The Life Journey Of A Sexual Rights Activist, Upeksha
I was born to an artist father and a mother who ran a batik factory in our home. I have two elder sisters and a younger brother and a sister. I studied in a mixed school and mixed more with female friends than male friends.
The boys were just friends to me and I did not think of them in a romantic manner. I hated the gender divisions my mother made between me and my younger brother. My struggle to achieve gender equality began when I was very young. I became conscious of my desire towards other women when I was about 12 years of age. I realised that I felt passionately towards other women and would rather have a love relationship with a woman than with a man. When I was 15, my family found out that I was attracted to women and not men.
I am talented in sports. In school, I was an athlete. Later, I played for a women’s cricket club. I became very competent in my game and had the opportunity of playing National Cricket. But when my coach found out that I was a lesbian, that was the end of my cricketing career and I had to leave the National Team. There are a number of people with queer identities in sports. As queer women, we are very strong and do not allow ourselves to be persuaded into misbehaving with anyone.
My first serious relationship with a woman began when I was 20. ‘A’ was a young woman engaged to a man employed overseas. ‘A’ lived with his family in his house in Sri Lanka. She had to do the household chores and hardly received any freedom or affection, even from her fiancé. He did not even let her see her father who was the only living family member she had. I was a friend of ‘A’s fiance’s family. When I visited them, I saw the pitiful state ‘A’ was in and I was moved by her situation. ‘A’ and I developed a close relationship.
A letter that ‘A’ gave me fell into the hands of my family and they were very upset. One day, after one of my visits to ‘A’s fiance’s house, I found ‘A’ waiting for me on the roadside, with a few of her clothes hastily flung into a bag. She said, “I am not going back into that house. I am coming with you.” When I told her that she could not do it, she retorted that if I did not take her with me, she will run away somewhere, without really knowing where she is going. I understood the reasons why she wanted to come with me and I took a decision then and there to take her with me. I arranged for ‘A’ to stay at a friend’s house and I assumed the burden of her expenses. Then, I was working as a fabric designer. My family came to know about what I did and my mother forbade me to come home. She told me, “ I have other daughters to give in marriage. When you have unnatural desires like this, I can’t find husbands for them. This is a disgrace to my family.” But my father and brother were sympathetic to me.
I found out from a friend that ‘A’s rejected fiancé had given a large amount of money to a contract killer to kill me. My friend advised me not to go home, warning that if I went home, the killing would be carried out. During this period, through another friend, I found out about the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered) activist organisation, Companions on a Journey (COJ). ‘A’ and I went to the Drop-in-Center of COJ and we met COJ’s Executive Director, Sherman De Rose and other COJ staff. I told them our story and they arranged for ‘A’ and I to stay there and gave us protection from the contract killer. For two months, we were in a safe place, hardly going anywhere. The Women’s Support Group (WSG), which is working on LBT (Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgendered) rights, was under the wing of COJ at the time. Sherman asked me to work for them. Shortly, WSG separated from COJ and formed an identity of its own and I began to work for them as the group’s coordinator in WSG’s Drop-in-Center.
With WSG, I worked for nearly 12 years, doing a great deal of work that meant a lot to me, helping the queer community in difficulties. Rather than being in an office-based job, I liked moving with the queer community and resolving their issues. I was at the decision making level at the group. The way I rationalise it, it was being gay myself, that made me an activist. From my personal experiences, I experienced first-hand the problems the queer women face. I remained in activism to do some service to them.
At WSG, I developed my leadership qualities and learnt in depth, about feminism and LGBT activism. I realised that women are cornered from all sides. They are said to be liberated today but they really do not have the liberty to do as they wish. My awareness of the rights of women and LGBT communities broadened when I participated in the Beijing +5 Conference of the United Nations in New York in 2000. That was the first time I participated in an international conference. I also took part in Beijing +10 conference which was also in New York in 2005. I have been to India, Philippines, France, Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh and Australia for international conferences and made presentations about the situation of Sri Lankan LGBT community.
