Are there really gay Sri Lankans?

As I write this, friends and people I have worked with, are living in fear.

In truth, since Saturday before last (10th September) when Rivira published their exposé on condoms and lubricating gels being distributed to men who have sex with men, and the community based organization involved in the process, tensions have been high for the gay community. In the 10th September article, the organization was identified by name, their detailed address was also offered up with the sensational declaration that both offices of this organization (project and head office) were in close proximity to a primary and secondary school respectively. Of course parents were warned to protect their sons, based on the infantile notion that if a man is gay, he must necessarily be a pedophile too.

In addition to targeting the community organization, Rivira also raised questions about the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) who have provided funds to the community organization to implement their HIV prevention programming. The not very veiled assumption was that ‘foreign’ funds were somehow forcing us to violate the norms and mores of our culturally conservative nation was predictably poor journalism. As were the uninformed accusations directed at the National STD/AIDS Control Programme (NSACP), part of the Ministry of Health; and Sarvodaya, who together with NSACP are the primary recipients of this US$ 12 Million grant to prevent the spread of HIV in Sri Lanka by working with populations that are most at risk from the virus.

Responsible journalism that searches for the facts as opposed to sensationalist fiction that sells newspapers would identify that neither the NSACP, nor Sarvodaya, nor the ‘dreaded foreign hand’ of the Global Fund have any insidious agenda of promoting homosexuality on our island. Let’s be clear, the community based organization has no agenda of promoting homosexuality either, despite the scathing report of the investigative journalist that masqueraded as a gay man seeking services. According to his allegations, some workers within the organization were trying to set him up with another gay man. Perhaps he looked lonely, and sad, and miserable and they were trying to cheer him up with the knowledge that there are other gay men out there in Sri Lanka who also suffer in silence due to the general negative perceptions of homosexuality that exist in our country. This said, his investigative adventure has made it clear that community based organizations such as these need to have clear protocols in place on how to manage new members professionally and sensitively. What is also clear is that investigative journalism needs to make sure they investigate; this would reduce the opportunity for incredulous statements which included confusion around the use of water-based lubricant (gel). At one point, the investigator asks (and he will now no doubt claim irony) if these gels are to be consumed orally.

Ever heard of KY Jelly? It has been around since 1904 or so, as it says on the box it is used for all our general lubricating needs. Most crucially, as KY is a water-based lubricant as opposed to a oil based lubricant like baby oil, it does not react with latex condoms.  Oil-based lubricants thin out the latex resulting in a broken or split condom. A simple experiment of blowing up two condoms and rubbing baby oil in a gentle circular motion on one ballooned surface and KY on the other ballooned surface will have immediate results. The condom that you’re rubbing oil on will burst. Now imagine a tight anus and a condom-ed penis; common sense tells us a lubricant is necessary and household lubricants are often used including ubiquitous baby oil – based on the assumption that if it’s alright for babies it’s alright for the anus –  and of course yummy olive oil (perhaps extra virgin). A condom will tear as the friction builds up. With KY or any other water-based lube you remain protected. Here then is the rationale for distributing water-based lubricating gel with condoms to gay men in Sri Lanka. The condom remains intact and protects a gay couple from HIV which can be present in semen and blood.

Simple HIV prevention science really, except that it may fuel alarmists, for it is based on the premise that people have anal sex; and to distribute condoms and water-based gel means that we’re encouraging gay men to have more anal sex, and how could this be the most logical way of preventing HIV. Surely what we need to do is prevent anal sex! Perhaps another premise floating on the periphery is that only gay men have anal sex, and that heterosexual couples exclusively engage in vaginal sex, with perhaps a little bit of Fellatio and Cunnilingus (my two favourite Roman Generals) thrown in for variety.

Sexual behavior needs to be addressed if HIV is to be prevented. We’ve known this for almost as long as we’ve known HIV. Remember the old names for the condition which included GRID – Gay Related Immunity Deficiency. Why did we think it was only gay people that contracted it? Was it to do with floppy wrists and a penchant for musicals (or any other reductive stereotypically gay behavior), or was it the way that gay men enjoyed having sex?

But it’s illegal! Penal code 365A! How dare gay men have sex in a country where it is illegal!? The NSACP and Sarvodaya, along with Global Fund are breaking the law.

After the 10th of September article those involved in the Global Fund Round 9 proposal conducted a press meet to respond to the allegations. The value of the intervention was argued from a public health perspective, and it was underscored that this community that is criminalized has to be included if we are to be successful as a country in maintaining a low level epidemic.

