQ community.
Can you give us a general overview of EQUAL GROUND’s various projects?
We run a counselling line, do research and reports, run sensitising and educational programs in remote areas with the general public, local government, health authorities, police and media. We try to make workplaces safer environments for LGBTIQ people; notably, we were able to convince a very large conglomerate to change their HR policies to include sexual orientations and gender identity.
We are now also in the process of setting up a safe house for lesbian and bisexual women and have launched a scholarship program for under privileged LB women to enable them to stand on their own two feet.
We engage with the UN, and lobby foreign missions and heads of government to support decriminalisation and LGBTIQ rights in Sri Lanka, and to use quiet diplomacy to urge our government to make the necessary changes.
We also run Colombo PRIDE, which this year was eight events in 10 days.
We have 16 people working for us, but we all end up doing the work of four or five people! Needless to say, we are always searching for proficient staff to join our organisation. There’s still so much to do!
Do you think lobbying the international community helps?
I believe that some international pressure has to be brought on Sri Lanka in order for them to comply with international conventions and treaties which they are signatory to. Everything helps.
Pride Week has been getting bigger since 2005, and you recently won the Zonta Women of Achievement Award for Social Impact. Do you think public sentiment and the situation of LGBTIQ people in Sri Lanka is improving?
Public sentiment is changing and the Zonta award was an indication of that.
This year we had the biggest Pride ever, with more participation from across the community than ever before. Even so, I sometimes feel like everything we do is just the tip of the iceberg. People from all over the country do come to Colombo Pride, but we’ve only taken it to a few regional areas so far, because of limited resources.
By the time we finish Pride we are so bloody exhausted, we just want to curl up and sleep. But we have so much work to do – the work never stops!