Colombo Telegraph

LGBT Rights In Sri Lanka: Under A Neo-Colonial Shadow?

By Chaminda Weerawardhana

Dr. Chaminda Weerawardhana

A few weeks ago, the international day against homophobia and transphobia (#IDAHoT) was celebrated across the world, with polities adopting a progressive and inclusive policy using this day of reflection to promote their positions on enhancing their policies intended at fighting against homophobia and transphobia. In North America and indeed elsewhere across the world, tackling transphobia remains one of the most, if not the foremost civils rights struggle. This is not too different in Europe, with countries that are reputed to be highly progressive being very new to inclusive policies on Trans people. This is the case, for example, of Denmark, which very recently took steps to de-pathologise trans identities. In places such as Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and most recently Norway, gender recognition legislation has been introduced over the last few years, with many EU member states, including the UK and especially France, lagging behind. Gender, to cut the story short, is an essentially plural concept, and the binary gender formation of Abrahamic religious and sociocultural traditions is exactly that – a narrowly crafted social construct, which is inherently discriminatory. The gender binary categorically excludes a large number of people and forces gender norms on individuals. Trans and gender-plural people have existed in nearly every culture, and since time immemorial. It is simply a basic step in reinforcing fundamental human rights to take legal action to ensure that the basic rights of trans, queer and other gender-plural people are protected.

What are the implications of global developments on #LGBTIRights and #TransJusice to Sri Lanka? This is a question worth raising, as the government of Sri Lanka – as opposed to many other governments in the South Asian region – has chosen to systematically ignore the LGBTQI community of Sri Lanka. This is especially true of Transgender Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka still clings to archaic British-imposed Victorian legislation on issues of sexuality and sexual orientation, with no legislation recognising the presence of Transgender citizens and their fundamental rights. A slight development was lately visible, with a team from Equal Ground, the leading non-governmental organisation working on LGBTQI equality, gave evidence at a parliamentary hearing on proposed constitutional reforms. The said reforms involve a clear political agenda, and as things stand, are not likely to take a citizens’ rights based approach, but an approach that favours power dynamics of the UNP. In the following, I wish to share some perspectives on the challenges that LGBTQI rights, especially trans equality, encounter in the Sri Lankan context.

The silence of the powerful: a challenge to LGBTI rights in Sri Lanka?

The above-mentioned state of affairs – of criminalisation, stigma and discrimination does not mean that LGBTQI Sri Lankans are invisible. Cis Gay men have long been, and are currently, in highly powerful posts in government. The foreign affairs ministerial portfolio, for example, is held by a cis gay man. Many other cis men in the cabinet of ministers are known to be gay, although they are in cis-hetero-sexual and heteronormative relationships in the public eye. The latter trend is very much characteristic of the way in which the authorities perceive LGBTQI issues – by turning a blind eye. By deciding to not to see what is right in front of them. By ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. There has been no LGBTQI politician who has been bold enough to give up their usual supine disposition, and stand up for the rights of the LGBTQI community. The present Minister of Foreign Affairs has been a rare exception, but even he has been cautious to avoid public statements, especially in Sinhala, on the issue. LGBTQI equality and human rights have almost never made it to parliamentary debates.

Some urbane, English-speaking, and somewhat ‘liberal’ elements of the political ‘right’ (which, in present-day Sri Lanka, represents a range of parties, including the two largest parties and their coalitions) respect LGBTQI rights in their privileged private circles, ignoring the gender and sexual minorities in the rest of the population. The political left (if not the ‘pesuedo-left in a neoliberal polity, especially represented by the JVP) continues to perceive LGBTQI issues as a non-issue, a Western imposition, and, to borrow from Jamaican homophobia, white man’s disease. When it comes to accommodating feminist discourses, the rights of marginalised communities and LGBTQI rights, the record of the Left has been particularly appalling. It can be argued that the clientelist attitudes of the local polity prevent LGBTQI politicians from taking a clear public stance on LGBTQI issues, and when the homophobic and transphobic lobbies play to the gallery, the LGBTQI politicians play the ostrich, hiding their heads deep underneath the sand. This behaviour is evident in the absence of any open statement of support to the LGBTQI community in the face of threats from homophobic and transphobic elements in the polity to disrupt the 2016 Colombo Pride events with violence. The only active LGBQI-rights advocacy group in the country, Equal Ground, has been doing what it can, using its contacts to launch a campaign with the support of foreign (read white western) diplomats and embassy staff based in Colombo.

