Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ Equality Stalemate & Victorian Hangovers: Reflections On A Decolonizing Approach To Sexual And Gender Justice

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

The week of the 16th of January 2017 carried bad news for Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ community. At the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, a number of ministers had vehemently opposed the abrogation of Articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code. This also implies vehement opposition to the inclusion of a constitutional clause on equality to all Sri Lankan citizens, irrespective of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. In other words, this cabinet decision, reached by a cabinet of ministers that describes itself as advocates of ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) does not recognize the fundamental rights of Sri Lankan citizens who are not heterosexual in terms of their sexual orientation. Although regulations have been slightly altered with regards to the tedious process of ‘correcting’ the civil service documentation of Transgender citizens, this cabinet decision also amounts to a rejection of Transgender (and indeed other gender-plural) Sri Lankan citizens, as it clearly hints at a reluctance at the highest levels of government to ensure the fundamental rights of citizens irrespective of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In other words, the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and its President, whose election was described as the dawn of an era of good governance, does not recognize non-heterosexual and non-cis-hetero-normative Sri Lankans. Despite the tremendous contributions they make to society home and abroad, the highest levels of government have concluded that LGBTIQ people, due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, as a second, if not third class, pariah category. This writer, for instance, a Sri Lankan citizen and a multilingual Trans woman with a Franco-British education plus an International Politics PhD, is, to go by the cabinet decision, of zero relevance or interest to the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

The media portrayals of the cabinet decision demonstrate a major problem, a substantive lack of representation, and ‘local’ role models and prominent LGBTIQ personalities, if not local LGBTIQ leaders, who are strong sexual and gender justice activists and advocates, who can command a high level of regard, influence and appreciation in local society. This enables media houses to take a ‘tabloid’ path of shamelessness. When one newspaper carries a headline on the Cabinet’s refusal to decriminalise non-heterosexual sexualities and relationships, another newspaper highlights that the decriminalisation effort was a ‘surreptitious attempt’ that was part of the Human Rights Action Plan, which was primarily spearheaded by the Ministry of External Affairs. Another state-owned newspaper, in a remarkable move to avoid mentioning LGBTIQ rights and to ‘counter’ the emphasis on ‘non-heterosexual sexual activity’ in other media outlets, quotes officials at the EU Mission in Colombo, in order to refute the claim that the EU laid down 58 preconditions for the GSP+ trade benefit to be re-granted to Sri Lanka.

Yet another newspaper, owned by a notorious businessman and political game-player, runs a short news item that is clearly intended at directing homophobic discontent towards Mangala Samaraweera MP, a fashion designer by training (with no formal training whatsoever in political theory, IR, or a cognisant discipline) who has been judged fit to hold Sri Lanka’s External Affairs ministerial portfolio. A cis gay man, Mr Samaraweera has deployed neither his jawbone nor his backbone (nor his position of influence) to openly stand for gender and sexual justice at home. Yet, to his singular credit, Sri Lanka has been carrying herself well internationally with regards to LGBTIQ rights and justice under his current ministerial tenure. In 2015, for instance, he made sure that Sri Lanka voted against a Russian resolution to cut family benefits to non-heterosexual families of UN Staff members. In 2016, Sri Lanka was the only South Asian country to vote in favour of the appointment of Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn as the UN Special Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) issues. For these votes, Samaraweera deserves a definitive word of appreciation. However, this goodwill that shows up in the international sphere does not imply that Samaraweera, a stark pro-Western politico with no formal training in IR and its counter-intuitive intricacies, possesses the analytical and strategic tools to ensure LGBTIQ rights in Sri Lanka through a framework of sexual and gender justice.

Yet another newspaper report carries an apt portrayal of the Eurocentric nature of Sri Lanka’s homophobic, biphobic and Transphobic (and indeed stringently patriarchal) political class. It quotes Laxman Yapa, a minister whose offspring thrives in Australia, who notes that [quote] …a committee headed by Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faizer Mustapha was appointed by the President to review the EC Action Plan and the committee had decided to completely remove the 6.1 and 6.8 provisions from the action plan which mentioned about the gay marriages and related sexual matters which the Minister claimed that those gay marriages and related issues had not yet been addressed even by the European countries and therefore they would not be implemented in Sri Lanka [unquote]. This statement, if one reads between the lines, implies that for the likes of Yapa to take fundamental rights-related legislation seriously, such legislation should first be fully enacted in Europe (read predominantly Caucasian Western countries). According to this logic, he can affirm: if Europe has not done it, why should we? The salient reality – that we are talking about the inalienable fundamental rights of SRI LANKAN CITIZENS, many of whom may not have the privilege to seek expatriation in places with a somewhat higher level of tolerance and acceptance – is thoroughly irrelevant to the minister.

