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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

LGBTQI Rights In Sri Lanka: Long Way Ahead

The 2016 world conference (#ILGA2016BKK) of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA) was held in Bangkok last week. ILGA carries out a great deal of work regionally (Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Oceania, Pan Africa and Asia), and the world conference brings together all the regional bodies. The 2016 conference included some 700 delegates from 98 countries. In sum, it happened to be a microcosm of global LGBTQI advocacy and activism. ILGA also has secretariats specifically dedicated to women’s trans and intersex issues, and the caucuses of each of the secretariats provided insights into ongoing challenges, strategic priorities and trends in the influx of funding. The conference was especially significant in the backdrop of the UN’s increased attention to what is referred to as SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity). In June 2016, the UN HRC adopted Resolution A/HRC/32/L.2/Rev.1 which provided provision to appoint an independent expert on SOGI. The independent expert, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, a law professor at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, a senior academic with a strong advisory track record in the UN system, was personally present on the first day of #ILGA2016BKK.

At the 2016 conference, an effort to think along intersectional lines, and to provide spaces for voices from indigenous peoples and the global South/s was apparent. Yet, it was also clearly apparent, when seeing things from a global south/s perspective, that there is a long way ahead to reach a semblance of a balance between the ‘north’ and the ‘south’. ILGA World did make considerable strides in this direction at last week’s conference, by providing spaces for people from the global South (including this writer) to attend, present, chair conduct workshops and be wholesomely included in their global platform. It was also commendable that people of colour (based in the global North as well as in the global South) and most importantly, indigenous communities from Turtle Island, Aotearoa and several other places were also accorded the possibility of chairing panels and conducting workshops.

Commonwealth Side Event

One of the most important and significant side events of #ILGA2016BKK was a Commonwealth side event, organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat. This event included three eminent MPs from Seychelles, Kenya and Sri Lanka. The event, chaired by the Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, shed light upon the legislative challenges and hurdles that parliamentarians face in promoting LGBTQI equality legislation. It also demonstrated the extent to which cisnormativity, and to be more precise, cis-heteronormativity and a very narrow understanding of gender and sexuality continue to oppress and exclude a large number of people across the world.

Sri Lanka at #ILGA2016BKK

This writer, a Sri Lankan woman living in the island of Ireland, was among several other Sri Lankan activists and human rights advocates who attended and presented at #ILGA2016BKK. Although Sri Lankan representation at ILGA should have been much higher, this nonetheless suggests that despite the obstacles and Victorian (im)moralities of a cis-heteronormative lobby, Sri Lanka is home to brave and courageous LGBTQI activists and advocates. International organisations, on occasion, happen to see us, and give us platforms for self-expression. Our own elected government, however, has a tradition of looking down upon us, if not, not seeing us at all.

At the Commonwealth side event, the presentation by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne MP (entitled ‘Sri Lanka: Using the constitutional review process to advocate for equality and non-discrimination’) on the efforts to include an equality clause in the proposed new constitution of Sri Lanka was simultaneously promising and, to say the very least, inviting ‘concern’. The veteran jurist made an excellent presentation on the legislative and ideological challenges involved. Dr Wickramaratne’s talk also brought to light the difficulties of familiarising MPs with LGBTQI equality and justice.

Sri Lanka: neglecting her LGBTQI citizens?  

The state of LGBTQI rights in Sri Lanka is best described as ‘pathetic’. Victorian era sodomy laws persist, with the political establishment categorically oblivious to (and many opposed to) a segment of their own citizenry whose most basic fundamental rights are blatantly violated in broad daylight. Dr Wickramaratne’s presentation, based on evidence submitted by LGBTQI activists in Sri Lanka, highlighted how people had been forced to drop out of academic institutions and employment, and in some cases, move abroad.

The efforts to include an equality clause in the proposed new constitution have clearly exposed some of the most discriminatory dimensions of the political structure. The clause, as recommended by the parliamentary sub-committee on fundamental rights, would stipulate that ‘no person shall be arbitrarily discriminated against on any ground including race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, maternity, marital status, parental status, caste, ethnic or social origin, age, disability, religion, conscience or belief or opinion, culture, language, place of birth or place of residence’.

The bemused reactions of some MPs to representations made by members of the LGBTQI community are suggestive of the sheer lack of awareness about what it means to be non-heterosexual, and especially non-cisheteronormatve in present-day Sri Lanka.

A vibrant Sri Lankan LGBTQI community?