The next weekend Rivira responded. So last Saturday another series of articles was published furthering the argument that NSACP, Sarvodaya, and the Global Fund were breaking the law; that Western ideals were being imposed upon us; and that the current approach to HIV prevention with this community was flawed! Counseling, not condom and lubricant distribution, is the answer if HIV is to be prevented and gay men are to stop being gay. Yes, being gay is apparently a choice; all you need to do is chose not be gay… or its some kind of affliction where one must pray the gay away (as also advocated by US presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann).

The views in the Rivira included the musings of Buddhist and Christian clergy, law makers and even medical professionals who claim to understand the HIV industry. In addition, the Rivira newspaper last weekend carried a report stating that the president has asked for an investigation into the irresponsible distribution of condoms and lubricants. Rivira clearly feel that their piece of investigative journalism has had its desired effect.

What this relatively obscure newspaper has succeeded in doing is strike fear into the hearts of a community that was trying its best to ensure that they stayed safe from HIV. They understood what it meant to work in society that ridiculed and criminalized them, but had regrouped to answer the call of multilateral agencies, government (NSACP) and civil society to fight for their health and wellbeing. Due to the exposé and continued press coverage last weekend, some smaller groups have closed down. Others have pulled their websites, shut down their facebook, and even cleared their work and living spaces of anything that could be considered incriminating.

Overkill… or is it?

We welcome the president’s investigation into the current HIV prevention strategies employed by his government and civil society. Clearly there appears to be a lack of effort in terms of engaging key policy makers in the decisions around HIV prevention strategies, and this investigation maybe the beginning of something positive, for the public health approach has had successful results in countries with supposedly conservative cultural norms and mores; Indian and Malaysia are examples in this region, the former overturning punitive colonial laws that we still embrace. If there is no policy framework, or even the beginnings of a discussion or debate, then it could be argued that it is irresponsible of the government and civil society and the donor community to push for US$12 Million project for HIV prevention which include the establishment of (the now much dreaded and maligned) support centres for this vulnerable community.  Why irresponsible? It is the community that suffers. It is the community that is criminalized. It is the community that is now living in fear.

  • jeers

    Five minutes after reading this article, I stumbled on a video on the TED website. (Here’s the link. http://bit.ly/6WfqX )

    After listening to the speaker talk about the danger of single stories, I had to come back and comment here. Of what an injustice that has been done against the GLBT community by these articles on Rivira, and also the most recent one, though markedly less ridiculous than Rivira’s, on the AdaDerana website.

    They are, in these articles, all sticking to a single story — the monopoly of truth, that has been savagely inculcated in the way of ordinary Sri Lankan thinking. Too many people (some educated, some not quite so educated, some religious, some not quite so religious, some conservative, some not quite so conservative) instantly jump to the defence of culture, tradition and decency, before qualifying their defence against both the reality of the situation and the reality of what they are saying: too many people don’t realise that the logical extension of saying, “Oh, but our culture is more important!”, or “Oh, but we are a Buddhist nation!”, or whatever-else-have-you, is that at least thirty thousand men and women (as much as has been successfully reported by statisticians) must either choose to live alone and unloved or marry a person of the gender they are not attracted to and live a miserable life of lies and pretensions and hurt. Nevermind, the broken families. Nevermind, the hurt and rejected children of two parents who seem inexplicably irreconcilable and distant. Nevermind, the heterosexual wife or husband that will live their life believing that they’re forever inexplicably incapable of satisfying their life’s partner.

    The single story that is being told is that gay (and lesbian and bisexual) men and women are deviants. Freaks. Sex-hungry, sex-crazed monsters with no regard for decency and all the regard for personal pleasure. If this single story, whilst being misrepresentative, were at least true, there would have been some recourse. Some cosmic sense of justice. But, surely, it is neither? And you’d assume that, for anyone who lives in the modern world, reads a book or two, writes for a newspaper for a living, such a convoluted story would be too counter-intuitive to be worthy of print? But clearly not, clearly not.

    And the offshoot? More hurt, more lies, more loneliness. God forbid more deaths, exterminations, exits. They preserve their culture and religion to what end, when in preserving that culture and religion, they negate the very things they profess? Compassion, peace, happiness? These things baffle me.

    The pessimist in me thinks that the article, the comment, any resistance will fall on deaf ears. Or on the ears of those who are already converted. Maybe not, I hope. Maybe there will be a better dialogue, more out there in the mainstream, about just how much we need to change as a people. How development comes really from freedom and self-discovery — not in having the Commonwealth Games in Hambanthota.