Another English language newspaper carries a story with an identical focus (on same-sex marriage, and NOT on repealing Articles 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code), balancing information by correcting the minister’s claim that same sex marriage is illegal in France. As the article correctly notes, France legalised same-sex marriage in 2013. To add an anecdote, to anyone who harbours the slightest doubts on the legitimacy of such legislation in any part of the world, this writer strongly recommends that they listen to, or if necessary procure translations of parliamentary speeches made by Dr Christiane Taubira, the then Garde des Sceaux-Minister of Justice (and députée/Member of Parliament for French Guyana, and an excellent expert on Fanon and perspectives on decolonizing), at the Assemblée Nationale during the long-winded (and vehemently opposed) debates on the Mariage pour tous bill.

The politics of politicking: understanding the machinations of a clientelist political class

This week’s Cabinet decision has unsurprisingly left numerous civil society organisations, NGOs (the near-totality of them funded by Western sources) in a state of shock. They are understandably flabbergasted by the fact that their erstwhile hope – that an equality clause could be included in the proposed new constitution and that Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code could be repealed – is now considerably destroyed.

As a political analyst, this writer does not see any surprise factor, or a reason for regret in this cabinet decision. It simply reflects the political reality of Sri Lanka, that the change of government in 2015 (first in January 2015, further reinforced by the August 2015 general election) does not, contrary to the belief of many, imply a change of policy towards LGBTIQ citizens.

The ascension to power of a political party (the UNP) and a political leadership (mainly epitomised by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe) with a track record of being pro-Western and urban (and, in their elite private circles, known to crisscross heteronormativities) does not necessarily imply that the local LGBTIQ community’s circumstances will improve. It also is no guarantee that there is a better chance for the existing archaic and Victorian laws on sodomy that criminalise non-cis-heteronormative sexualities to be repealed. At this point, it needs to be clarified that Articles 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code refer, in Victorian terms, to ‘carnal intercourse against the laws of nature’ (Article 365). The repeal of these archaic Victorian impositions is a legislative necessity when enacting legislation that ensures sexual and gender justice to all citizens. However, the enactment of such legislation alone does not result in enhancing the lived experiences or the challenges faced by LGB and Trans/Queer/Intersex people. This, as I shall highlight below, involves a much broader and extensive task of sensitising and awareness-raising.

Erroneous assumptions among LGBTIQ activists?

Interacting with a number of grassroots LGBTIQ activists, in person and via social media, this writer can conclude that the impression that ‘the yahapalana government will be good for us’ pervades the LGBTIQ community. Although some activists strongly cling to this opinion, it is fundamentally erroneous in relation to the consolidation of LGBTIQ equality (this position, however, carries some salience in the backdrop of the nepotistic nature of the Rajapaksa administration. This however, should not blind activists to the limits of the current regime. Perceiving Sri Lankan politics in terms of opposites (as in Rajapaksa=rural/provincial=socially conservative=homo/Trans-phobic and Wickremesinghe=urban=cosmopolitan=Western-oriented=LGBTIQ-friendly) is deeply erroneous. Sri Lankan politics do not operate in this mannerism, at least in its current configuration.

Key post-Cabinet decision realisations worthy of attention?

In the aftermath of disheartening cabinet decision, LGBTIQ activists ought to take stock of local political realities, engaging in in-depth and counter-intuitive analyses. This leads to the realisation of a number of salient realities:

  1. Sri Lanka’s political class remains staunchly socially conservative, including those who are themselves LGBTIQ
  2. The first priority of the political class is the maintenance of power and associated privileges
  3. The prevalence of a tense, if not antagonistic situation with regards to LGBTIQ equality and justice, is a news-making headline, and ‘assists’ the political class as a whole in promoting hateful, homophobic and transphobic postures, which they appear to assume as carrying traction in the ‘larger electorate’ and helps create a much-needed distraction from misdemeanour in government policy on economic management and a range of related issues.
  4. Having cis gay men in powerful positions alone does not guarantee the enactment of protections for LGBTIQ people. Their presence might help, provided they are open about their sexualities, and have the jawbone and the backbone to affirm their commitment to the rights and equality of LGBTIQ citizens and their spouses.
  5. In the course of a recent conversation, one Colombo-based LGBTIQ activist recently sent this writer the following comment:

Basically, to go by this comment, there are a number of politicians, especially MPs in the current parliament, who are supportive of LGBTIQ rights, but wish to keep their allyship ‘hush-hush’. Some people, like the writer of this comment, may view this as a strategic move. However, a closer look demonstrates that this attitude is highly opportunistic and spineless on behalf of the politicians who voice it, and is a highly unadvisable advice for LGBTIQ activists.

