At a rally held in Nugegoda on Sunday 7th July 2019, the JVP made history in Sri Lanka’s political discourses of the mainstream. Delivering the final fiery oration, the party’s General Secretary, long-term stalwart, and one of its senior-most personalities, Comrade Tilvin Silva, stated that his party fully recognises the rights and agency of people with non-cis-heteronormative sexual orientations, gender identities/expressions and sex characteristics [SOGIESC]. This was the very first time a leading political party in national-level politics made a such a public affirmation at a political rally. No other major party or politician (including politicians who are themselves LGBTQIA+) has made a public statement of this nature in Sinhala in the past.
In this sense, Comrade Silva’s words marked a definitive first. The party therefore deserves he fullest credits for seeking to expand its inclusivity in terms of outreach and policy formulation.
The most significant point here is that the JVP has not always held views of this nature. In December 2015, one of its sitting MPs, a medical doctor by profession, made extremely homophobic and transphobic remarks in a newspaper interview. The JVP’s composition has historically involved a large majority of cis [and mostly heteronormative] men. In terms of achieving a level of parity that suits a dignified and modern political party of the left of the 21st century, it is only realistic to note that Sri Lanka’s JVP has a long way to go. In politically reading the JVP’s newfound interest in SOGIESC rights, this writer would advance two hypotheses.
1. Coming of age?
Firstly, this policy development can be considered as exemplary of the JVP ‘coming of age’ as a political party of the left in the second decade of the 21st century. Indeed, many political parties of the left, especially in the global North, have been on the forefront of advancing discourses on rights, including the rights of non-heteronormative and non-cisnormative citizens. However, it needs to be stated that affirming support for SOGIESC rights is thoroughly inadequate without an overall and overarching discourse on equality, justice and representation. Less than a handful of women occupy positions of power in the Party’s hierarchy. The JVP needs to come to terms with the fact that in order to become a modern political party of the left, they need to be prepared to make substantive structural and policy changes. In political circles of the left, the concept of 50-50 party should no longer be a be considered as a luxury available in some countries.
2. Strategic politicking?
Secondly, the cynical reading would be that the JVP is engaged in a cautious political game. Since the joint-government came to being in early 2015, its performance has been extremely problematic, to say the very least. Apart from less than a handful of positive measures such as the right to information legislation, it can be very clearly established that the joint government experiment has been a failure [this does not, however, justify the October 2018 effort to overthrow the government through means that were a far cry from best practice]. The joint government’s reaction to the 2019 Easter Sunday tragedy eradicated whatever namesake credibility it may have been clinging onto. In this context, many people in the liberal lobby who originally endorsed the joint government in 2015 have found themselves somewhat lost in mid-air. Circumstances now make it harder for many of them to justify extending support to a UNP-led coalition once again. They obviously see no space whatsoever in the neo-conservative majoritarian-nationalist camp. The JVP, one could argue, is engaged in an attempt to go fishing among these disgruntled elements of the liberal lobby.
A commendable move?
Irrespective of what the JVP’s ‘political’ motivations are, the resolve of its high command to extend their support to SOGIESC rights at a public rally is highly commendable. In a socially conservative political context, there is a clear difference between a political party articulating such a policy position at its internal closed-door meetings, or at events held at conference halls, and what they did here – expressing such a position at an open-air public rally, a place otherwise largely meant for sensationalist [and invariably cis-heteronormative and toxically misogynist] soundbites that amuse the gallery.
The work behind
What was voiced on 7th July 2019 was the result of a long and gradual process, of several rounds of conversations between JVP representatives and several Sri Lankan LGBTQIA+ rights activists. These policy input meetings have been helpful in developing the Party’s policy on LGBTQIA+ issues, and in moving from a place of strong conservatism to a level of openness to discourses on the rights of people who face marginalisation on the basis of their SOGIESC. The activists who took the lead in conversing with the JVP must be commended for their months-long hard work. At a public event held in November 2018, party leader Comrade Anura Dissanayke clearly voiced his party’s commitment to respect SOGIESC rights. At a public rally held in Nugegoda on the 1st of November 2018, the JVP took an unprecedented step, a first in the history of post-1948 Sri Lankan politics, to provide a platform for a leading member of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQIA+ community to address the gathering. Indeed, the bilingual [Sinhala/Tamil] speech made by Comrade Thiyagaraja Waradas, a scholar-activist, co-founder of the grassroots collective Chathra and the Community Welfare Development Fund, was highly appreciated not only in JVP circles and left-leaning queer circles, but also in non-left LGBTQIA+ circles as well as among allies. At the present point of time, we can clearly establish that the JVP has:
1. Emerged as the one and only national-level political party with parliamentary representation and capability to impact national politics to openly extend support to SOGIESC rights
2. Clearly demonstrated its preparedness to engage in dialogues and interactive exchanges with members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQIA+ community, including people who may not necessarily position themselves on the left, or centre-left when it comes to their political discourses or affiliations.