  • Dedan Kemathi

    The so-called investigative journalists rather than screwing up personal lives of people, should focus on glaring abuses ,daylight robberies public funds committed by power hungry politicians and despicable bureaucracy .
    This is indeed shameful and also highly damaging. Oh and don’t we have a body that acts as a watchdog regarding ethics of journalists.
    hmmm……………..

  • Suresh

    Why not publicly challenge this reporter to an open debate which can be aired nationwide on a TV/radio channel that has a high viewership? I’m quite certain that practically everything he has written can be broken down and shown to be a pack of lies by a good debater from the community.

  • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

    In a country where the majority of people cannot comprehend the fact that power has to be devolved to the minorities…how can you ever expect them to come to terms with gay and lesbian couples?

  • Wallflower

    I would advise this journalist to investigate the levels of homosexuality in the Prisons of this country, and tell us what the relevant authorities have done to circumvent or minimize the risks to society. Make no mistake, all those prisoners will be free with the lapsing of their term to come out and act on their free will one day.

    • Onslaught

      Oh dear.

      What a dilemma. When health policies and legal policies do collide.

  • Ethnichybrid

    In a nation of hypocrites where we have had prime ministers and ministers who have been/are gay it is infuriating that our so called traditional values and culture do not allow us to give a section of our citizens their basic rights. I do not for a moment understand why people are so infuriated at another’s sexuality for example my good friend’s greatest fear is that her son will turn out to be gay. Not a murderer or a gambler or a thief or a liar, cheat, bad husband, bad son, or bad human being but gay! Where are our priorities?
    It is a trait of developing countries with oodles of culture and civilisation to blame the West for any ill. But an inward look at this wonderful culture and civilisation will reveal enough of ills that we have glossed over.
    Move over State. Stop interfering in the bedroom. At least let that be private if nothing else.

  • veedhur

    Thanks Hans, an excellent article.

    A clear indictment on the brand of journalism practiced and encouraged by rag sheets like Rivira. They should stick to their main paid job – to be propaganda sycophants for the Government (and stay away from moral policing)

    Now is there a way of appealing to the press complaints commission?

  • Sonali Samrasinghe Wickrematunge

    Come on Sri Lanka please start evolving even now. The only time homosexuality will become a story is when your government decides to take it off the pages of the Penal Code and allows same sex marriage. But no…no ..no ..do take baby steps. What is ironic is that people decide to puff themselves up like a hot air ballon about something nobody should care about like same sex relationships but will show no outrage as a government kills journalists, massacres civilians, destroys Sri Lanka’s fauna and flora, rapes the Sinharaja…..and other national parks…..
    The absurdity of it is that in 1995 in what was meant to be a move towards equality in many respects and across several provisions of the Penal Code, Prof G.L. Peiris amended the wording in the provision criminalising homosexuality to include women when originally the wording could be interpreted only to include men. Now that’s equality! Sri Lanka’s media must gather up its skirts rush out of society’s boudoir and traipse along to the boardroom, courtroom, parliament…President’s House, Temple Trees and dare I say it, the Defence ministry. But it is emblematic of the fear with which the media has now been struck that it focuses its attention and its investigative indignez-vous on the fallen hero, the most vulnerable communities, the past-his- prime chief justice, the dead and the missing, the hurt and the broken, the powerless. They can’t talk back, they can’t smite you, it’s a safe bet.

  • communication

    Who is the bigger idiot the ignorant or the learned who tries to teach the ignorant everything despite knowing that the ignorant cannot comprehend everything at one go.

    Lets take something similar
    Those days I was against the glorification of coming forward of hiv infected people because I though why welcome them when they can do all to spread it and come to the front when all is done.
    Then one day a doctor said we embrace these people because by coming forward they stop spreading the virus
    If we intimidate them they might hide themselves in the community and spread it more, causing bigger damage.
    That day I understood the logic and though I might have any presumptious bad thoughts of a person with hiv I do not think the people helping the hiv guys coming forward are doing a wrong thing.
    eventually I may change my presumptions

    But imagine if the doctor tried to justify each and every act of that hiv patient and said he’s a human being lets embrace him….

    Some people here do not understand that logic. They begin by justifying a person being gay.
    That’s not the place to ‘begin’ that’s sort of I think the destination.
    Communities do not change overnight please understand that
    The road to kandy does not begin at kandy it starts ‘here’.