A broad-based dialogue on gender and sexual justice?

What Sri Lanka needs, first and foremost, is an open and broad-based dialogue on gender and sexual justice. There is no country on earth where a semblance of gender justice-related provision (especially pertaining to LGBTIQ rights) was consolidated through silent, behind-the-scenes, and backyard lobbying alone. LGBTIQ activists also ought to note that politicians who harbour this view are in fact no allies. Instead, they risk being an eyesore and a premier obstacle for the LGBTIQ community at large.

Myth-busting and pursuing ‘home-grown’ approaches: crucial necessities

The public fear of what is termed as ‘homosexuality’ is something that needs explanation, myth-busting and fierce campaigning. This can be done by upholding a human rights-based approach, and as this writer has repeatedly highlighted in previous media contributions, a concerted effort to align ‘homosexuality’ with a) a broader set of gender and sexual justice goals and most importantly, b) grounding the struggle in local traditions. The idea that non-heteronormativity is a Western imposition is a myth, often voiced by socially conservative politicos and their allies to spread hatred, and also as a tool of concealing their own internalised non-heterosexualities. Drafting and publicising documents that prove this reality in Sinhala and Tamil, carrying out strong media (including, especially, social media) campaigns, and securing air time on TV and radio outlets should all be part and parcel of this struggle. A relationship between two consenting adult citizens, irrespective of their genders, is a human right, a private matter, and is none of anybody’s business. This reality needs to be openly discussed. At another level, it is crucial that LGBTIQ activists, especially those who are proficient in Sinhala and have their feet on Lankan soil (and not in the backyards of Western ambassadorial residencies) have a role to play in approaching and interacting with the Maha Sangha and Bukkunis. Nowhere in Buddhist teaching have gender and sexual justice been denied or forbidden, and ours is a philosophy based on the fundamental tenets of ‘tolerance’ and ‘compassion’ and mutual respect. This message needs to be discussed with Buddhist religious leaders, both in public and behind the scenes, in order to develop, gradually and incrementally, a broad support base for gender and sexual justice among the Bhikkus and Bhikkunis, starting with those who are of a moderate posture and supportive, and working towards developing the support network. Their presence in this dialogue is of primordial importance. It is only such a home-grown brand of activist engagement that can counter and contain the accusation that LGBTIQ issues are Western impositions. It is activism of this nature alone that can help liberate our society from the Victorian inheritances that continue to guide our Buddhist establishment and political class.

LGBTIQ rights activists who cannot speak, write or effectively communicate in Sinhala, who are not well-versed in Buddhist philosophy and teachings, and who do not have an in-depth knowledge of pre-colonial Sri Lankan history and socio-cultural traditions are, to say the very least, thoroughly unsuitable to execute such a mammoth task. The challenge, let’s be clear, is one of gigantic proportion, and it requires Sri Lankans with a strong and unwavering spirit of patriotism, who are proud of their citizenship, their language/s, their literature/s, the ethno-national and linguistic diversity on the land and the richness of Buddhist philosophy. To carry out this task, a starting point would be (if not IS) to engage in serious conversations within the LGBTIQ communities themselves, on what national identity and national heritage are, and consequently, on ways of ‘being oneself’ as non-cis-heteronormative while fully and proudly affirming one’s Sri Lankan identity (and not an urbane, broken Sinhala/Tamil-speaking, constantly Western-oriented, ‘with the begging bowl’-type pseudo-Sri Lankan identity).

Understanding activism beyond ‘binaries’ and existing polarisations

The above ideas do not imply an opposition to running projects with external (including Western) funding. One of the key problems in LGBTIQ activism (as well as in the general realm of human rights activism) is an inclination among people to cling to polar opposites (as in, such and such organisation, run by such and such with an LSE PhD, is definitely excellent and cosmopolitan, as opposed to such and such outfit or political party, full of village idiots). This logic results in a lobby that lives in a non-governmental sector bubble, and others who are at the other extreme, strongly chauvinistic and fundamentalist, anti-everything (except perhaps the possibility of permanent residence or citizenship in a predominantly ‘White’ country – yes, tell me about internalised racism, xenophobia, Transphobia and homophobia!). On the pro-LGBTIQ side of this divide, Western-funded projects are designed to correspond to funders’ agendas, without having vital conversations and delving into insights on the specific local configurations and realities, and the specific short, medium and long-term necessities of the land.

