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  • Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Towards Sri Lankan Queer Liberation: A Global-Sri Lankan Reflection For Pride 2017

In this festive period of Pride celebrations across the world, a peculiar incident takes place in Sri Lanka, with increased mobilisation of the Buddhist monks, who are apparently opposed to the proposed new Constitution. The multitude of disagreements on the Constitution, and especially on what goes in the Constitution within the Joint Government itself have repeatedly come to light. Debates that are necessary and somewhat intriguing are taking place, which is just about the only positive sign.


On 4th July 2017, academic and diplomat Dr Dayan Jayatilleka published an article in defence of the Justice Minister (given the Justice Minister’s publicly expressed hatred of Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQA community – yes, let that sink in – LGBTQIA people who are Sri Lankan nationals, including this writer, his name will not be mentioned in this article). The following passage provides for an interesting reading:


[I quote]

These rootless cosmopolitan civil society caucuses have a disproportionate influence not only on but in the Government and government policy. Their heroes and heroines are Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, ex-Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It is these NGO networks, their expatriate backup and their handlers in foreign capitals near and far, and Colombo based Embassies and High Commissions, who have cheered on a so-called “reform agenda” which has caused a situation in which this deadlocked government is sinking in a quagmire, assailed on every front every day, by semi-spontaneous public agitation. Individual Ministers are besieged by increasingly angry crowds.

These caucuses, whether they know it or not, objectively serve foreign and anti-Sri Lankan interests. They have given the Government a profile similar to that which the UNP was depicted as possessing in the famous ‘Mara Yuddha’ cartoon of 1956. In its updated version, the public perception is of a UNP dominated, driven or disproportionately influenced by non-national, foreign interventionist, LGBTIQ and Evangelical elites or lobbies. President Sirisena’s SLFP is therefore seen as a mere tail of such a UNP (emphasis mine).

[unquote]


This statement carries tremendous significance. The point made here is a fundamental factor that every single human rights advocate, and supporter of the Joint Government (especially those in the LGBTQIA community) ought to come to terms with. This statement is also suggestive of many of the ills, problems and challenges in present-day Sri Lankan politics.


Two opposed sides in collision?


To summarise the basics, Sri Lankan politics today are divided by a clear socio-cultural dividing line. On one side, we have the Justice Minister, the Joint Opposition and its endorsers outside parliament, the Sinhala nationalist lobby (Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya – all included), and the Buddhist Sangha establishment – composed, in this case, exclusively of cis-male monks (this is an important factor, as it highlights the tremendous levels of gender bias in the Buddhist establishment).

On the ‘other side’, we have people Dr Jayatilleka describes as ‘rootless cosmopolitan civil society caucuses’. This lobby is by far the most supportive towards LGBTQIA rights, reproductive justice, and gender justice in general. Name a project meant for the welfare of under-privileged women, Trans and Queer people, domestic violence, the MMDA, a great deal of the activism and engagements come from this lobby. They are indeed funded by Western donors, and the near-totality of individuals and organisations have obligations towards their funders.


Global [neo]Liberal LGBTQIA Activism


In terms of LGBTQIA activism, this type of activism inevitably promotes a liberal perspective on rights related to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC). Very often, we can notice that activism of this nature leads to an NGO-industrial complex, where queer liberalism of the West is understood as the template to emulate. This queer liberalism, while mainstreaming LGBTQIA rights, comes with its share of neoliberal exclusions. The discourse on equal marriage, for example, is one that often encourages LGBTQIA activists to ignore the more pressing day-to-day struggles of Trans women of colour, the continued denial of reproductive rights to Trans and Queer peoples, and the elephant in the room, violence against marginalised segments of the LGBTQIA communities, including Trans and Queer women, people of colour and gender-plural Indigenous peoples.


The limitations and inconsistencies of (neo)liberal LBTQIA politics are clearly evident in what is termed ‘homonationalism’ – especially, evident, for example, in the rampant islamophobia in some LGBTQIA lobbies, and the tendency of government bodies and individual politicians to deploy LGBTQIA rights as a tool in strengthening their Islamophobic and xenophobic policy agendas home and abroad.


Above: A placard displaying an Islamophobic message at London’s Pride parade on 8th July 2017.


It is in challenging trends of this nature that the work of Muslim Queer groups such as Al-Qaws, gains tremendous importance. Political discourses developed by Trans and Queer people of colour – especially in the form of Transfeminist politics – represent the most poignant critique that constructively complements and challenges the now mainstream Queer liberalism.

