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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Pride amidst Pandemic: Sri Lankan Perspective on Pride 2020

Colombo Telegraph, 25 June 2020

Pride 2020 is markedly different from previous years. Apart from the obvious reality that we are unable to organise pride events and social gatherings, the pandemic situation has impacted pride, and SOGIESC rights advocacy in general, in a number of very specific ways.

Pandemic as a ‘grounding’ force? Impact on NGO sector and Philanthropy

Firstly, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated how the most marginalised and least represented segments of the LGBTQIA+ community are on very thin ice – especially on the financial front. Across the world, many people have been faced with severe difficulties over the last few months of lockdown. The pandemic and the lockdown have adversely affected people who depend on daily wages and people who do not have access to significant amounts of savings. While these realities affect millions of people across the world [especially in the global South], those who face systemic marginalisation and discrimination are the worst hit when they are brought to face challenges such as a pandemic-induced lockdown.

At another level, we can also notice that many funders in the global philanthropic sector are beginning to review their priorities. This is an essentially vital step, and if carried out with a critical perspective, will have a considerably positive impact on marginalised peoples worldwide. Many LGB, trans-led and intersex-led collectives across the world often find it extremely challenging to secure funding that actually addresses their most pressing needs. Instead, they are forced to submit funding applications that correspond to the demands set by funders, irrespective of their own specific circumstances on the ground. If collectives in the global South are to be critical of funders’ approaches, they risk the wrath of funders and the challenge of being sidelined from future funding cycles. This kind of weaponizing global philanthropic funding is a salient feature of all neoliberal structures. Even in politics, neoliberal politicians often go berserk if they were to be critiqued as ‘racist’, ‘misogynist’ or, for that matter, anything else.

If the pandemic is to have the effect of ‘grounding’ funders on deploying their resources in more sustainable ways, and to pay more heed to the most pressing concerns of grantees in non-profit sector work, that will be the best of outcomes.

Resilience: Hallmark of SOGIESC Communities

In the Sri Lankan context, LGBQ-led and trans-led collectives must be commended for their hard work during the lockdown, deploying all their resources to reach out to people worst hit by the unprecedented circumstances. Having faced many forms of systemic discrimination, marginalisation, being talked over, ill-treatment when accessing healthcare, and general contempt from cis-heteronormative society, LGB people, and especially trans people, are quite resilient. This resilience – and preparedness to stand for what one believes in despite the adverse circumstances – has been absolutely visible among LGBQ, trans and intersex folk across the world over the past few months.

Pandemic as Wake-Up Call?

When unprecedented crises that are beyond human control strike, the best of outcomes we can work for is to glean insights from the challenging circumstances we have been pushed to. When it comes to SOGIESC work locally and globally, this means revisiting, rethinking and reviewing how we go about our work, how we strategize, and what we hope to achieve.

Need for Pandemic & Disaster Management Policies

To begin with, every single SOGIEC-related organisation or collective would now need to develop ‘pandemic policies’, with clear policy guidelines that can be adapted in the face of public health crises. This connects to disaster risk deduction, which involves thinking about plans of action in situations of natural disaster, as well as human-made disasters such as warfare and [inter]national security crises. In terms of present-day geopolitics, we in Sri Lanka find ourselves in a particularly worrying ‘rock and a hard place’ situation, given the rising tensions in the region between the US-led Indo-Pacific focus and China. The discerning analyst of international politics would gauge that the ongoing pandemic and pandemic politics – in which a great deal of antagonistic language and action is being sprouted between the US-led and Chinese camps – are directly linked to the geopolitical disputes playing out in the Southeast Asian region and waters.

No time to be Apolitical

SOGIESC activists, especially in our part of the world, simply cannot afford to remain apolitical, turn a blind eye to local and regional political developments, and focus exclusively on a neoliberal brand of rainbow-flag-hugging LGBTQI+ activism. Instead, the present-day circumstances call for a much more extensive and multi-pronged approach, which involves, among other priorities:

a) protecting our communities at times of crises, and enhancing preparedness to face situations of extreme duress including pandemics and other disruptions.

b) raising awareness on the vital importance of sustainability, and making sustainable policies part and parcel of SOGIESC activist work.

c) focusing on empowering communities – increased emphasis on vocational training, access to education, paying better salaries, helping people develop savings plans and more.

d) active engagement with, or the creation of, progressive political lobbies that stand for non-violence, human rights, and reasonable, realistic and thoughtful, and in the book this writer has read, feminist foreign policy approaches.