    If you put a condition you got to be at kandy to get to kandy road then you are fooling yourself

    What Sri Lanka needs currently is the message that
    “There are some gay people in sri lanka
    we give lubricants because the gay might spread dieseses among themselves and we distribute them in these places because these are the places they can be found most of the time(no point giving in places where they are not ne)

    That’s it nothing else no big speeches of how gays should be free to roam in the streets their rights etc.
    The above message is all that Sri lanka can digest now. The gays and the people trying to help them have to understand that.
    You could use doctors
    People listen to doctors when its about stoping spread of dieses
    Eventually we may evolve but now that is the situ.

    By justifying the right to be gay+ parading, you only generate hate at the moment. You may disagree but that’s the way it is
    Think like an average Sri Lankan please
    Do you want to justify people distributing
    lubricants near schools saying gays have to exist too
    or would you rather go with This is to stop the spread of dieseses and unfortunately these places are where the gays hang out.

    And the other thing
    politics
    There are a number of people who just agree with everything in the article and say this is the govt’s fault we got to change the govt. Do not get caught up in that pile of mud. they will just come to power and copycat this regime. worst of all the gays and their supporters will look like foreign conspirators to the average sri lankan. :D

    The first step is not justifying the right to be gay. that is the destination people.
    Good luck with your campainnig
    This article is good but that’s not what’s being communicated in mainstream

    BTW I do hope my child does not become gay.(that’s where we are)

  • Lakbima

    What is the evolutionary benefit of homosexual behavior. Just because the [edited out] leaning highly funded entertainment media industry says some activity is ok and promoted doesn’t make that idea an intellectually superior one. Its just says that they have a bigger voice. Homosexuality is just pleasure giving sexual behavior that is an evolutionary dead end activity. It must be challenged as a political force.

    • Nihal Perera

      There is no benefit whatsoever. Particularly for men, the risks outweigh any benefits derived from pleasure, as can be seen from medical data. It is really a lifestyle choice (no gene exists). In the SL case, behaviour thrives given the cultural tabooes on sexuality, as well as the high preponderance of same-sex schools.

      • Gamarala

        Dear Nihal,

        There are some fundamental problems in the argument you raise about evolutionary benefit. Not every trait can be explained by way of evolutionary benefit alone. For example, it is difficult to explain altruism in terms of evolutionary benefit, yet no one will argue that altruism doesn’t exist and is not useful.

        Homosexuality is a fact of life. It is commonly seen in the animal kingdom, in thousands of species. I think it should be clear that it is not a choice of lifestyle.

        By way of analogy, let’s take a case of people who are born autistic. Is there an evolutionary benefit? Probably not. Yet, no one would suggest that people who are autistic are faking it, or that it’s an “acquired characteristic” or choice of lifestyle.

        Why do you think homo-sexuality is an exception?

    • http://neilwistor.blogspot.com/ Neil Wistor

      @ Lakbima: I don’t wish to get into details, but there are many sexual activities that are not “evolutiory”! Does this mean that we have to ban them, and marginalize the people who like such activities? Does it make it righ to discriminate them? Certainly not! Let me put it this way, what, realistically, is the real HARM in the society accepting these people for who they are? What’s the harm in letting them mind their own lives, letting them be happy and be productive citizens? This is NOT a media campaign. These are real people, who have FINALLY found a voice. Would you at least listen to them with an open mind, or would you turn a deaf ear?

      @Nihal Perera: I am gay, Sir, and I never chose to be this way. Maybe you cannot understand this, but at least you must try. Just because scientists haven’t located a particular gene does NOT make it a choice! Some characteristics present in genes need an external “trigger” to activate them. Maybe this is such a case. Some scientists say that homosexuality may have a correlation with the hormones that the foetuses are exposed to in the womb… maybe. We don’t know, and therefore we cannot jump into conclusions without solid facts.

      I have no hidden propaganda. I will tell you plainly: being gay is not a choice. Learning that I am gay was painful at first. Who WANTS to be an outcast anyway? If you don’t believe me, ask millions of other gay people and they will tell you the same thing.

      • Nihal Perera

        @Neil Wistor:

        My argument is limited entirely to evolution/genetics. So when I say there is no benefit, I am saying there is no evolutionary benefit. This is not difficult to see. If a particular species of same-sex birds, for example, were stranded on an island and a major famine were to hit, the fact that X number of birds were gay would not increase the likelihood that this species survived. On the other hand, if some of the birds had developed a trait whereby they could fly to unusual heights to catch insects, these birds with the special trait might ensure the survival of the species.

        Regardless of whether or not you chose to be gay, it does not diminish from the fact that there is no corresponding evolutionary advantage to such behavior. Kindly replace the gay bird species with a gay human species in the above example, and the point should be clear.

