The streets of Colombo on 25 June came to life with Colombo’s (and perhaps Sri Lanka’s) first pride parade of this scale, as people from LGBTQ+ community in Sri Lanka celebrated their identity and pride, marching to GotaGoGama and the aragalaya, in a wonderful display of solidarity towards the #GotaGoHome protests as Pride month concluded.

It goes without saying that many members of the LGBTQ+ community in Sri Lanka have been active participants in the aragalaya from its early stages as individuals, but through the Pride march, the protestors displayed solidarity to the cause, much akin to other groups that proclaimed their support to the aragalaya as a collective.

The significance of the aragala Pride march that took place is immense, and marks a historic moment for the LGBTQ+ community in Sri Lanka. It is a powerful step forward in having more conversations about the importance of valuing and respecting a group of people who, too often have been otherwise ridiculed, shamed and overlooked.

“Amazing” and necessary

Vasi Samudra Devi, a non-binary transgender woman was one of the many who took part in the aragala Pride march. An artist of multiple disciplines, Vasi is a gifted painter, performer and writer who is currently undergoing the medical transitioning process after coming out in 2020.

For Vasi, the pride march summarised in one word would be, “amazing.”

“It was beautiful to see with so much performance, drag, music and queer couples being themselves out in the open,” as opposed to the lives of many who would usually are “closeted and afraid of violence or threats to their lives when they partake in large-scale movements or protests.”

She believes that the pride march that took place was not only important, but necessary to make heard the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. “There was a need to make the aragalaya a stage on which to address the rights of marginalised communities, the LGBT community having been relatively forgotten and side-lined during the economic crisis.”

Many challenges

It goes without saying that there is no corner in society that hasn’t been affected by the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka. However, these individuals of the LGBTQ+ community face additional circumstances that prevent them from enjoying fundamental freedoms in life.

Besides the stigma and unfair treatment of those who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ have a number of challenges that are unique to them. A good example of this, is the lack of access to Hormone Replacement Therapy medication due to shortages in medicine and high cost, which as a result has brought to halt, the gender reassignment procedure for many.

Sparked from protest

Vasi noted that in addition to the display of pride colours during the Pride march, a black stripe was added to the usual combination of colours, a symbol of the community’s support to the aragalaya. Interestingly, aragalaya, the Sinhala word for struggle, which is also used to refer to the ongoing protests have a lot in common with the Pride movement, although some might not be aware of the fact.

Pride month commemorates the Stonewall riots, which took place in the latter half of June, in 1969. After many years of mistreatment, a police raid by the New York City Police on the Stonewall Inn was the final straw. LGBTQ+ people rallied together in protest, and before long, hundreds were rioting, which soon became the spark of a movement to fight for the freedoms and rights of those who are LGBTQ+.

Change in Sri Lanka

While many accept that the aragala pride march is a significant step towards greater societal acceptance for those who are LGBTQ+, not everyone has taken kindly to it, which implies that although there has been some level of acceptance growing among the people, there’s a lot more work needed to be done for true change to take place.

“I don’t think I would say that much has progressed,” Vasi opined. “A lot of Gotagogama itself is very accepting, but there is the general majority that see the community in a very harmful light. So no, I don’t think much progress has been made in terms of respect or acceptance. We are still talking about tolerance for the community when many other countries talk about acceptance in total,” she expressed.

“Also, there has been a massive backlash online towards Aragala Pride, with conservative commentators, both racist and homophobic, coming out to attack Gotagogama activists and the LGBT community for supposedly ‘hijacking’ the protests. They forget that Pride began as a protest, for one, or are obviously ignorant. And they also do not understand how much performance and performativity exists in protests against the economic crisis.” 

Sadly, this discrimination is pointed towards the LGBTQ+ community from all angles, with even other marginalised groups taking an opposing stance at the united stance taken by the community.

What can be done?

Vasi believes education and spreading awareness are the most powerful tools that can be implemented in order to move towards greater societal acceptance and change.  This would involve educating not only students, but also parents both in and outside school.

With a more aware and educated people, surely one day we all can appreciate and accept one another, and surely the aragala pride march is a powerful step forward in reaching that day. Pride Month although has come to an end, we need to carry the conversation forward to raise awareness beyond the month of June to ensure we exercise understanding and human compassion to our fellow beings and live as a more connected people.

(Cover photo and other pix courtesy Marisa DS Facebook page)

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage