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Sri Lankan society is structured on strict gender roles and responsibilities where anything different to heteronormative and binary gender standards is considered abnormal, deviant and deserving of punishment and discrimination. Thanks to its colonial legacy, coupled with the strong Sinhala-Buddhist, nationalist rhetoric, Sri Lanka is one of the 72 countries in the world that criminalise same-sex sexual relations among consenting adults.
Sections 365 and 365A of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code, states that “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (in other words, any type of sex that is considered unnatural) and “acts of gross indecency” are criminal offences punishable by the law, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years. While they do not specify that these offences pertain to same-sex sexual relations, they are most often used against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTIQ) community. In addition, the Vagrancy Law and Section 399 of the Penal Code regarding “cheating by personation” (referring to impersonation) are also used against the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka, particularly against transgender individuals.
Apart from the legal constraints, the LGBTIQ community also faces discrimination, stigmatisation, harassment and violence daily. This forces a large portion of the LGBTIQ community to hide or be discreet about their Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE) and remain in the shadows.
That said, EQUAL GROUND’s latest research report Mapping LGBTIQ Identities in Sri Lanka shows that one in eight adults between the ages of 18-65 years in Sri Lanka identify as LGBTIQ. One of the key outcomes of this island-wide mapping exercise – the first of its kind in Sri Lanka – was to quantify the LGBTIQ community of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, the survey results showed that of the 4,019 individuals interviewed for the survey, 12% identified themselves as LGBTIQ; this can be projected to a total of 1,469,574 individuals within the projected base of persons between the ages of 18-65 in Sri Lanka. Among them, 8% identified themselves as bisexual, 0.5% as gay, 0.5% as lesbian, 1% as transgender and 2% as other. The highest number of those identifying themselves as LGBTIQ was found between the ages of 18-29. Moreover, regionally in rural areas and at province level, the highest percentage of LGBTIQ people were found in the North Western and North Central provinces combined.
Challenges facing Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ community
LGBTIQ persons in Sri Lanka are subjected to legal, political and social restraints that result in discrimination, stigmatisation, and violence against those perceived to be anything but straight.
Alarmingly, the mapping survey shows that 11% of LGBTIQ respondents have faced some form of abuse or discrimination due to their SOGIE while 6% of the LGBTIQ respondents mentioned that they were refused medical treatment and 10% said they have been refused employment. Furthermore, 12% have been forced out of work, education or their houses, compared to only 7% of the non-LGBTIQ persons who have faced similar incidents. Of the total LGBTIQ people interviewed, 25% mentioned that they have been discriminated in the past 12 months. Additionally, 10% of LGBTIQ respondents have faced physical assault and 17% of them have faced some type of harassment including verbal abuse, harassment by the police, family and/or at work. With regard to workplace discrimination, survey findings suggest that LGBTIQ people faced less harassment in private sector companies compared to workplaces in the government sector. Survey findings also identified that most LGBTIQ people had faced harassment, discrimination as well as physical assault by law enforcement officials, family, and government officials.
The prevalence of abuse against LGBTIQ individuals has been confirmed by other findings and observations as well. For instance, according to the 2018 performance report of the Sri Lanka police, homosexuality is considered a “vice” which is defined as “offences that impact adversely on morality and well-being which is expected from the society.” The report reveals that, under this provision, the police has prosecuted 33 people for homosexuality in 2016, six in 2017 and nine in 2018. More disturbingly, last year, it was revealed that during the 2017-2020 period, the law enforcement authorities forced medical tests that include anal/vaginal examinations on at least seven individuals in attempts to find proof of “homosexual conduct”. This has been deemed torture by international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Meanwhile, a forthcoming research report by EQUAL GROUND outlines the discrimination and harassment LGBTIQ persons face at workplaces that confirms the findings of the mapping report. The survey that targets LGBTIQ employees reveals that 38% of the respondents do not have a supportive and non-discriminative work environment. With regard to employment opportunities and benefits, 16% said they experienced discrimination during job interviews, 10% said they were denied employment benefits (i.e. salary increments, promotions, transfers etc.) and 3% confirmed that they were terminated from jobs due to their SOGIE.
LGBTIQ persons also have more difficulty accessing health services, particularly mental health and sexual and reproductive health services. For instance, EQUAL GROUND and other organisations advocating for LGBTIQ rights have received complaints against mental health practitioners and medical professionals who have demanded or advised LGBTIQ persons to “turn straight”.
Meanwhile, often LGBTIQ individuals are rejected or marginalised by those who are closest to them. The report highlights that the majority of LGBTIQ persons did not reveal their SOGIE to their families due to fear of rejection. Most respondents have already come to terms with their respective sexual orientations and gender identities themselves but they still fear the backlash that they would receive when they come out to their families. Tragically, the survey results show that LGBTIQ people are most likely to hide their SOGIE from friends and immediate family. Furthermore, 30% of the LGBTIQ respondents said they do not want to reveal their identity to anyone, indicating that LGBTIQ community is uncomfortable with and/or afraid of revealing their identity.
Childhood experiences of many LGBTIQ persons indicated that they were subjected to bullying, alienation and loneliness at the time. The recurring sentiment among LGBTIQ respondents was that their childhood was an oppressive time in which they were bullied. The flaw in the value system and education system of Sri Lanka had greatly hindered their childhood.
The findings of the mapping exercise show that, due to punitive and discriminatory laws, the authoritarian nature of the society and the government, and the undue importance given to cultural appropriateness, the LGBTIQ community faces high levels of self-imposed stigma and related psychological and psychosocial issues. In a stark revelation that demonstrates the harmful impact of negative attitudes towards the LGBTIQ community and heteronormative structures prevalent in Sri Lanka, many LGBTIQ respondents believed that life would be far less complicated if they were born as straight, cis-gender males or females. There were also those who believed that they would have attained their goals and ambitions much more readily if it were not for their different sexual orientation.
As one of the LGBTIQ respondents noted, “Society looks at us differently. We are not exactly men to them neither are we women. They look at me like that sort of character. If I had a time machine like that I will go to my mother’s womb and change my genes to make sure I will be born as either a man or a woman.”
As the research findings show, compared to those who identify themselves as non-LGBTIQ, a higher number of people who identified as LGBTIQ had negative perceptions about themselves. Among the LGBTIQ respondents, 19% believe that they are abnormal while 7% believe that they are mentally ill, which mirrored sentiments of internalised homophobia rampant in Sri Lankan society.
Apart from personal struggles faced by LGBTIQ persons, marginalising and denying the rights of over 12% of the population has serious negative implications on a broader level, especially from a democracy and governance angle. The mapping report demonstrates that majority of the respondents agreed that LGBTIQ community is not accepted in the society and consequently do not receive fair treatment. Additionally, 63% respondents (including both LGBTIQ and Non-LGBTIQ) agreed that LGBTIQ people should have the same rights as everyone else in the country.
This mapping study reveals that the LGBTIQ population face hurdles both at private and public levels.
One of the crucial steps in ensuring equal rights for the LGBTIQ community and creating more acceptance towards them in society is to repeal the draconian and archaic laws – particularly, Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code – that criminalise same sex sexual relations among consenting adults, which impinges on their rights and freedom as LGBTIQ persons.
According to the report, many LGBTIQ individuals consider being granted the freedom to live freely without discrimination as a prerequisite for coming out and living their lives authentically. This is also an important step towards ending harassment and abuse directed at the LGBTIQ community by law enforcement and government officials.
Education and sensitisation is key in creating more acceptance of diverse identities and it should start with the younger generation. As such, schools and other educational institutions should develop strong anti-harassment and antibullying policies to safeguard LGBTIQ students. Moreover, schools should host sensitisation programs with students and teachers on sex education, sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) issues, and gender and sexuality issues. As the study reinstates, often, students who are struggling with their sexuality, cannot or hesitate to talk about these issues to anyone because there is no safe space for them. Therefore, schools should have a professional mental health counsellor with whom these issues can be discussed.
In addition, sensitisation programmes both for public and private sectors are necessary. Government and private companies and organisations should educate and sensitise their employees about SOGIE issues to ensure an inclusive and safe space for LGBTIQ individuals. Meanwhile, creating more inclusive job markets to ensure the economic security of LGBTIQ individuals is also important. LGBTIQ people have potentials which are often ignored by employers due to their SOGIE. Such exclusion can generate economic costs through several important channels like lower productivity, diminished human capital development, and poorer health outcomes. Many multinational businesses around the world are gradually recognising the links between the inclusion of LGBTIQ employees and business outcomes and have taken voluntary steps to end discrimination against LGBTIQ workers in order to maintain a competitive workforce. Thus, the corporate sector of Sri Lanka should take similar measures as well.
These steps can go a long way in closing the gaps faced by the LGBTIQ community in terms of equal rights, empowerment, and freedom.
The full report can be found on EQUAL GROUND’s website: https://www.equal-ground.org/wp-content/uploads/Report_EG-edited.pdf
The writer is the Media and Communications Officer at EQUAL GROUND