Despite the attitudes of many in the political class, the LGBTQI community is omnipresent, and is part and parcel of the broader Sri Lankan community within and beyond the island’s shores. We are your medical doctor, your teacher, university professor, businessperson, media personality and many other everyday people (not to mention several cabinet ministers in charge of key portfolios, MPs and diplomats). Preventing LGBTQI people from securing their most basic rights is therefore a myopic (non)policy that prevents the state from making the best use of a segment of its talented and potential-filled citizens. It is even more pathetic that cabinet ministers and senior government officials who are LGB are themselves living in ‘open-secret closets’, categorically avoiding working together to develop a strong dialogue on fundamental rights, articulating such a dialogue in Sinhala/Tamil, and grounding it in the local traditions of tolerance and respect. As usual, it can be argued that their silence is explained by the risks that such ‘openness’ could have on their political careers. This argument, if one takes a closer look, is hollow to the core. Assuming what one stands for, and for the rights of one’s own, takes a dose of courage and effort, but it definitely is the most rewarding and fulfilling path forward. This is a reality that Sri Lanka’s LGB political class, which clearly lacks in conscience, has not yet understood.

Unlearning cis-het prejudice

If any semblance of progress is to be achieved for the LGBTQI community, it is primordial to start by challenging the inherently discriminatory cis-heteronormative prejudices which influence, and in many cases determine, the ways in which the large majority of Sri Lankans (including some 98% of the political class) perceive gender, sexuality, family life, professional life and public life. Dr Wickramaratne alluded to a discussion between himself and his law students at the University of Colombo, in which some students objected to constitutionally protecting the rights of LGBTQI people, arguing that the presence of LGBTQI people (especially non-heterosexual people) in some professional contexts could be inimical (the specific example involved the case of appointing a non-heterosexual person to be in-charge of a group of school-age pupils, especially in a boarding school context). Some students were of the opinion that the teacher’s sexual orientation made them an unsuitable candidate, who would put pupils at the risk of abuse.

The sheer sense of cis-heteropatriarcal entitlement in this kind of opinion needs to be exposed and challenged at its core. Sexual orientation is a private matter. Sexual orientation does not determine one’s suitability for employment in any given sector. If the position in question involves underage children and vulnerable individuals, what is imperatively required is legislation that ensures a strict process of vetting for ALL persons working with such groups. There are templates for similar regulations and procedures in many jurisdictions in the Commonwealth, and it is not a challenge for Sri Lanka to adopt a similar law in accordance with local specificities. Instead of arguing for such legislation, assuming that one’s (non-heterosexual) sexual orientation disqualifies one from taking up employment is to take a cis-hetero-normative upper hand, to be blatantly discriminatory and blinded by prejudice.

Clear terminology: essential

The proposed equality clause needs to clearly include the terms ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ in its English version and the most accurate translations in the Sinhala and Tamil versions. Legislation provides a framework within which LGBTQI citizens can ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. It also demonstrates that the state, as opposed to times past, ‘sees’ and ‘acknowledges’ its citizens who are non-cisheteronormative.

More than legislation?

Legislation alone, however, is thoroughly insufficient to consistently address discrimination against LGBTQI people. It is important that a new generation, if not a new series of faces of LGBTQI Sri Lankans, emerges to public limelight – and they should be composed of people representing the diversity of Sri Lankan society, from a multitude of socioeconomic, linguistic, educational and career backgrounds (that they should be fluent in the local languages goes without saying). Most importantly, it is crucial for LGBTQI activists and advocates to understand the importance of ‘grounding’ their struggles for queer liberation locally, and articulating their positions in Sinhala and Tamil. It is necessary to go beyond the elitism of a great deal of LGBTQI ‘activism’ in Sri Lanka (and indeed in many other places in the global South), taking LGBTQI work from star-class hotels and back lawns of Western ambassadorial residences to the universities, streets and political discourses, developing a ‘local’ discourse of queer liberation. This imperatively involves connecting LGBTQI rights and justice with broader issues of gender justice along an intersectional feminist (or should I say especially, transfeminist) perspective. Queer liberation, in this sense, is closely interconnected to the task of challenging colonially inherited burdens and mindsets, patriarchal and misogynist attitudes that run deep, and in articulating, in ‘our’ languages and ‘our’ words (and not through imported formula, thereby consistently challenging those in the political sphere and elsewhere who pretend to be ‘deshapremi’ but are in fact entangled in patriarchal Victorian conservatisms to the core), a quintessentially Sri Lankan discourse on fundamental rights and freedoms, of tolerance, respect and cosmopolitanism.

Colombo Telegraph, 10 Dec 2016

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