The politics of SOGIESC in Sri Lanka: a year-end reflection
Colombo Telegraph, 2 January 2020
There has been no better time for SOGIESC advocacy in Sri Lanka.
Like in many countries across the global South/s, SOGIESC advocacy in Sri Lanka has long been, and continues to be, donor-funded. In some cases, it is extremely challenging to not to make this body of work not donor-driven. Working with donors, and engaging with donor bodies in terms of the most pressing needs of communities non-cis-het communities remains a major challenge for Sri Lanka, just like in many other countries in the region and beyond. Given the highly challenging nature of this work, every single rights advocate who works on a SOGIESC-related area – be it activism and advocacy based on their specific points of interest and expertise, donor-funded advocacy, lobbying or work of any other description – deserves unconditional commendation and appreciation. What follows below is by no means a complete or comprehensive overview of the year. Instead, the objective here is to engage in a discussion about a number of key aspects, developments and challenges that particularly marked this year’s SOGIESC advocacy.
The political sphere: new developments?
Sri Lanka has never been short of high-profile cisgender male politicians who happened to be non-heteronormative. However, many, if not all of them have had to systematically conceal their sexual orientation, as part of their strategy to survive in public life. The only notable and commendable exception is indeed Mangala Samaraweera MP. During Mr Samaraweera’s second tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs [12/01/2015-22/05/2017], Sri Lanka made a non-negligible contribution at UN level, by being one of the two South Asian member states to vote in favour of the appointment of the UN Independent Expert on SOGIESC issues [the other member-state in the region that voted in favour was Nepal].
Above: a Tweet published by Mangala Samaraweera MP, then Minister of Finance, in response to a derogatory comment on LGB people made by former President Maitripala Sirisena in November 2018 [©Twitter]
As of late, a group of SOGIESC activists of the left have made strides in terms of engaging with the People’s Liberation Front [better known under its Sinhala abbreviation, JVP]. This body of work led to the inclusion of a clause on LGBTQIA+ rights to the JVP’s 2019 Presidential election manifesto.
This was, unarguably, a very significant development. The JVP has not always been in such an open-minded positioning on SOGIESC. It is a promising to see how that party’s hierarchy developed a preparedness to listen to rights activist of the left, and to provide them with a space on their political platform. As a political party, the JVP today stands in favour of LGB rights. Whether the JVP hierarchy clearly understands that SOGIESC encompasses a wide range of different issues – from sexual orientation to gender identity and sex characteristics, is somewhat unclear. Whether the JVP would be prepared to support the development of inclusive policy in the areas of gender identity and sex characteristics [i.e. the rights of intersex citizens] is also yet to be seen. It is therefore relatively accurate to highlight that the JVP’s current understanding of SOGIESC rights is largely confined to the issue of LGB rights, if not to the sphere of sexual orientation.
Above: a Tweet by JVP leader Anura Dissanayake on his party’s support for LGB rights [©Twitter]
There is indeed a likelihood that the JVP may include several openly non-heteronormative [and most likely cisgender] citizens who fulfil the eligibility criteria to stand at the 2020 Sri Lankan General Election. This might be of help to several cisgender LGB rights activists of the left to develop political careers, and therefore is worth being seen as a welcome step. The dynamics of exclusionary politics that surrounds selective representation of this kind, however, is a different question that requires collective reflection.
Understanding the work as a “process”?
The points mentioned above are all positive and appreciable developments. However, it is extremely important for rights activists and political parties seeking to develop their policies in terms of SOGIESC to take stock of one key factor - that the work is never an end in itself, but a process.
Let’s take a practical example based on recent developments. When activists of the left engaged with the JVP, it was clear that the priority was unreservedly accorded to cisgender, able-bodied non-heteronormative people with high levels of education, careers and social capital.
Trans-exclusionary politics of SOGIESC advocacy?
Where this becomes somewhat problematic is that this exposure continues to be one that helps further cement major disparities that exist in SOGIESC communities. Trans people are still seen as the quintessential bête noire of SOGIESC work. They are solicited by many NGOs for purposes of tokenising, to tick boxes to say that trans people have also been included. This is the case of certain organisations with a supposedly ‘feminist’ outlook, the transphobia [especially transmisogyny] of which has never been a secret. Citizens who are trans are expected to ‘teach’ cis people about what it means to be non-cisgender. That it is up to cis people to do the work, that no marginalised community is here to teach you about matters pertaining to equality, justice, basic human dignity and respect, and regard for people’s agency, are basics that cis-centric media and other lobbies [including supposedly open-minded new media such as English-language Youtube channels] are yet to take stock of, in reasonable adequate measure.
