Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s Homophobia & Our Silence

By Dinidu Karunanayake

Dinidu Karunanayake

The Sri Lankan society in general is homophobic, and it notoriously prides itself on being so. During a recent public speech, monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara berated the current government for being “impotent” on grounds of homosexuality. “Today the country is governed by a group of homosexuals. This is a very serious concern…. I can recall the entire list, like The Dhammapada. There are about a hundred of them, and all of them are homosexual….” he yelled. He even went into naming several members of the cabinet, and called them a “p-set,” a term derived from a Sinhala slang word for “a person without male or female genitals.” In a separate incident, speaking to The Daily News on December 10, 2015, JVP parliamentarian Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa made a similar statement about homosexuality. Asked about his stance on LGBT rights, Dr. Jayatissa asserted, “I am totally against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) rights. This is not the need of the human being. We need a future generation.” Coming from two vastly different political backgrounds—monk Granasara from a neotribal “Sinhalese Buddhist” nationalist background, and Dr. Jayatissa, a Marxist nationalist background—it is noteworthy that both see eye to eye about homophobia. This piece of writing is not meant to be a personal attack on either the monk or the doctor, but a brief examination of an extremist line of thinking embraced by these two, who by and large represent and speak to a larger community of the country. This is also a follow-up response to a much-needed dialogue initiated by Ramindu Perera, Thiyagaraja Waradas and Upul Wickramasinghe.

Nalinda Jayatissa

Several observations can be gleaned from monk Gnanasara’s speech. On the surface, it is a hate speech intended to entertain his followers, to make them feel proud of their own “patriotic” urges which are coded as “masculine.” However, we cannot simply dismiss his claims as such. The monk conflates “homosexual” with “napunska” (“neither male nor female”), revealing a common opinion held by many Sri Lankans. This betrays not only his homophobia—his hatred towards another minority community in the country—but also a gross ignorance about biology and socio-cultural behavior. It must be noted that this is not a unique problem the monk singularly undergoes. As a society in general, Sri Lanka deleteriously stereotypes the queer community so much so that masculinity is invariably a test. The likes of Gnanasara step into the robes of cultural judges and keep demanding laypeople for “masculine valor” by spearheading the wars they have conceptualized.

The monk refers to science to prove his point: “Don’t forget, psychologically, biologically, medically…, it has been proven that a bond between two homosexuals is a hundred times more destructive and powerful than a bond between a man and a woman.” It must be noted that in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. The monk seems to be referring to the late twelfth-century Christian writing or the nineteenth-century European medical discoveries. It is easy for an uninformed speaker to misguide a passionate mob with misinformation. It is easy to spread hatred. In a post-war society that revels in triumphalism, integrating homophobia into nationalist rhetoric is also a strategic move used by public speakers like monk Gnanasara to keep the sparks of enmity alive.

On the other hand, as a recognized medical professional, Dr. Jayatissa has a professional and official voice to advise on sexuality. His academic and professional trajectory is awe-inspiring and exemplary. Also, his decision to enter the Marxist political stream in order to deliver justice far and wide is admirable. However, it is surprising and at the same time frustrating that, as a medical professional, he echoes monk Gnanasara’s logical fallacy:

“Scientific experiments reveal this kind of emotions come out due to stress. When people go through stressful periods or are in such environments, unnatural feelings come out. For example, we do not see this behaviour when they are living in the wild. However, if they are caged, we would see this behaviour. I believe in marriage between man and woman. Same sex marriage is unnatural. It is against the evolution of the human being.”

Similar to the monk’s line of thinking, Dr. Jayatissa considers the queer community as “undesirable.” His rationale also makes us question loopholes in the prestigious medical education that only a small percentage of the student body is privileged to have. I wonder about the type of advice a homophobic doctor like Dr. Jayatissa would offer a queer patient who is bewildered by his/her “inadequate” contribution to society, having listened to speakers such as monk Gnanasara.

Even though Dr. Jayatissa is clearly repulsed by a non-heteronormative person, he still claims that he cares about the young generation whom he considers “the future” of the country. He reiterates, “The youth must have a backbone and stand against injustice, inequality and suffering. Then they can open their minds and stand firm…. So if we want to develop this country, all these educated and dedicated youth should get together.” It is ironic that he envisions an all-inclusive justice with the youth participation while excluding the LGBTQ community, an essential component of the population. Unarguably, all of us should stand against injustice, inequality, and suffering. But first of all, we need to identify all those moments of injustice that are rendered ineligible and illegitimate. While the JVP is searching solutions for social injustice, some of the real problems are falling through the cracks!

To begin with, we need to question our own silences, both intentional and unintentional. We need to “open our minds” as Dr. Jayatissa proposes, but with a socio-political awareness. As James Baldwin once said, “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected–those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!–and listens to their testimony. Even though Baldwin was not a Marxist, he reminds us about layers of injustice and discrimination that go unnoticed by those who are invested in social justice in official and unofficial capacities.

*Dinidu Karunanayake is a PhD student at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, USA. He can be reached at priyankp@miamioh.edu

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