The dire necessity of new faces and fresh energy

Sri Lanka is in need of a new generation, if not a new set of faces of LGBTIQ activists who vehemently refuse to subscribe to such binaries; an activist lobby that is capable of assessing local needs and requirements, and developing funded projects that correspond to local problems, deficiencies and challenges. It needs to be an activist lobby that has the acumen to influence, interact with, and convince the political and ecclesiastic establishments, and (by running for office, for example) to become active players in the political structure itself. It is simply an invitation to a dead end to assume that quiet conversations with conservative politicians with no courage to stand for LGBTIQ rights, gender and sexual justice, would lead to the addition of a full-fledged equality clause to the Constitution or to the repeal of Articles 365 and 365A. The absence of such a robustly local yet simultaneously international activist and advocacy lobby is what enables politicians to capitalise upon LGBTIQ issues in order to suit their agendas – one side haunted by a ‘homosexual spectre’ and the other wanting to brush the issue under the carpet (as in Rajitha Senaratna’s සමලිංගිකත්වයට රජය විරුද්ධයි : ඒත් නීතිය ක්‍රියාත්මක කරන්නේ නෑ).

The challenge ahead is therefore one of strong movement-building with an uncompromising resolve, and in that process engaging with local community leaders, including the Bhikku-Bhukkuni on gender and sexual justice to all Sri Lankan citizens as per fundamental teachings in Buddhist philosophy. The challenge also lies in ensuring that each and every LGBTIQ advocacy group reframes their activism and advocacy not exclusively to LGBTIQ work (as in LGBTIQ groups in Western countries and indeed in many parts of the non-Western world), and focusing instead on a robust, locally-grounded and home-grown agenda of gender and sexual justice to all. An approach of this nature imperatively requires a profoundly intersectional-feminist focus, inspired, most importantly, by Transfeminist perspectives.

This provides the toolkit to create a discourse on fundamental rights in relation to sexuality and gender identity on a ‘local’ basis, which carries traction locally. Activists of the Islamic confession, to give yet another perspective, can (and definitely ought to) inspire from queer liberation initiatives such as Al-Qaws. If looking westwards, what should guide our activists and advocates is not a Harvey Milk but Audre Lorde, and the search for indigenous and ancestral knowledges that are imbued in a new generation of Transfeminist art and writing, such as the work of Kama La Makerel. The overall objective, then, needs to be, and should be, that of ‘decolonizing’ sociocultural and political attitudes towards issues of gender and sexual justice. In the context of the existing polarisation of the debate, a relative dearth of in-depth critical perspectives among segments of the LGBTIQ community, and a sense of profound disunity among activists are highly unfavourable to the development of such a movement.

If any organisation or individual assumes that running [Western]-funded projects, projecting oneself as the ‘public face’ of LGBTIQ activism in Sri Lanka (especially through international exposure, associated with one’s command of the English language and access to levels of ‘white privilege’ such as a passport issued by a Western country and excellent contacts with Western diplomatic missions in Colombo) alone would suffice to repeal Victorian era sodomy laws and enshrine constitutional protections for LGBTIQ Sri Lankans, such a strategy amounts to all but the highest level of myopia imaginable. Similarly, if activists assume that ‘we can get our things done through this government’, ‘Ranil is better than Mahinda’, ‘let’s get things done quietly, without making a big noise’ etc. then again, the route forward is bound to lead straight to a dead end. If some individuals assume that their Western education, Western contacts and professional experience, coupled with excellent networks in the local political sphere and upper echelons of society can do the trick – that again is a naïve route to a dead end. What is required, then, is an LGBTIQ activist lobby that operates along a sexual and gender justice focus, whose ethos is deeply rooted in Sri Lanka yet who are highly international and cosmopolitan in their worldview, and who are focused, unwaveringly, on decolonizing attitudes towards gender/s and sexuality/ies in Sri Lankan society.

That, and that alone, is the only viable path forward.

*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and a boad member of Sibeal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network.
PS: The writer acknowledges data collection support from Mr Udesh Fernando M.Sc. in drafting this article.

Back to Home page