The work done in the left preceding the 2019 presidential election, for instance, provided very little space for non-cisnormative Sri Lankans to engage. The inclination to use the Sinhalese term ‘sama-risi’ - [non-heteronormative] as an ‘umbrella term’ to encompass the broad spectrum of SOGIESC rights was, is, and will only be laughable at best. Trans community leaders of the left have repeatedly reiterated their vehement opposition to such use of words. While enhancing solidarity across SOGIESC work, it is very important to listen to people, and to not to reproduce hierarchies of the cis-heteronormative world, where cis men hold the reins, with cis women coming thereafter, where racial and other privilege-centric fault lines hold sway, and where marginalised minorities including non-cis people are routinely thrown under the bus.
Being asked to do the work?
One news media professional – the editor of an online newspaper of Sri Lankan interest based in the United Kingdom with a global readership –once said to this writer that in her writing, she should use less ’technical vocabulary’, in order to appeal to the [cis-heteronormative, and considerably socially conservative] “masses”. By ’technical vocabulary’ what that person meant was words that are absolutely crucial to any discussion on gender justice advocacy, such as ‘cisnormative’, ‘heteronormative’, and ‘homonationalist’. This writer’s initial response was the most powerful one, inactive silence to denote the idiocy of this claim. Secondly, her reaction was that she does not write on gender justice issues targeting a hostile audience. If those upholding such outdated, restrictive and outright shameless views wish to reconsider their positions, it is their task to do the work that it requires. This writer firmly believes that activism and advocacy are things that people engage in with a sense of pride, self-respect and dignity. However, no rights activist representing a marginalised demographic – unless they deliberately assume otherwise – has any obligation to ‘teach’ anything to anyone. Along the same logic, one could also maintain that the most effective brand of activism is one in which you do not position yourself as trying to gain acceptance from a hostile world, but to go about one’s business in such a way that such hostile audiences begin to go the extra mile to reconsider their positions on their own initiative.
GIESC Advocacy: The Continuing Quagmire
Those who face high levels of systemic marginalisation in the SOGIESC communities, especially non-cisnormative people, have no other option but to be cautious to prevent themselves from being thrown under the bus on a routine basis by their cisgender non-het counterparts. The same goes to non-cis and/or non-het people from ethnic minority backgrounds, coming from socioeconomically underprivileged backdrops, and to those at other multiple intersections.
Above: This writer handing over a copy of her book Decolonising Peacebuilding to Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on SOGIESC issues, Te-Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa, March 2019 [©Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana]
In terms of the specific area of trans rights advocacy, 2019 has continued to be a year that drove home the substantial challenges involved. While Sri Lanka’s oldest trans rights body, Venasa, struggles to maintain a much-needed safe house for trans people [especially youth], trans people who advocate for the healthcare and rights of non-cis Sri Lankans continue to be forced to work under considerable duress, and with very low salaries and dividends. The struggle, when you are non-cisnormative, is absolutely real. This struggle becomes even more of a Calvary because of cis LGB activists and organisations they lead routinely seek to tokenise trans people to promote their agendas. By no means does this imply a negative view on building solidarities and support networks across the board, and developing new collaborations. The point here is about ‘agency’, and how our activist and advocacy lobbies continue to be slow to come to terms with ensuring the agency of non-cis citizens. They also often forget that many non-cis people, including this writer, are subject-matter experts in their specific fields of expertise, apart from what is conveniently catalogued as ‘trans issues’ [the vital importance of breaking bounds and enhancing what it means to engage with ‘trans issues’, and reconceptualising trans politics is a different question that warrants a different article].
SOGIESC on its own in the policy sphere: a call for context-specific reflection?
If a political party genuinely seeks to engage with SOGIESC, it is best done by working with individuals with expert knowledge in this area, and working actively to enhance knowledge and understanding about SOGIESC issues in party ranks. Secondly, it is absolutely crucial to take stock of the fact that SOGIESC cannot be discussed separately, in a vacuum. This can be done in the CSO rights activist spheres, but not in politics. If it is done in politics, especially in a polity where social conservatisms surrounding SOGIESC are influential, it can have counter-productive consequences, which are at best avoided, if political strategizing is to be a priority. It does appear that Sri Lanka’s JVP has, to a certain extent at least, taken stock of this reality. Their discourse on LGB rights was coupled with a very strong emphasis, for instance, on cis women’s right to bodily autonomy. Where further work is required is in working with the political sphere to raise awareness on broadening the relevance of the policy positions. When discussing abortion rights, for example, it is absolutely crucial to not to lose sight of the fact that it is not an issue that only affects cis women. It also affects men. Men of trans experience and non-binary people with ovaries continue to be seldom discussed demographics in conversations on the right to bodily autonomy in the form of a safe and legal termination.