The Political Situation: Challenges Local and International

A Sri Lankan perspective on Pride 2020 amidst a global pandemic would be incomplete in the absence of brief discussion on Sri Lanka’s political configurations of the day. It is now clear that the outcome of the 2019 presidential election was very much one desired by the powers that advocate for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ block. The presence of a candidate from a political dynasty with a safe Sinhala-Buddhist vote base, who also happened to be a US citizen with strong ties of kinship to the USA, and whose political ideology considerably aligns with that of the neoconservative power-wielders in Washington DC, made that candidate the obvious preference.

Let’s refrain from calling a spade an agricultural instrument – at the November 2019 presidential poll, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa had no significant opponent. To open parentheses, it is indeed quite staggering to note how the traditional neoliberal base of Sri Lankan politics and its offshoots harbour such a wild preference for fragile masculinity, and weak-cum-uncharismatic leadership. To close parentheses and come to the present-day, we can see a situation in which it appears that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency is likely to face considerable pressure to sign defence agreements [including SOFA] with the USA that will pave the path for Sri Lanka to become something beyond a pawn in the Indo-Pacific war-footing. The Rajapaksa brothers’ forthcoming majority at the 2020 general election will enable them to sign such pacts under less public pressure. Such foreign policy challenges can indeed be narrowed down to bad foreign policy upheld by the Rajapaksa administration from 2006 to 2014. Its excessive veer to Beijing and resulting failure to maintain balance in foreign policy management, together with the disastrous mismanagement of civil war/post-war foreign policy, resulted in making Sri Lanka easy prey to global powers.

Sri Lanka may not have witnessed a more lukewarm election campaign in recent history than the ongoing 2020 general election campaign. Except occasional references to Sri Lanka-USA relations by NPP candidates, there is next to no meaningful dialogue on policy issues, from foreign policy and national security to education, human rights and reconciliation. No party/coalition has significantly taken up the cause of SOGIESC rights with a clear vision. No party/coalition has demonstrated a genuine commitment to parity in electoral lists. No party/coalition has adequately taken up the proverbial elephant in the room – that we can no longer address policy on a ‘single issue’ basis – that we need a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness of policy issues. No party/coalition leader or candidate has made an appreciable effort to highlight basics such as the overlap between national security-foreign policy-human rights-sustainable development. When it comes to human rights, none of the contenders have raised the deep interconnectedness and intersectionality between policies pertaining to reconciliation, transitional justice, ethnonational coexistence, SOGIESC rights, comprehensive gender justice policy and education, marriage law reform and fundamental rights of female ministers of religion, to name but a few.

These political realities make it even more challenging to engage in meaningful SOGIESC policy advocacy, despite a general election campaign taking place in this Pride season.

Visibility on the Rise?

In the midst of all of these challenging realities, we can also notice that there is increased, and in a sense somewhat unprecedented, visibility of LGBT+ people in this ‘pride-amidst-pandemic’ season. Iprobono has partnered with a leading news media firm to launch a laudable trilingual initiative to enhance positive visibility of LGBT+ Sri Lankans. Several other media outlets, especially those with a strong online presence, are advocating for visibility and LGBT+ rights. Let’s not forget that all of this is happening under a Rajapaksa administration, a political camp which, in the past, has been far from favourable to LGBT+ rights. Overall, there is next to no doubt that public opinion is gradually shifting in favour of SOGIESC rights.

Whether this shift will have a positive effect on the government that will come to power after August 5th is yet to be seen. If the new government were to be supportive, we would need to collectively be extremely cautious of avoiding any drifts to pinkwashing – i.e. tolerating LGBT+ rights while simultaneously sticking to a repressive domestic policy, flawed foreign policy, and an approach to governance that goes against the national interest.

The Importance of Robust Political Advocacy

The next five years will be a very challenging time for Sri Lanka, with an impending debt crisis, the national economy weakened by Covid-19, the population on thin ice on issues of ethnonational/religious tensions, reconciliation and transitional justice, and more. SOGIESC rights advocates cannot afford to remain oblivious to this volatile context. There is a clear need for increased political education in the SOGIESC community, active political engagement, development of new political movements, and to take a clear stand on human rights as a policy priority. In so doing, we have to prevent SOGIESC work from watering down to simplistic assumptions. Many people still erroneously conflate sexual orientation and gender identity. There is very little awareness in Sri Lanka on intersex rights. There is a clear need to deconstruct the ‘LGBTQIA+’ abbreviation. The general trend is to see LGB people as exclusively cisgender. The existence of trans people, non-binary people and intersex people who are also LGBQA+ is almost always ignored. Challenging these multiple forms of erasure forms part and parcel of comprehensive SOGIESC-focused knowledge dissemination, empowerment action and political advocacy – the absolute priorities that the pandemic calls upon us to marshal in this 2020 Pride season.

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