From participating in international conferences, I learnt about LGBT issues. If you take Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries, our cultural problems are similar. Conferences in Asia and other countries gave me knowledge about what kind of issues LGBT people in other parts of the world are faced with. I got to know of the strategies they use to solve their problems. I also learnt about their achievements and victories. I also got to know about the strategies these Asian countries use to have a positive dialogue with their public about homosexuality and to discuss sexuality, sexual health and reproductive rights and violence against women. I think that from being merely a woman who loves other women, my consciousness of the oppression LGBT people face and the political sense of fighting against this discrimination in my role as an activist, made me into what I am today, with a clearly defined lesbian identity.
At Gay Games (Gay Olympics) held in Sydney in 2002, in which 62 countries participated, I won the Gold Medal for Javelin and the Silver for 800 M. That was the first time Sri Lankan queer women participated in Gay Games and the first occasion that an Asian country received a Gold Medal. In the same Games held in Chicago in 2006, I won the Gold for Javelin and Silver for 800 M and Long Jump.
By this time, the relationship between ‘A’ and I was over. ‘A’ had met a young man and they wanted to get married. ‘A’ was not strictly a lesbian and I believed that she should be allowed to do as she pleased. I gave her freedom to do as she wished. Friends arranged her wedding and now she has a kid and is settled in her married life.
My interactions with queer women who came to the Drop-in-Center of WSG brought ‘B’ and I together. ‘B’ was actively involved with sexual rights and feminist work and we found that we shared similar interests. I let ‘B’ know that I was interested in her and gradually, she said yes. ‘B’ engaged herself with me, in the activist work that I was doing. She appreciated my work and strengthened me. We did much of the activism work of WSG together. ‘B’ and I lived together in an apartment. We shared a life together and our relationship lasted eight years. Unfortunately, we separated and it caused me a great deal of distress.
The main reason for our break-up was ‘B’s complaint that I did not give her enough time in our relationship. I was busy with day-to-day activities and travelling overseas for conferences and to rural areas in the country for conducting training programmes and workshops. LGBT community members often came in the evening to see me at my apartment to discuss problems that they were going through. Sometimes, someone would call me in the night saying someone was going to commit suicide or some one was depressed over a broken relationship and I had to go and see to that person for peer counselling. Some had problems with police harassment and I had to go and bail them out. Even my heterosexual friends might call me and tell me if their husbands were assaulting them. LGBT community used to come to our apartment to hang around in a free, comfortable and secure space and thrash out LGBT issues and I didn’t have a private moment to give ‘B’.
This was the time that I was threatened by two men when I was coming home from work. Soon after, some of my things were stolen from my apartment. To avoid this menacing situation, I went abroad to get away and stayed with a friend for some time. Together with these unfortunate incidents, I also lost my job which I did not expect from my working colleagues. I felt let down.
Now, at 32 years of age, as a sexual rights activist and an individual, I face a future of uncertainty, after nearly 12 years in sexual rights activism which I joined at the age of 21. It is difficult now for me to find work in the mainstream private sector after being “the face” of a LGBT activist organisation and going public.
Section 365 & 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code which criminalises ‘any act of gross indecency with another person’ is a barrier for us to be open about our work and our lives. People might say that we are promoting homosexuality. The law must look at us as ordinary citizens and must not discriminate against us as ‘different’. Social and legal barriers that subtly penetrate into even the most ordinary functions of life such as social relationships, employment and living together with one’s partner, complicate life for us, so that situations that are easy to deal with if they occur in a heteronormative society, become very traumatic for us.
There is also another silver lining on the black clouds. ‘C’, whom I had met in my activism work, empathised with my situation and told me that she cared for me. ‘C’ made me recover from the rawness of the split with ‘B’. ‘C’ and I live together now and she is tremendously supportive towards me. People ask me why lesbian relationships do not appear to be stable, but I see no difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Peer relationships are indirectly affected by the social pressure working against them and they break up. If you take Section 365A, no government or an individual has the right to pry into my private life, as a consenting adult.