The same goes for yet another topic that came to the fore during Sri Lanka’s 2019 presidential campaign – that of menstrual justice. When one candidate promised to take off the heavy taxes on menstrual products, the topic came to the fore, but the manner in which it was discussed on all quarters of the polity was beyond despicable, to say the least. There was very little emphasis, for example, on connecting this conversation on menstrual justice with the growing global emphasis on sustainable, reusable, environment-friendly, less toxic and accessible menstrual products. There was also next to no acknowledgement of the excellent work already being done by Sri Lankan women in this area, including the work of Nadeesha Paulis. The least that political parties could have done was to solicit their expertise. Absence of such positive inclinations provide clear evidence concerning the very long way ahead for Sri Lanka’s political class in understanding concepts such as “inclusive gender justice”, “agency”, and “representation”. On top of all that, there was also absolutely no emphasis on the fact that not only cisgender women menstruate. Men menstruate too, and hence the importance of challenging the highly “cisnormative” focus on political and especially policy dialogues on menstrual justice at all levels.
What does all this say about the state of SOGIESC advocacy in Sri Lanka?
Cis men dominate, followed by selected cis women
It says that just like elsewhere, cisgender non-het people, especially cis gay men with certain levels of social capital, are desperate to lead policy developments and to position themselves on the frontline. This is deeply problematic, and cracks in their intersectional understanding of what it means to be part of SOGIESC communities are gapingly visible in their activist and advocacy work. To a lesser extent, this also applies to cis non-het women who are yet to do the work in terms of coming to terms with conceptualising SOGIESC in terms of intersectional feminism/s. From an infamous cis women’s rights organisation that considers trans men as ‘women-lite’, tokenises trans men for their highly cisnormative and biopolitics-focused projects [purely for the purpose of appealing to funders] to the cis queer women who simply cannot bring themselves to use the correct Sinhala term sankranthisamajabhaveeya at public meetings, to the cis gay men who feel entitled that they should position themselves on the forefront of SOGIESC advocacy and claim ownership to Sri Lankan SOGIESC work, there is a pressing need for critical retrospection, and revisiting of dominant advocacy strategies.
"#Representation" as a priority?
Balanced and nuanced representation needs to be the absolute priority. Such representation is not something that can be achieved through a given attempt or two. Instead, and as highlighted above in this article, it is extremely important to understand inclusivity as a constant process - in which we need to keep striving to do better. It is also absolutely crucial to ensure that suitably qualified individuals at severely marginalised multiple intersections are provided with genuine agency, in terms of promoting leadership, political representation, and overall presence in public life.
It is crucial to collectively focus on locally grounding our work, and coming to terms with the fact that in the new decade of this century, SOGIESC, and gender justice advocacy-related knowledge bases require critical, self-reflective, decolonial forms of revisiting, re-discovering, and review in the specific backdrop of each local context. This is a priority that applies to not only in the case of Sri Lanka, but also in all other activist spaces elsewhere.
 “I would rather be a butterfly than a leech”, Mangala, Daily Mirror, 6 November 2018. http://www.dailymirror.lk/157952/I-would-rather-be-a-butterfly-than-a-leech-Mangala.  JVP election manifesto [in the Ebooks collection]. JVP official website. http://www.jvpsrilanka.com/english/publications/ebooks/.  Weerawardhana, Chamindra. 2019. Queering the JVP. Colombo Telegraph, 22 July. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/queering-the-jvp/.  Venasa was founded in 2015 by a group of trans men and women. https://www.facebook.com/VENASA.TN/  ‘Sajith Tackles women’s taboo subject. Daily News, 29 October 2019. https://www.dailynews.lk/2019/10/29/political/201271/sajith-tackles-women’s-taboo-subject.  Paulis, Nadeesha, 2018. Bleeding into a cup in Sri Lanka. FemAsia, 25 July. http://femasiamagazine.com/bleeding-into-a-cup-in-sri-lanka/.  Trivedi, Kabir. 2018. Some men menstruate too. Can we talk about it now? Intersectional Feminism, Desi Style. 13 July. https://feminisminindia.com/2018/07/13/men-menstruate-talk-about-it/.