A Queer-Muslim-affirming placard on display at the 2017 Lucknow Pride, on 9th April 2017 (Source: The Times of India).


Making Sense of LGBTQIA-NGO Work in the Sri Lankan context


Coming back to Dayan Jayatilleka’s view on the ‘rootless cosmopolitan civil society caucuses’, he also mentions LGBTIQ lobbies. It appears that he is referring to LGBTQIA support organisations and their lead activists. Very often, one can observe across the global South that such organisations and their staff have no other option than working with the above-mentioned global neoliberal NGO-industrial complex. At home, (and outside the LGBTQIA communities), they are often despised and looked down upon. In the global LGBTQIA-NGO lobby, they are celebrated. Consider, for example, a recent press report released by the Human Rights Campaign, which quotes Sri Lankan LGBTQIA rights activist Rosanna Flamer-Caldera:


“Pride celebrations are more important than ever to the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community with the recent rise of extremist groups and homophobic government officials threatening the community. While we hope to one day march in the streets to demand our rights, we cannot march peacefully now. Although pride celebrations are generally private events, they are an opportunity to share information about the LGBTQ community with Sri Lankans” (emphasis mine).

Ms Flamer-Caldera’s words marked above in bold sum up a bitter reality. The foremost threats to Sri Lankan citizens’ SOGIESC rights come from our own government and political class. That political class, as this writer has claimed before, includes LGB people who have no qualms about adhering to the overpowering anti-SOGIESC feeling in corridors of power.


In this scenario, two key points require reiteration: a) LGBTQIA community leaders such as Ms Flamer-Caldera and organisations are left with no option, other than working with the NGO-industrial sphere, and b) if an LGBTQIA rights advocate critically engages with the LGBTQIA-NGO lobby, they are frowned upon at both ends Jayatilleka describes – by the LGBTQIA lobby as well as the usually homophobic and transphobic government bodies and socially conservative lobbies.


A government that fails its fellow citizens?


This is where a fundamental problem comes to the fore. The failings of our government and the political class, and the casual homophobia and transphobia among many in the intelligentsia, form a major obstacle to the emergence of a Sri Lankan brand of LGBTQIA leaders who are prepared to uphold Sri Lanka’s interests nationally and internationally. When the democratically elected Head of State, the Justice Minister, and political analysts take pride in homophobia and transphobia, they are throwing a talented, cosmopolitan, multilingual and resourceful segment of their citizenry under the bus.


Consider, for example, the casual homophobia in the Justice Minister’s remarks on the EU’s request to Sri Lanka to respect LGBTQIA rights. To recapitulate briefly, the request involved repealing Articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, and adding a SOGIESC equality clause either to the present Constitution, and/or to the proposed new Constitution. This request was translated into Sinhala as සමලිංගික සේවනය නීතිගත කිරීම, which is totally erroneous and meaningless. When the President of Sri Lanka claims in public that he was the one who ditched what he terms the ‘gay proposal’(samalingika yojanava), how can non-hetero-normative Sri Lankan citizens consider him as their head of state? When local circumstances are this pathetic, we are no longer talking about an issue of external coercion.


Instead, the issue at hand is that of ensuring the fundamental rights of Sri Lankan citizens, that the Sri Lankan state assumes its responsibilities vis-à-vis Sri Lankan citizens. This is the reality that Sri Lanka’s homophobic and transphobic lobby (members of which include the Justice Minister, the President, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka and many other public figures) is yet to understand. The usual [non]claim of homo/transphobes worldwide – ‘that the majority in the country is homo/transphobic and therefore so are we’ – is no longer viable. Not in 2017.


Challenging neo-colonialism and homo/transphobia simultaneously?


Releasing a message for Pride2017, Prime Minister Theresa May made the following remark:

“Around the world, cruel and discriminatory laws still exist, some of them directly based on the very laws which were repealed in this country 50 years ago. So the UK has a responsibility to stand up for our values and to promote the rights of LGBT+ people internationally. That’s why we will continue to stand up for human rights, directly challenging at the highest political levels governments that criminalise homosexuality or practice violence and discrimination against LGBT+ people.”

Let’s not forget that in Victorian times, highly discriminatory legislation was also introduced in the name of propagating ‘British’ values, of forcing colonized peoples to adhere to British sociocultural codes. The violence of colonisation was such that this ideology of hatred continues to be deeply ingrained into the institutional fabric of many Commonwealth countries. This is especially the case in institutions originally created to serve the colonizers’ vested interests, such as the police, the military as well as the judiciary.