For myself, I will not ask for the right to marry my partner. But, if other gays want to marry, they should have the right to marry. My opinion is that marriage is not important. For me, it is only a concept. Marriages depend on property ownership and economic benefits. Gay relationships do not bring in economic benefits as a gay person cannot pass on his/her property or insurance to his/her partner. I have a right to pass on my property according to the country’s law. But because a lesbian partner does not have legal rights to her lover’s property, the lover’s family gets the property ownership.
Gays and lesbians should have the rights that any other individual in the country has. I should be able to apply for a housing loan with my partner and sign a legal bond. I would like to raise children as an unmarried woman. But how will my child be affected by the fact that she or he has two mothers and no father? Will she or he be able to bear that mental pressure at school and the larger society where being heteronormative is the norm?
To decriminalise homosexuality, we must talk to the LGBT community and civil society to get their views. If we do not do that, mobilisation for homosexual rights will be difficult. Different social attitudes make it difficult to form relations with society. As the LGBT community, we must have a social platform and discussions have to be conducted in a broader context, for example, within the implications for women in a patriarchal society.
Linkages built with other minority groups and organisations will surely help. Why should we divide ourselves on our health status or any other basis? Why should not other minority groups talk of lesbianism? Why should not women’s rights groups speak of lesbian rights? We must move with a clear cut strategy. There should be a national agenda for LGBT issues.
The local LGBT activism has its victories. To bring different LGBT organisations together, we held a National Consultation. We took our work to the grass root level. We talked to village women about reproductive health and human rights of HIV positive people and then went on to introduce to them the subject of sexuality and LGBT rights. That we were able to talk to them about LGBT rights itself is a victory. Many of these women had previously thought that homosexuality was bad.
The most important thing in LGBT activism is to tell people that if people are being discriminated against because of their sexuality, it is wrong. I believe that an individual should not be discriminated against because of his or her gender or sexual orientation . Section 365A should be repealed. Although this section of law is not applied to punish people in Sri Lanka, the fact that it exists is a mental stress on homosexual people, as now and then, it might be used to discriminate against them.
In the Fundamental Rights section of the Sri Lankan Constitution, there is no mention of the Right to Life and we need to include the clauses ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation’ in Article 12 of the Constitution. Our Health Ministry can do a great deal of work to eliminate the stigma against LGBT people. The government is always negotiating with the masses and civil society. Therefore, the government can do a lot more than us to make a social change. It can communicate with civil society to change social attitudes.
I have my personal achievements as a queer woman. Although previously my mother threw me out of home, today I have been able to create acceptance for me in my family. I have taken my partner home and my family welcomed her. I have spoken of the rights of women and HIV+ people and helped LGBT people. With my work and personal aptitude, I have been able to make for myself a good standing in the local and international LGBT community. I have the knack of straddling both the high income and the low income strata of society. I can think in terms of common people as well as well-to-do people.
Activism has been my life satisfaction. I have done what is possible through my capacity. My wish is that LGBT people should be able to live in this country without being labeled as different from other citizens. Two women should be able to live together without it becoming a cause of annoyance for their neighbours. You can come to Colombo and obtain such freedom at lodgings of high rent. We need freedom in provinces too. I also appreciate the fact that there are artists, business persons and people who earn respect from society who support me and encourage me in my activism work. I believe that an individual should have the liberty to dress the way one wants. That is where you exercise your gender expression. I prefer the trouser as day-to-day wear but on special occasions, I wear the saree. I crop my hair short like any other modern, street-savvy young woman and socialise in the evening with liberal mind people. But this does not mean I am the lesbian you see in the stereotype. It means that I value my independence and like to make my own choices in life.