The fact that Equal Ground and other LGBTQI rights activists need to knock on the heavily guarded gates of Colombo’s Western embassies to stand for the rights of Sri Lankan LGBTQI people is simply appalling. The fact that LGBTQI activists in Sri Lanka need to take refuge in the UN compound to hoist the rainbow flag on #IDAHOT is equally worrying, and amounts to an unpardonable abject insult from the government of Sri Lanka to LGBTQI Sri Lankan citizens. How come no politician (especially the current occupant of Temple Trees and his spouse) had the guts to receive members of the LGBTQI community openly on #IDAHOT or during #ColomboPride, with media coverage, host a national pride reception, hoist the rainbow and transgender flags, and use the two occasions to adopt a wholesome discourse on human rights and equality? Sri Lanka does not have a dominant Abrahamic tradition, and apart from sheer disregard, no reason can justify the silence of the political class. The argument of a possible political backlash against politicians expressing their support to the LGBTQI community does not hold ground. In what is a heavily a clientelist polity in which patronage politics reign, those who hold power have tremendous leverage on shaping public opinion (which they often deploy for negative ends). A strong emphasis on human rights, equality and justice, and linking LGBTQI equality with other vital gender and social justice priorities would have helped contain any possible backlash. Whether people in power take progressive steps or not, the homophobic and transphobic elements (who are also the agents of highly discriminatory and misogynist and chauvinistic ideologies) will not stop. This is yet another reason to not to be intimidated by threats of hatred, and act to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. On top of all that, the country’s dominant religious philosophy – Buddhism, in its philosophical essence, is one that gives pride of place to equality, equity and fundamental rights.

Silence of the political class: no longer tolerable?

Had the Colombo Pride celebrations been disrupted by acts of violence, this writer bets that the likes of the JVP would have kept their mouths shut, given the plain homophobia and transphobia its leaders have demonstrated in recent times. Homophobia and transphobia, just like misogyny, racism and other discriminatory attitudes, are vices that must be fought, vigorously. Contrary to a popular belief among Sri Lankans of the pro-Western wealthy Colombo elite bubble, it is also not a battle that can be won by taking refuge in the backyards of Western diplomatic missions in Colombo, or only by developing close links with Western LGBTQI rights advocacy groups with distinct POLITICAL AGENDAS. Such steps may certainly be of temporary help especially in boosting the personal agendas of individuals who purport to present themselves as the symbols of Sri Lanka’s LGBTI community, and may be advisable as temporary strategies or ‘plaster solutions’.

A semblance of real LGBTQI equality can only be achieved by campaigns that focus on queer liberation. A struggle for queer liberation imperatively involves a collective fight, fought locally, at the grassroots, with the mobilisation of LGBTQI people, and with the active participation of people holding political power who are either LGBTQI themselves or sympathetic to the causes of LGBTQI equality and justice. Most importantly, LGB, trans and queer people have a moral responsibility to connect their struggles for equality and justice with other vital gender and social justice struggles, from a cis woman’s (and a trans man’s, and other gender-plural people’s) right to a safe and legal termination, struggles against [cis and trans]misogyny, the fight for the fundamental rights and social justice for war widows in northern Sri Lanka, the fight against everyday sexism and violence against [cis and trans] women, and indeed the broader challenge of fighting misogyny and patriarchy on all fronts (in this article, I use terms referring to the gender binary – male, female, men, women etc. in an inclusive spirit – inclusive of both cis and trans men and women, as well as other non-binary and gender-plural people).

