In an interview with an English language newspaper, JVP’s Nalinda Jayathissa MP has made a statement that makes one question the MP’s (and given its reputation of strict discipline, verification and vetting processes, the JVP’s) understanding of what progressive politics of the left really entails in the present-day world. When questioned on his perceptions on LGBTQI rights, the MP quips:
“I am totally against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual [sic] (LGBT) rights. This is not the need of the human being. We need a future generation. Scientific experiments reveal that 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”.
The immaturity of these simply farcical claims, in a newspaper interview that carries the by-line “Extreme no to extremism” (also a quote from Jayathissa), is graspable to anybody with a few functioning braincells.
The JVP: a new path forward?
After its own moments of crisis and tumultuous hardship, the JVP, under its present leadership, is only beginning to emerge as a party that commands support from a broad cross-section of the electorate, beyond its so-called ‘traditional’ vote base. This trend was evident in the 2015 general election campaign, when the JVP was endorsed by a large number of academics, professionals and expatriates, and many of them were supporting the JVP for the first time.
In electoral terms, the foremost challenge before the JVP today is that of maintaining that momentum, moving along a progressive path and upholding a discourse of inclusion. The term ‘inclusion’, in this case, ought to extend to all areas of policy, from the ethno-national question to the national economy and anti-corruption, to civil liberties and public policy. A core component in the process of crafting a progressive and inclusive agenda is that of observing, and developing relationships with genuine political movements of the left in the global South as well as the North, engaging in mutual learning, un-learning and ensuring that every segment of the Sri Lankan electorate – across boundaries of religion, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, political background, and sexual orientation, can find a place of acceptance and appreciation in the JVP. A viable political movement of the left is one that stands and fights for, and constantly defends the erstwhile rights of marginalised communities. In the Sri Lankan context, the JVP made significant progresses in the post-war phase by admitting its lack of concern for war-affected civilians, especially during the latter stages of the war, and in 2014, standing resolutely with the Sri Lankan Muslim community in the face of government-sponsored Sinhala nationalist extremist agitation.
If the JVP is to go anywhere at all in improving its national and international profiles to the level of a serious contender for political power, it needs to keep up with a progressive agenda of this nature, extending its outreach to all communities, especially to those that get next to no visible and/or viable support from its political rivals.
LGBTQI rights and Sri Lanka?
When it comes to the issues of gender justice and LGBTQI rights, Sri Lanka remains way behind other countries in the subcontinent, still adhering to long out-dated Victorian-era British legislation. Nepal, for all its socio-political and economic challenges, has introduced forward-looking legislation on this front, and now includes, for example, a third gender option in all new passports. LGBTQI lobbies in India are gaining increased visibility, and despite persistent challenges, considerable achievements have been made. Sri Lanka, in the meantime, continues to adhere to a mid-19th century sodomy law, denying LGBTQI Sri Lankans their most basic fundamental rights. Despite momentary developments, there is no recognition of the LGBTQI community, especially the Transgender community. By far the leading entity that seeks to address the concerns of LGBTQI people is Equal Ground, a non-governmental organization, which, in all fairness, has done and is doing very commendable work. Given its very nature, it is forced to seek external financial support for its projects, and has benefitted from considerable support from Western sources.
Duplicities, Imperialist imperatives and using LGBTQI rights as a scapegoat?
