Featured image by Amalini De Sayrah
This June marks the first Pride month in Sri Lanka under a State of Emergency since 2011, when it was last in place. For Sri Lanka’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) community celebrating Pride, the return to Emergency brings back a number of discomfiting experiences and memories. The national crisis unfolding since the Easter Sunday attacks also means that this Pride has seen the community questioning their place within the country’s wider socio-political discourse, and reckoning with the future ahead.
Emergency has serious implications for LGBTQIA+, or queer, Sri Lankans in the immediate term. For a community that already faces harassment and violence by security forces while navigating their daily lives, the spectre of increased security checks and procedures is daunting. This is particularly acute for transgender Sri Lankans, who ordinarily face higher scrutiny because their official identification documents may not match their gender identity and presentation. Josh, from the Venasa Transgender Network, told the author that this scrutiny has heightened under Emergency due to the increased security checks. This requires a higher level of self-policing to successfully negotiate public places.
Emergency has also affected queer Sri Lankans’ physical sense of community. Like most communities in Sri Lanka, queer Sri Lankans have had to stop or scale down their community gatherings. Cutting off opportunities for activism and socialisation has an especially adverse impact on a community whose members are already often forced to hide or suppress their identities within wider social circles. Given the invisibility – necessary or not – of queer identity in Sri Lanka, gatherings with their fellows are one of the few ways for queer Sri Lankans to be ‘seen’ and to affirm themselves.
Plans by LGBTQIA+ organisations for a more publicly visible Pride month had to be curtailed, including shelving a Pride Parade which would have been a first in Sri Lanka. However, a number of the community-organised events for Pride month have gone ahead throughout the month of June.
Tensions Within the Community
The growing Islamophobia within the country has raised a number of issues for self-reflection as this has been evident within the queer community as well. It is not uncommon to see queer persons engaging in racist comments on online spaces. Often, and jarringly perhaps, queer people themselves are directing homophobic slurs at Muslims and anyone speaking up in their defence. This speaks perhaps to the fact that race remains the dominant foundation of identity for most Sri Lankans, eclipsing other identities. Speaking at a discussion on the role of the LGBTIQA+ community in the aftermath of the attacks, Kumudini Samuel from the Women and Media Collective says this reflects a lack of understanding and empathy between Sri Lanka’s marginalised minority communities, despite facing many similar experiences of discrimination and violence at the hands of the state and society at large.
Lest it needs reminding, there are Sri Lankans who are both Muslim and queer. For them, the past two months have been especially trying. Poet Imaad Majeed spoke to the author about the complexities of being both. They say that it is difficult to be queer within the Muslim community, and for some it may be difficult to be Muslim in the queer community. Nevertheless, having being compelled to be more public in their resistance since the President’s homophobic remarks during the political crisis in November 2018, they feel that by the time of the anti-Muslim attacks in May this year, they had found strength in their queerness and among fellow queer people.
Political Questions and Frustrations
Like most in Sri Lanka following the Easter attacks, queer activists are feeling particularly paralysed. This paralysis feels especially inopportune and unfortunate given recent milestones for the community. During the political crisis last year, there was public mobilisation of the queer community to speak out against homophobia and assert their place within Sri Lankan democracy. The public protests in November 2018, centred on the slogan of “Butterflies for Democracy” (riffing on the President’s use of “butterfly” as a slur) were some of the first public mobilisations of queer Sri Lankans. The sense of momentum and desire to build on it and drive queer activism, however, has dissipated significantly since April 21, lost to the unilateral national discourse of security and Islamophobia. Attorney-at-law and activist Kaushalya Ariyaratne states that the queer community now needs to make a renewed effort to define their place within Sri Lanka’s democracy, and assert that position actively. This includes taking up opportunities to build solidarity with other marginalised communities.
There is also a deep frustration that the current government, elected on explicit and implicit promises of advances for the community, has delivered very little. Hopes of homosexuality being decriminalised were dashed in 2017 when Cabinet dropped a commitment to do so from the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), a move proudly defended by the President and several Ministers. When India decriminalised homosexuality last year, there was a belated call by the Minister of Justice Thalatha Athukorale for the community to “request” decriminalisation here, but university lecturer and activist Waradas Thiyagarajah reveals that community efforts at reaching out to her were met with silence.
Beyond the government’s inaction on reforms, it has repeatedly failed to dispel anti-minority violence and hate speech, and instead, has at times actively worked to enable such. Lecturer in law and filmmaker Visakesa Chandrasekaram told a gathering of LGBTIQA+ activists that the community itself could easily be the next target of the state, and the wider society. The legal and socio-political framework for such persecution is already in place and its operation can be seen in how Muslims are being persecuted through the judicial system, elected bodies, the public service, the media and religious leaders. The numerous abuses of the ICCPR Act to prosecute writers for publications seemingly critical of Buddhism are particularly chilling from the perspective of a community already seen to be ‘defying’ traditional norms.
All these frustrations cut especially deep when considering the mounting victories for queer communities across the world. Just this Pride month alone, Botswana’s High Court decriminalised homosexuality, declaring British colonial provisions identical to those in Sri Lanka as unconstitutional. Bhutan’s lower house of Parliament also voted to do the same and when its upper house affirms the decision, Sri Lanka will be left alongside Myanmar as the only Buddhist-majority country to still criminalise homosexuality. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court ruled to legalise same sex marriages, and Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to criminalise homophobic and transphobic acts. Steadily, countries with supposedly more ‘traditional’ cultures are moving ahead of Sri Lanka in guaranteeing the rights of queer persons.
The Days Ahead
All these factors serve to make this Pride feel sombre, dispiriting even. But perhaps the most meaningful development of the past few years of non-Emergency has been the blossoming of many new queer organisations and activists, and the engagement in particular of young queer Sri Lankans in struggles for their rights. In all spaces where queer Sri Lankans can meet, as limited and contested as they may be, there is simple strength in the mutual recognition that this is a community, and that there are common struggles to be fought, as well as joys and disappointments to be shared. It is that strength which will be most useful in the coming, uncertain days.