LGBTQI discrimination: patriarchal and misogynist connotations

In electoral politics, there is a clear and undeniable need to put in place quotas for representation, along the lines of gender and ethnicity. Anyone arguing against equality quotas, irrespective of whatever argument they come up with, are only paying lip service to equality. There is a clear need to promote the professional female politician – meaning, the emergence of the female leader through grassroots activism, public and business engagements, educational and professional credentials, and not because of being some influential cis man’s spouse or offspring. For an LGBTQI rights movement that focuses on queer liberation, these struggles are of vital importance, and the fight should be fought on a collective front. It is very important to identify, and promote increased understanding of the fact that sexism, misogyny, violence against women, discrimination against ethnic and religious minority women, and other manifestations of patriarchal oppression are closely intertwined with homophobia, transphobia, intolerance towards intersex babies, and the stigma attached to any manifestation of non-hetero-normativity. These issues cannot be separated from each other. In a context in which the local polity systematically relegates fighting misogyny, patriarchy and violence against women to less than a footnote, LGBTQI community leaders have a huge role to play in claiming that struggle, making it their own, and in working towards a broader and wholesome objective of gender and social justice. Arguments such as ‘oh gay rights have no place in Sri Lanka’, ‘Sri Lanka is not ready for anything like LGBT rights yet’ etc. are all ramblings of those who are indifferent to broader issues of gender-and sexuality-based discrimination. If one takes a closer look, one would notice that the advocates of views of this nature are also the same people who willingly subscribed to the ‘zero civilian casualties’ nonsense of the Rajapaksa regime in the aftermath of Eelam War IV and summarily denied (and continue to deny) violence, especially sexual violence against Tamil women by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. In sum, the LGBTQI activist and advocate has a key role to play as a gender and social justice activist, profoundly challenging misogyny and patriarchy, as well as neoliberal politics of the wealthy political class, discriminatory practices within the LGBTQI community itself, in that process maintaining their integrity and not becoming pawns of powerful governments and agencies with agendas of their own.

Instead, what we see in Colombo today is somewhat disheartening. We have an LGBT organisation headed by folk who admire and support….Hillary Clinton! That’s the ultimate example of a biased, uncritical, and small-minded attitude, intent only upon reaping personal profit. Mrs Clinton’s duplicities and neo-imperialist agendas have been amply exposed by many people, and do not require reiteration here. She is a key agent of Washington DC’s agenda of ‘using’ LGBTQI rights in countries in the global South as a tool to promote the US government’s imperialist and selfish interests. If the LGBTQI community leaders are to abide by such agendas, Sri Lankan LGBT, trans and queer people can forget hopes of queer liberation and equality.

Secondly, and despite commendable efforts to reach out to the broader citizenry through regular publications, documentation and infographics in Sinhala and Tamil, Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ activism continues to remain excessively, frustratingly, and appallingly elitist, and Colombo-urban-English-speaking-Westward-oriented elite-centred. This comes in the way of the good work done by this lobby, and in a postcolonial society where a strict code of neoliberal politics operate, is deeply problematic. It is very important, for the sake of the LGBTQI community of Sri Lanka, to have more ‘public faces’ who represent Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim backgrounds, preferably from the provinces, the non-Colombo-elite social strata, and preferably educated in Sri Lankan seats of higher learning, and who can articulately communicate in Sinhala and Tamil. The urbane elite Sinhalese, Tamils, and especially Burghers have had their field day since Dutch rule, and when it comes to the liberation struggle of a marginalised community, their utmost contribution lies in ‘acknowledging’ their positions of tremendous privilege, admitting that they owe whatever achievements they have realised so far in the personal and public spheres to their positions of privilege, and most importantly, in deploying these positions of privilege to facilitate the empowerment of those in the LGBTQI community who are not as privileged as they are, and not as well disposed to be openly LGB, trans or queer.