A key point needs to be reiterated at this point: achieving LGBTQI equality and justice in any consistent way is not an objective that can be realised by NGOs alone. The discourse on ‘LGBT rights’ (or more colloquially ‘gay rights’), as articulated by Western powerhouses in their dealings with non-Western and in the majority of cases, developing countries, involves a shrewd strategy for domination, maintaining strategic influence, infiltration into the internal affairs of countries, and other related neo-colonial imperatives. At the recent House of Commons debate on airstrikes in Syria, both David Cameron and Hilary Benn used the case of the treatment of – to quote their own words – ‘gay people’ as a justification of their imperialist and capitalist agenda of air strikes in Syria. Both were absolutely cautious to totally avoid a word about the even more atrocious treatment of LGBTQI people in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, their close allies and partners in crime (and foremost endorsers of ISIS). In the case of Israel/Palestine, Israel systematically deploys pinkwashing as a means of projecting an image of being LGBT-friendly and tolerant, as opposed to (in Tel-Aviv’s script) the ‘hostile and violent’ anti-LGBT Muslims. Organisations such as alQaws, a Palestinian LGBTQI support initiative, and activist groups such as Pinkwatching Israel work to challenge this notion and Israel’s penchant to use of LGBT issues to perpetuate its repressive and colonising anti-Palestinian agenda. In Russia, the two anti-LGBTQI civil rights laws adopted in 2013 were very much part of Kremlin’s efforts to appeal to nationalist sentiment and to exploit right-wing reactionary forces (especially the Russian Orthodox Church), as a strategy of responding to growing social unrest and problems of political instability faced by the ruling regime. In Sri Lanka, the present government includes LGB individuals in high positions of power, who, despite their influential posts, lead lives closeted to their wealthy, privileged and urban social milieu. Nearly all of them represent a party that is a member of the International Democratic Union and consequently, is of the same ilk as the British Conservatives, U.S. Republicans and the Australian Liberal Party, firmly wedded to repressive right-wing neoliberal politics. Expecting a semblance of LGBTQI equality and queer liberation for ordinary Lankans from this cohort (pace a photograph supporting the #idefend initiative taken at the UN) is something more than futile.
The bottom line is that LGBTQI rights are used, in one way or another, to advance political agendas. In that process of scapegoating, some segments of the LGBTQI community (such as a wealthy and mostly white LGB demographic in the USA that benefits from #equalmarriage) may enjoy some dividends, but queer liberation, especially for people of colour and from the global South, is a constant and very challenging struggle, with a long, long way ahead. A number of organisations, from the Audre Lorde Project to Familia TQLM (as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, largely led by Queer and Trans black youth), focus on a wholesome discourse of collective liberation, strongly challenging the use of LGBTQI issues for political agendas. Trans activists of colour upholding extremely critical and insightful perspectives, such as the artist duo DarkMatter, Meredith Talusan, Kama la Makerel and the very talented Sri Lankan American D’Lo have deployed their work actively to dismantle myths about Western advocacy of ‘gay rights’ and hollow double standards of pinkwashing, developing strong Transfeminist and postcolonial readings of gender identities and gendered post/neo-colonial experiences.
Acute paradoxes and dismal treatment of marginalised groups?
Equal marriage, despite the significance of that legislation from a human rights perspective, is also a measure that serves the interests of an affluent (and very largely white) middle class, to manage their wealth and assets through the institution of marriage. Acute concerns of and challenges faced by LGBTQI people from minority communities are oftentimes summarily ignored. As the USA takes pride in equal marriage, with President Obama hailed (largely by a white middle class LGB lobby) as the ‘ally of the year’, LGBTQI migrant detainees suffer appalling conditions, with Transwomen of colour suffering the most. As a recent Al-Jazeera report revealed, the sheer violence faced by Ashley Diamond, an African American Transwoman incarcerated in an all-male prison, demonstrates the US authorities’ woeful negligence of LGBTQI people of colour. Despite the successes and media visibility of specific Transpeople of colour, such as actress Laverne Cox and author/TV presenter Janet Mock, (and as Mock herself affirmed in a recent interview) a large percentage of LGBTQI people from minority backgrounds continue to suffer extreme poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination and harassment and this sorry situation is quasi-identical across the so-called LGBTQI-friendly West. In the year 2015 alone, some twenty-one Transwomen have been brutally killed in the USA, and almost all of them happen to be Transwomen of colour. Britain is not doing better, and in November 2015, Vicky Thompson, a Transwoman placed in an all-male prison, committed suicide. When US, UK and other Western authorities pay lip service to LGBTQI rights in foreign lands, only the ill informed and the perennially uncritical will not take such ‘concern’ without a fine pinch of salt.
The task before political movements of the ‘left’?
In a world marked by such duplicities, political movements in the global South purporting to uphold anti-Imperialist, progressive and inclusive agendas have a crucial role to play, in approaching LGBTQI rights nationally and internationally as a fundamental human rights issue, and in advocating inclusion, non-discrimination, recognition, respect and embracing people, irrespective of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity/ies. Contrary to what is often assumed in left movements in the developing world, LGBTQI issues are neither a ‘Western’, ‘white’ issue, nor a Western import that runs against the cultural traditions of non-Western societies. These are both monumentally flawed assumptions, and suffice to observe carefully to note that diversity in terms of sexual orientation and a plurality of expressions of gender identities are, simply, universal and are as old as humanity itself.
