Sri Lanka is a tiny tropical, coconut tree lined, island nation surrounded by the Indian Ocean. In Canada, when one thinks of Sri Lanka the images that come to mind are of destitute migrants arriving in rickety boats to seek asylum from an authoritarian regime and a long civil war between the Sinhala state and the Tamil rebel forces. The context in Sri Lanka for people involved in social movements is dangerous and bleak; activists have been systematically assassinated since the 1970s by state and non-state actors.
In the midst of these authoritarian regimes and civil wars, queers in Sri Lanka continue to live and navigate their everyday lives. As one queer activist puts it, “In places that have been in the middle of conflict for decades, the meanings of rights for any one particular community, when not placed in the broader socio-political context is blurred into oblivion.”
Legally, as in many post-colonial nations, Sri Lanka has an anti-sodomy law, listed under acts dealing with “gross indecency” that dates back to 1883. The queer movement in Sri Lanka has had a peculiar history with this law; in 1995, an argument to decriminalize homosexuality was brought forward in Parliament by a Member. This brought the government’s attention to the fact that the law only explicitly criminalized sodomy; it was re-written to also specifically criminalise female homosexual sexual activity as “sadism.”
It was in this context that Companions on a Journey (COJ), a group for gay men, initiated by Sherman De Rose, made an effort towards creating space for the gay community in 1995. A few years later, in 1999, a group of women found that lesbian women and transmen had a much harder time negotiating gay lives because their lives were far more monitored by family and society at large. This led a few queer women to meet in COJ’s space under the banner of Women’s Support Group (WSG). Eventually, Equal Ground, a larger NGO, whose mandate extends to all LGBT persons, was founded in 2004. All these groups are based in Colombo, the capital, and were engaged in a range of activities including advocacy, research, providing support and being a resource centre.
Soon after, lesbian sex was criminalized, the activities of the organizations like COJ and WSG were scaled back even farther. At this point, their work continued in small ways like peer support or creating a public outcry about degrading press coverage of homosexuals. According to former members of WSG, there was a discussion of re-opening the subject of campaigning to change the law at the first ever National consultation on LGBT issues in Sri Lanka in 2009, but concrete action has yet to be taken towards mounting the public awareness campaign towards de-criminalisation.
Sri Lankan queers have forged ahead in the arts in order to bring the realities of their queer lives to light in the international context. Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan-Canadian author of queer fiction published a coming of age book called Funny Boy in 1994. In this book, he explores his sexual identity and deals with Tamil-Sinhala tension. Ashoka Hundagama’s Flying with One Wing was a film made in 2002, which looks at the life of a female-to-male transperson who gets a job as a mechanic and even takes a wife. In 2010, Anoma Rajakaruna made Our Story: Women who Love Women which looks into the lives of lesbians. All of these works of art have been produced to illustrate the social reality of living under war and negotiating sexuality.
Beyond all of these societal concerns there is the overwhelming context of the war that looms large over LGBT activists in Sri Lanka. Like most other activists, they live in constant fear of being branded as security threats to the current authoritarian regime leading to intimidation and hurt to them and the groups they represent. One activist explains, “The biggest challenge to working on sexuality during the last several years was that activists were liable to be targeted on pretexts of being security threats. Heightened surveillance, high presence of the armed forces in public spaces, extremely conservative nationalist feelings as well as fundamentalist religious beliefs lead to a socio-political environment that is restrictive and threatening for sexual rights activism. This doesn’t seem to have changed after the conflict ended either.” She goes on to explain that the work that these groups could do was concentrated in Colombo, “[we]did not work in the north east as long as the conflict was ongoing because it would have brought [us] under the radar of the military.”
In spite of all these hurdles many of these groups have received international recognition and remain a voice that comes from Sri Lanka that echo in the rest of the world. Within their limited scope, Colombo has had Pride celebrations that began in a small manner and has grown over the years since 2005. These celebrations, while being limited are still a large step in terms of the visibility of the LGBT community. More importantly, while the world remains unaware these few groups, that exist in difficult circumstances remain a space for support for numerous LGBT persons to access and to know that they are not the only ones. In many societies in South Asia, just that knowledge often saves lives. Our friends in Sri Lanka are taking small steps. The island is set to see a lot of political change, for better or for worse, and we have to wait and see what that may mean for LGBT communities.