Building a mass movement: an absolute priority

As mentioned above, is very important to take every possible step to connect queer liberation struggles with other vital social and gender justice struggles, and to make the movement a mass movement, a people’s movement that is not confined to some elite pub or club in Colombo 3 or Colombo 7 where so-called ‘white expats’ hang about. In all of Equal Ground’s publicity material, there are Caucasian faces. Why? It does not take rocket science for anyone familiar with sociocultural stratifications in Sri Lankan society to comprehend the fact that the presence of ‘whiteness’ implies elitism, which, on occasion, may facilitate Equal Ground’s dealings with law enforcement, politicians and other authorities. Given the everyday challenges affecting the LGBTQI community, an argument could be developed in support of the presence of white folk in EG’s promotional material.

However, the monumental problem lies in the tendency in this type of strategy to alienate the LGBTQI community’s struggle from broader gender and social justice struggles, and in giving fodder to homophobic and transphobic bigots to castigate the LGBTQI community even more as some kind of a Western ‘imposition’. Instead of making whiteness very visible in promotional material, the LGBTQI community leaders ought to focus more on strengthening local networks, among the intelligentsia, ministers of religion, grassroots level social justice and gender justice activists. In upholding stronger positions on wider political issues, from reconciliation to dealing with the past, and standing unequivocally for the rights of marginalised groups, such as war widows and orphaned children/destroyed families in the north, and the plantation Tamil community, the LGBTQI community leaders should work towards emerging as social justice activists with a broad national appeal across ethnicity, gender and religion. There is a clear need to make Sri Lankans – meaning – Sri Lankans from all walks of life, from all faiths, socio-economic backgrounds, levels of education, across ethno-national faultlines, to be represented in the LGBTQI community’s promotional material. This can only be done by grassroots activism. If looking Westwards for inspiration, the most rejuvenating inspiration can be found in the work of black trans and queer activism in the USA, from organisations such as the Audre Lorde Project, the Sylvia Riviera Law Project, and also in #tqpoc campaigns such as Familia.

At Queen Victoria’s feet? not on.

Above: quintessential paradoxes: standing for LGBTQI rights at Queen Vicks’s feet. Source: EQUAL GROUND Facebook page

As part of Pride celebrations organised by Equal Ground, a photograph was circulated in social media in which a group of LGBTQI folk – including white folk of course, posing under the most poignant of Colombo’s colonial vestiges – a massive statue of Queen Victoria. It is legislation introduced under her reign that was instrumental in breaking up societal structures and gender pluralities that long-existed in the South Asian region. It is her reign’s agenda of colonisation, plunder, rape, forced land-grabbing, the forceful imposition of social conservatisms and a servile mindset that continue to criminalise LGBT people in Sri Lanka. It is also the legacy of colonial rule, of which an eventful century passed under her rule, that prompts community leaders and those in positions of privilege to gape at the white West as ‘the model’, and perceive whiteness as invariably superior. It is this mindset that is manifest in Equal Ground’s usage of white faces in its promotional material. Whoever’s idea it was to take that photograph at Victoria’s feet, it stands as a very strong reminder of where Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI activism stands – paying lip service to a western neo-imperialist agenda, intent upon boosting personal egos, securing western money for funded projects and living in a bubble amidst ‘white expats’ in Colombo, with the occasional outreach initiative and some promotional material in Sinhala and Tamil. From a perspective of queer liberation, and full justice, equality and protection for the Sri Lankan LGBTQI community/ies, gender and social justice to all, this picture suggests that prospects for Sri Lankans are very bleak. It is very important for the LGBTQI rights advocates in the Colombo elite to sit down and reflect upon their positions of privilege, what they are trying to achieve and the lacunae in their current strategies.

The above reading is not, however, in any way intended at demeaning or condemning the positive work done by the elitist urbane LGBTQI lobby in Colombo. They have certainly made commendable contributions over the years, and this writer for a second does not doubt their good intentions. However, it is crystal-clear that their activism is in need of critical thought and analysis, and a thoroughgoing reframing of where they are headed, what they intend to achieve, and reposition their struggle targeting the long term goal queer liberation, gender and social justice to all Sri Lankans.

*Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.

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