The previous article of the series brought forth an overview of the LGBTQIA+ community’s situation in Sri Lanka in both a socio-political and legal sense together with the ideas shared by Senior Lecturer of University at Colombo-faculty of law, Visakesa Chandrasekaram. So, this article focuses on further exploring the legal background of the local LGBTQIA+ community along with the LGBTQIA+ movement in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka: A land of paradoxes
Here we further examine the laws which affect the queer community. According to the Section 399 Penal code which provides; “a person is said to ‘cheat by personation’ if he cheats by pretending to be some other person, or by knowingly substituting one person for another, or representing that he or any other person is a person other than he or such other person really is,” technically the LGBTQIA+ community, except for cisgender males and females and transgender people in particular, are identified as criminal law offenders by the Sri Lankan law. Transgender people are allowed to change their gender legally, following advice from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). The Ministry of Health issued a directive to health services and educational institutions in 2015 regarding the transgender identity, calling on them to issue gender recognition certificates to transgender people, in 2016.
While this is the status legally, the Government of Sri Lanka however, has stated “discrimination against LGBT people was unconstitutional and that the application of sections 365 and 365A in a manner that was discriminatory against LGBT persons was unconstitutional” under the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. Yet no action has been taken to abolish the aforementioned laws, making the situation a total paradox.
This crisis is noticeable even in the recently reported arrest of Indo-Lanka lesbian lovers by the Akkaraipattu Police after they allegedly expressed a desire to get married. While neither the Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists nor the College of Community Physicians nor the World Health Organisation classifies sexual and romantic orientations as mental illnesses, magistrate M.H.M. Hamsa has ordered the police to produce the two women before a psychiatrist and submit a report to the court, which is very ironic.
The LGBTQIA+ movement in Sri Lanka
Though the LGBTQ movement in Sri Lanka is still very young, it is quite dazzling and fast-growing. Indeed, the numerous LGBTQIA+ organisations in the country have been working hard towards winning the rights of the community. Looking back to the genesis of the local LGBTQ movement, it is often cited to be initiated by the establishment of Companions on a Journey (COJ), the first very first gay group in Sri Lanka in 1995. “Gay and transgender people were never given freedom in the country. They were meeting their gay lovers in secret and the transgender people were simply cross-dressing.
But the condition altered with the inception of Companions on a Journey (COJ) organisation in early 90s.” Visakesa highlighted the significance of COJ. In 1994, Women’s Support Group (WSG) was emerged as an autonomous body within COJ, with the aim of focusing on the rights and needs of the women of the LGBTQIA+ community. Much later, in 2004, Equal Ground, which arguably is the most visible LGBTQIA+ organisation at present, was inaugurated. Equal Ground, in 2005 organised the first Colombo Pride – a plethora of events, full of colour and celebration that span a couple of days – which is organised even today. Apart from the aforementioned, there are several other such organisations too, functioning in Sri Lanka.
“When we look at these organisations working for the LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka, perhaps except for one or two, are funded by foreign donors such as the United Nations HIV prevention fund. The western democratic society is concerned about the issues of the LGBT community in Sri Lanka, which is actually a good thing. In fact, these organisations have done many great things for the community.” Visakesa shared.
Synonymously, Visakesa notes that there are issues within the organisations also. One main issue that he observes is the lack of unity among the LGBTQIA+ organisations within the country. They seem to be in a competition among the organisations to “become the guardian of the community or whatever.” Also, there are several ideological clashes and disagreements among them, “but that is again a feature of a democratic system, which unfortunately, our country’s system is not”. And it is not something unique to Sri Lanka either as Visakesa mentions. Be that as it may, there are instances where all these organisations have come together to stand for the community; the recent Pride March 2022 is the best example. “The Pride March was a total success as its voice was heard by the wider community. There were a lot of allies especially the youth and artist community, taking part in the march and in other Pride events too.” Visakesa assures that the initiatives launched by the LGBTQIA+ organisations have had its desired impact on the society.
The straight don’t celebrate, so why should the LGBTQIA+?
Responding to this frequently raised question, Visakesa simply says that the LGBTQIA+ community has a special month of celebration since every other month is a celebration of the straight community. Furthering on that he elucidated how almost all the ordinary celebrations uphold a heterosexual notion in one way another. “For an instance, marriage in Sri Lanka is a heterosexual celebration since homosexual marriages are illegalised. Even Avurudu celebrations promote the heterosexual family concept.” Visakesa stressed that celebrations of LGBTQIA+ community are not against the mainstream society but are acts of enjoying the freedom of sexuality and gender and acceptance, after long periods of suppression and discrimination in various means. “Eventually, the message what we should get is that the Pride celebrations are not just about the LGBTQIA+ community, but about diversity and the rights of the whole society.”
By Induwara Athapattu