3. Taken steps to create space for LGBTQIA+ community leaders to take the floor, ensuring their agency, respecting their knowledge and skills, and affirming them as valuable contributors to their present-day political discourse.
4. Taken steps to publicly affirm their preparedness to develop policies that protect the rights of non-heteronormative and non-cisnormative citizens.
It is this writer’s fervent hope that point C) above will soon be expanded to the granting of nominations to several leading members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to stand on a JVP-led coalition ticket at the 2020 General Election. Time has come for Sri Lankan voters – especially for the new generation of first-time voters – to well and truly change the composition of their people’s representatives. This involves replacing the serving non-het politicians who cautiously hide their truths to fit into the heteronormative mould of the prototype Lankan conservative politico, with highly-qualified, articulate, openly and proudly non-het and/or non-cis politicians. LGBTQIA+ advocacy of the centre-left can, will, and possesses the resources to, ensure that such candidates’ work for gender and social justice is locally-grounded and deeply rooted in our soil, that they speak fluent Sinhala and Tamil, and are armed with an unwavering resolve to stand for the national interest [with zero drifts along ethno-nationalist and ethnoreligious lines], and are, simultaneously, highly internationalist and cosmopolitan.
Challenges in SOGIESC advocacy?
Developments of this nature certainly deserve our appreciation. However, they must be understood, if not ‘read’ with tremendous caution.
To give but one example, LGBTQIA+ activist circles, in some cases, can be somewhat intimidating spaces marked by hierarchies which, when read from an intersectional feminist perspective, are deeply disturbing. In most cases, such circles follow ‘templates’ from cis-hetero-normative society. In most lobbies that term themselves ‘LGBTQIA+ activist’ the frontline spearheading is done by cisgender gay men. They are the centrepoint, and in order to sustain their agendas, they seek to include other people within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum along a strictly defined line of hierarchy. To follow this logic, the second priority goes to lesbian, if not non-heteronormative cisgender women. Everyone else in the SOGIESC spectrum, from non-cisnormative women and men, non-binary people, intersex people, and many others are way down the list, and are seldom seen a priority, unless they can be tokenised for the benefit of the cis men [and in rarer cases cis women] running the show. When advocacy for the rights of a highly marginalised and stigmatised minority is hierarchised in such a way, it is inevitable that the advocacy stagnates, and moving towards consolidating rights is made harder.
The left as not immune?
The above-mentioned hierarchies of LGBTQIA+ advocacy also exist in left-leaning LGBTQIA+ circles. This is a somewhat less-acknowledged but very palpable reality. In Sri Lanka, the left-leaning LGBTQIA+ lobby [which may also include disgruntled liberals with an occasional leftward drift], is not immune to this reality. However, compared to other segments of the [neo]liberal rainbow-flag-wrapped, urbane, English-speaking [read near-monolingually English-speaking] LGBTQIA+ lobby that would have a better chance of rights advocacy in London rather than in Colombo, left-leaning LGBTQIA+ circles have been more amenable to constructive critique, and to make space for systemically marginalised people and groups in the broad SOGIESC spectrum. LGBTQIA+ work of the left has also been the one and only platform to critically engage with pressing issues such as homonationalism, the specific challenges for LGBTQIA+ rights in the context of the current ethno-religious ferment, and to develop a constructive dialogue with a political party with a representation in Parliament. In this sense, the JVP’s public affirmation of 7th July 2019 can be considered as a significant milestone that the left-leaning LGBTQIA+ lobby achieved this year.
Cause for concern?
However, in every possible sense, there is more reason for concern than for contentment. There is a need for the LGBTQIA+ lobby of the left to look at itself more in the mirror, see, acknowledge and work towards dismantling its inherent cis-normativities and gendered hierarchies. As this writer has highlighted elsewhere, there is a clear need to understand the work as a constant ‘process’ and not as an end in itself. This makes it an absolute imperative to constantly delve harder into the question of what it means to develop well and truly ‘Sri Lankan’ forms of SOGIESC work. There is a constant need to explore and innovate, in terms of ‘grounding’ the work in our local context. Yet another crucial necessity is that of connecting SOGIESC advocacy with wider issues of national concern surrounding social justice, gender justice, economic inequities, ethnonational politics, ethnoreligious unrest, foreign policy, border control and more. SOGIESC should no longer be discussed as a ‘fringe’ issue. In other words, meaningful SOGIESC work cannot be developed in the absence of an adequate appraisal of the social, political and cultural conflicts and challenges we face as a country.
As far as the JVP is concerned, the Party’s SOGIESC and, broadly speaking, gender justice-related policy consistency [or lack thereof] will soon be visible, as we move towards national elections.