The Corbyn analogy?
Today’s political movements of the left across the world and their leaders are generally keen to understand this reality and take robust action. Given the JVP’s ultimate ambition of an election victory and securing power (and given Sri Lanka’s Commonwealth connections), its leaders can surely learn a few poignant lessons from Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn MP, the leader of the Labour Party. When LGBTQI rights used to be sidelined as too controversial an issue years ago with no front-page attention, Corbyn was very keen to make a strong case for LGBTQI equality and justice. Similarly, when apartheid in South Africa was tolerated by some Western capitalist regimes (including that of Margaret Thatcher), Corbyn was there, actively campaigning against apartheid – for which he even got arrested. When Corbyn entered the Labour leadership contest last summer, many cynics were of the opinion that he simply had no chance (not unlike Sri Lankan cynics who do not see any prospects at all for the JVP). Instead, Corbyn’s image as a genuine political voice of the left, coupled with his discourse of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’ enabled him to not only win the leadership contest with a massive majority, but also to have such a tremendous impact on his party, with party membership soaring across the UK since he assumed leadership. Today, despite the Murdoch media establishment’s vile anti-Corbyn rants and continuous naysaying of right wing and pseudo-left reactionaries within the Labour Party and beyond, Jeremy Corbyn is Britain’s most popular national-level politician, and stands a non-negligible chance of winning the 2020 general election, provided he contests and maintains his present energetic pace of action.
The key lesson from the Corbyn case is that a political movement of the left and its leaders should never shy away from advocating a consistently progressive and inclusive approach. Such movements and their leaders also have nothing to loose by strongly supporting issues of fundamental rights, even when they are unpopular, not so media-savvy, or carry the risk of reactionary backlashes.
The JVP: no space for reactionary backtracking!
Coming back to the JVP, it is a political party that has demonstrated the potential to evolve, assume its role in the democratic mainstream, and as it was evident in the #geSL2015 campaign, attract the support of a cross-section of society beyond its traditional vote base. Post-election, the JVP has continued its work in exposing corruption, upholding often neglected issues and in moving forward, despite negative publicity from right-wingers as well as anti-JVP groups on the left, such as the Frontline Socialist Party, created by a JVP breakaway group. If the JVP is to keep up its 2015 momentum of an inclusive discourse and move towards further successes, it simply cannot afford to tread the path Jayathissa takes in his newspaper interview.
A responsible political movement of the left, irrespective of the country in which it operates, cannot afford to advocate the rights of one or several groups and simultaneously deny the fundamental rights and the very existence of another. If Jayathissa’s position on LGBTQI issues is also the JVP’s official position, then the JVP, unfortunately, has not much that differentiates itself from other reactionary parties, from Wimal Weerawansa’s majoritarian-nationalist-reactionary concoction to the UNP and others. Adopting a wholesome fundamental rights discourse and including LGBTQI rights within it provides the JVP with a golden opportunity to stand as the one and only Sri Lankan political party that takes a truly progressive path. If the JVP refuses to see this reality and clings to a Weerawansa-type attitude to fundamental rights, it deserves national and international condemnation, and especially total shunning by progressive and genuine left parties in other countries.
Importance of enhancing global partnerships
Given Sri Lanka’s own history and strategic priorities, it will be most advantageous for the JVP to link up with Corbyn’s Labour, and with pro-Corbyn politicians in Britain, as well as with movements such as Momentum. Equally, the JVP’s future prospects could be enhanced by harnessing links with the likes of Podemos in Spain and the Swedish Social Democrats, the only centre-left party to hold power in Europe at the moment (in the backdrop of France’s Parti socialiste having repeatedly proven itself to be a right-wing reactionary force, putting its very name to utter shame).