    • Dan

      @ Lakbima,
      maybe you should read a bit of background literature and come with an open mind. I suppose that is what journalists are expected to be rather than give their personal opinions on human beings they can’t even understand due to their lack of intelligibility. It is not an industry and if you think this behaviour is unethical and taboo what about sexual relationships and behaviour of prominent heterosexual people in Sri Lanka??? Are they justified???
      Homosexuality is a sexual orientation and as a journalist you should do your background reading and come out of your limited thinking. The world is evolving!!! You cannot say that it is an industry made popular, it is a sexual orientation. Just like you and I are attracted to the opposite sex.
      I’m sure there are other “accepted” forms of sexual pleasure which should be faced with political force as well? Hence prostitutes are employed by men do you say that it is justified since it is heterosexual behaviour? What do you say Lakbima?

  • sha

    Sodomy is a Crime in Every Major Religion . and Its punishable,
    is a act of unsocial/ sick behaviour but it is is becoming social now,
    In Certain country’s Church even accepts Gay marriages. Pasture are blessing on them by the name of Holy Trinity.

    What about in Buddhism…?

    Srilanka highly changing society and Does not know what is good and what is bad…

    Distributing things that helps to evade AIDS also promoting , introducing Sodomy in to our Srilanka Society with out shame and fear .

    AIDS does not spread through water, air or Mosquito..or it is unlike Malaria. or Diarrhoea…So its not a problem . but it is who practice sex with Some one like prostitutes and people who go to them… those act are not accepted any where in the world .

  • justitia

    Our behaviour is controlled by our hormones and genes which if ‘normal’ – as among the majority of humans – produce ‘normal’ individuals.
    If some of our genes are mutilated – mutilated genes have low penetrance and are being slowly eliminated from the human genome – they produce abnormal chemicals in our brains which alter our behaviour.
    This is the cause of some ‘mental’ illnesses.

    Homosexuality may be genetic, as well as environmental.
    Homosexuals should be allowed to live their lives as they desire, and be accepted in society as is already happening in many countries.

    It is wrong to blame HIV transmission mainly on homosexuals.

  • Malcolm

    I read the comments….some with amusement and some with growing feeling of amazement…
    We – as Sri Lankan’s are supposedly a tolerant, gentle race…from the bigotry and lack of education that I read above I am compelled to acknowledge that somewhere we lost the tolerance and gentleness..
    Can we stop for a moment? – Why would a person – born of a country such as ours – want to be different? – He/ she is almost assured of the heavy price that he /she would have to pay. He stands to lose family, friends, work associates and his peers…Perhaps he /she has really no choice…This is how the person is..Blame it on genes, upbringing or whatever other circumstance that we might conjure…It is as real to him/her as some persons being right handed/ some left….Its just how it is…..and in reality if we can look beyond his or her sexuality….CELEBRATE THE DIFFERENCE AND FOCUS ON THE SIMILARITIES WE ALL HAVE AS PART OF A WIDE FAMILY OF HUMANITY.We would be all the richer for it
    PS. HIV transmission and homosexuality – lets educate ourselves. for those who are truly interested http://www.thebody.com might be a starting point……

  • Malcolm
  • myil selvan

    first we need to accept gays and lesbians as humans like our selves. lets take it from there.

    when Thamil people and other minorities are not treated with equality, what can you expect for the gay community?

  • loner

    most people do not want to undestand defferences because they are insecure about themselves and their own identites. like early man who blamed every good and bad thing on an emaginery entity, people are still afraid to get out of their comfort zones and think beond their limited minds no mater wether they are professional or political leaders of our socity.

    *bieng gay or bi is not a choice!

    if enything is to go further every one or the majority of the population should understand this fact with hard evidanse and not pointless speculations.

    evolution is a trickey thing. why do u think ice ages occure or even astaroids hitting the planat.do u think this dosen’t happen in any other organic planet which the buddha has said that exists? in every one of these planets there are evolutionary dominent species such as the human who is the top of the food chain because we are intelectualy superior to others.
    so be a civilized socity we must value every human life. our true culture taught us to act with “meththa,karuna,mudhitha,upechcha” and where is the “upechcha” when people jumps to conclutions without a true debate in ideas with pros,cons and an impartial judge.

    if people truely wants to protect the culture they have to give a chance to every induvidual a chance to express themselves and then dicide the rationality of been gay or bi.relijous leaders,doctors,lawyers along with still minded gays must descuss this without fear of been procicuted.this is what we need.(we as in the whole comunity of sri lanka)