Part II

Having had a look into the historical background of the Pride Month and the global LGBTQIA+ movement in the previous article, this article focuses on the LGBTQIA+ community and their movements in the Sri Lankan context. Though several segments of society seem to uphold quite progressive views about the LGBTQIA+ community, some are still hesitant to accept them for who they are. This resistance surfaces in the forms of hatred and discrimination which victimise the LGBTQIA+ community.

Thus, Ceylon Today reached out to Senior Lecturer at University of Colombo- Faculty of Law and film director Dr. Visakesa Chandrasekaram who has been raising a voice for the LGBTQIA+ community of Sri Lanka on different platforms including cinema, with the aim of giving insight into this issue the community tackles

A cross section of the mainstream society

Visakesa says that he identifies the LGBTQIA+ community as just a cross section of Sri Lanka’s mainstream society for the most part. Issues and divisions that are identified within the mainstream society are observed in the LGBTQIA+ community as well. “All sorts of divisions such as racism, religious conflicts and extremism and even the caste problem at certain times as well as, most importantly, the issues related to the social status; whether people are rich or poor and the class association and so forth can be clearly noticed in the LGBTQIA+ community also”.

Queer society in Sri Lanka

Furthermore, Visakesa evaluated the LGBTQIA+ community in local context with that of the western democratic context. Though it might be a bit of generalisation, it can be identified that the Eastern countries as a whole, but with exceptions, are rather backward and reluctant in accepting the LGBTQIA+ community when compared with the Western world. Indeed, “Western democracies have gone as far as accepting and legalising gay, lesbian marriages, having government funded transmissions and surgeries for transgender people, ensuring their protection, initiating employment programmes and so forth. I mean there is a very comprehensive regime of anti-discrimination laws and so on.” But the situation in Sri Lanka is a total contradiction to this.

“The LGBTQIA+ community has always been there in Sri Lanka in different forms but they were not given their rights. Lots of gay men were forced into heterosexual marriages and ergo they had ways and means of meeting secret gay lovers outside the marriage. Transgender people were just cross dressing and only a very few could consider going for a surgery” Visakesa shared.

By the same token, the condition of the LGBTQIA+ community’s human rights is in a very murky situation and as Visakesa observes, it is even worse when it comes to the criminal law which is unapologetically enforced against the community. Hence, most of the time, people of the community find it uneasy to identify themselves as a part of the community, given the risk associated. In such a condition, it is not difficult to imagine how hard and pressurising it is for one to come out as a queer person. Many LGBTQIA+ children, within this socio-political background, develop anxiety and even depression as they gradually start to decipher their gender and sexual orientation, mostly due to lack of knowledge on sexuality and the external social pressure.

A legal quandary

“In Sri Lanka, we are still using an archaic legal system introduced by British during their rule. Therefore the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t receive any protection from it. Theoretically, the law, actually, is against them. The Article 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code criminalises sexual acts deemed ‘against the order of nature’ prohibiting any same sex act between men. Later, the act was amended in 1995, to replace the word “males” with “persons” making any same sex act between two men or two women, not only in public but even in private, a criminal offense.” Visakesa explained. “But there is an issue with the definitions; although these offenses come under “gross indecency” and unnatural “offenses”, the two terms haven’t been properly defined in a modern way” he furthered.

Visakesa recognises a conundrum in this law, as the human rights chapter in the constitution stands for the right for equality of every citizen including LGBTQIA+ citizens as it mentions “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds…” Elaborating this, he also answered the question of how the aforementioned criminal law could be enacted as it violates the fundamental human rights chapter and discriminates homosexual community. “The issue is that the constitution, by an article, validates all previously enacted laws including the criminal law. Therefore we are at a stumbling block. So, we should actually take actions to get rid of that article so that we can resolve not only this issue but also many other problems produced by the archaic laws”

As Visakesa exemplifies, when it comes to the practical aspect of law enforcement, there is discrimination based on social status. “If you study the reported cases of arresting of homosexual couples, you can observe that they are less privileged and come from lower social strata of society. The Police seem to charge on them rather than on more affluent upper-class homosexual couples because they are more vulnerable. On the other side, the rich can always afford safe and discreet measures when meeting their homosexual partners. In fact, this is why the people, who are able to afford a human rights case against the discriminating criminal law against the LGBTQIA+ community, do not take interest in doing so; they don’t experience the oppression,” he reasoned out.

To be continued…

By Induwara Athapattu