None of these can be accomplished by a political movement that rejects the inalienable fundamental rights of communities. Adopting the cause of LGBTQI rights from a fundamental human rights perspective would enable the JVP to make its policy agenda more coherent, rendering invaluable services to Lankan society by promoting equality and inclusion (especially through the Party’s youth bodies including the Socialist Student Union), and consequently, enhancing the Party’s profile among other political movements of the left worldwide. A policy approach of this nature will also enable the JVP to benefit from the skills and capabilities of LGBTQI party members, draft a nationally and internationally exemplary diversity strategy, and be profoundly influenced by postcolonial IR-feminist-transfeminist discourses (which will strongly contribute to a critical sharpening of the JVP’s anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal discourses). Most importantly perhaps, such a policy approach will help contain imperialist and intrusive pinkwashing agendas promoted by Western capitalist powerhouses. The latter corresponds fully, and should form an integral part of, the JVP’s overall political philosophy.
Why does Jayathissa take a reactionary route?
Reactionary attitudes such as those of Jayathissa can only cause harm and monumental disadvantage to the JVP and its prospects. This leads one to question as to why he voices these views – often the cup of tea of rightwingers – in an interview with an English language newspaper. Who is he trying to address? To which audience is he trying to convey a message?
This is where one would end up asking if conspiracy theories, especially the likes of what is propagated by the Frontline Socialists, that the JVP is all but a mouthpiece for USA-led agendas, operating under the UNP’s tacit influence, are in fact truisms.
In expressing a vehemently anti-LGBTQI position in an English newspaper, Jayathissa is trying to communicate to a certain audience – which includes the English-educated, the urban elite, foreign diplomats and agencies stationed in Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. When a young and promising parliamentarian, with a growing track record of progressive public engagements and remarkable talent, and a medical doctor at that, comes up with such abjectly reactionary and laughably ludicrous anti-LGBTQI views, it strengthens the hands of pinkwashing agents, who can now affirm “Look how local political parties, and even young and educated politicians, are so homophobic and Transphobic! Typical of these developing countries in Asia!” This gives pinkswashers a tremendous opportunity to get involved in propagating their agendas. The likes of the LGBTQI advocacy NGO referred to earlier in this article can use Jayathissa’s claims to demonstrate the vital importance of their work, and possibly to seek increased funding from Western sources (which, this writer assumes, is perfectly logical and justifiable).
Meanwhile, the stigma attached to the JVP as a bunch of reactionaries, from rural backgrounds with little exposure to the world and not on a par with the times – an image that right-wingers take pleasure in promoting – will thrive, boosted by Jayathissa’s anti-LGBTQI myopia.
LGBTQI rights irrelevant to Lanka: a non-argument
One could, however, argue that the JVP maintains Jayathissa’s position on LGBTQI rights in order to avoid a local backlash from the hoards of extremist reactionaries on all sides. Proponents of this view could cite the possible political risks that supporting the LGBTQI cause could carry in the Sri Lankan context. In general, those upholding this view also justify the total obliviousness to LGBTQI rights among LGBTQI people in positions of high-politics, especially in the present government. As credible as it may seem at the outset, this is the crappiest and the most baseless of arguments. The JVP, being the political movement it is, constantly risks reactionary wrath irrespective of what course of action it pursues. A progressive attitude on LGBTQI issues (and also an absolute commitment to parity and women’s’ rights, as opposed to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s 25% babytalk) has all the potential to further enhance the party’s popularity among younger generations.
Conclusion: JVP has only one way forward
The only way in which the JVP can enhance its profile nationally and internationally is by embracing progressive and inclusive values of the left, advocating equality and justice to ethnic and religious minorities, non-heterosexual and non-cisgender citizens, fighting discrimination, standing up for the rights of working people, and in emerging as an inclusive force in which everyone, especially everyone who has felt and continues to feel rejected by or somewhat unwelcome in other political persuasions, will find a welcoming place of heart-warming acceptance, camaraderie and recognition.
Pursuing this route inevitably entails assuming, on occasion, clear and unambiguous positions on issues that may not be very popular among quite a few people. Courageous steps of this nature can only facilitate the JVP’s efforts to make a stronger case of being the only available alternative, positioning itself as fundamentally different from and bolder than the neoliberal parties of the right.
In the absence of treading such a path, the JVP can be sure to stagnate for good, to not progress beyond where it is now, remain limited to its 5% national vote base, and be conned and ridiculed by right-wing neoliberal (and invariably reactionary) political machinations.