Those who, out of homo/trans-phobia, point the finger at Western-funded LGBTQI organisations, their leaders and other civil society caucuses, never call out police brutality against the most vulnerable in society. This is especially the case towards ethnic minority women, underprivileged [cis and trans] women and members of the LGBTQIA community. Examples abound, and for as long as the state falls short of setting standards of best practice that train law enforcement officials to respect people’s SOGIESC-related fundamental rights, it is inevitable that many in the LGBTQIA community will continue to be estranged from and unsupportive of the institutions in their own country.


Lacunae in global LGBTQIA politics?


Theresa May’s words quoted above point at the problems of Western governments’ policies on LGBTQIA rights worldwide. Not once does she mention the terms ‘colonialism’, ‘empire’ or ‘Victorian’. Not once does she admit that the laws in question were imposed upon colonized peoples by force. Not once does she mention that for many years, decades and centuries, these forcibly imposed laws were fiercely applied as the ‘norm’ upon the lives and bodies of colonized peoples.


A coercive stance on human rights by Western governments, despite its objectives, is thoroughly unadvisable in reaching the objective of supporting LGBTQIA people in the global South. Such policies only result in strengthening the hands of the likes of Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, and the entire homophobic and transphobic lobby.


Standing up for Queer Liberation: The most challenging centre-ground?


Earlier this year, Equal Ground, Sri Lanka’s best known LGBTQIA rights organisation, launched an international petition on the state of LGBTQIA rights in Sri Lanka, which directly pointed the finger at the Sri Lankan government and called upon the European institutions to refrain from granting the GSP+ trade concession to Sri Lanka. Given the threats to LGBTQIA rights coming from the corridors of power and commentators such as Dr Jayatilleka, this action can certainly be justified.


This writer, however, openly opposed this petition, on social media as a private citizen, and in public as a Sri Lankan national, a Trans woman with an international profile, political commentator and a proud member of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQIA community. Writing to The Sunday Times on 26 February 2017, this writer explained her rationale for this opposition:

As the local LGBTQI community launched the collective effort for intersectional and critical engagement, the elite leadership of NGO-industrial LGBTQI activism deployed its international contacts to push the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka against the wall. All Out, an international LGBTQI advocacy and campaigning organisation, recently started a campaign – in partnership, as All Out informed this writer on Twitter, with an infamous Sri Lankan organisation – calling upon the European institutions to not to approve a GSP+ trade deal for Sri Lanka until Colombo scraps its ‘anti-gay law’. Most intriguingly the petition carries the by-line ‘no deal for homophobes’. It is the government of Sri Lanka, which voted at the UN in favour of the SOGIE Expert (and the only South Asian government to do so) that this apparently ‘Sri Lankan’ organisation is encouraging the world to view the country as ‘homophobic’.
Conflating LGBTQI rights issues with Colombo’s international trade deals is an ill-conceived and politically myopic step that strengthens the hands of anti-LGBTQI, if not anti-human rights lobbies, giving them added reason to reiterate the often-repeated claim that LGBTQI rights are a Western import of no relevance to Sri Lanka. This petition’s greatest beneficiaries, if any, are those reciting the ‘batahira kumanthrana’ mantra whenever a fundamental rights issue is raised. This petition risks jeopardising local LGBTQI activists who have been working hard to develop an initiative that connects discrimination on the basis of gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation with the broader spectrum gender-based oppressions, thereby developing a locally conceived and much needed dialogue on Queer Liberation.
A responsible LGBTQI organisation, if it cares for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI citizens, and focuses on repealing Article 365 of the Penal Code and ensuring constitutional provisions on SOGIE-related equality, has an obligation to distance itself from such ill-advised measures. The path forward for gender and social justice, including the consolidation of citizens’ fundamental rights and equality irrespective of their gender identity/sexual orientation, lies in working with, and being constructively critical of, our government, but not working against it, or discrediting it on the world stage.

Readers are requested to compare these comments with the passage from Dayan Jayatilleka’s defence of the Justice Minister, quoted at the beginning of this article.

The point made here is that there is a need to articulate a local brand of Queer Liberation, in which Sri Lankan citizens’ SOGIESC rights are valorised and respected. It is a movement that imperatively requires sound international links, with the global North as well as with like-minded movements across the global South, but most importantly, Sri Lankan LGBTQIA discourses require articulation in such a way that neither the President of Sri Lanka, nor the Justice Minister, nor the Joint Opposition, nor Dr Dayan Jayatilleka nor any other commentator, can afford to conflate Sri Lankans’ committed struggle for SOGIESC equality and justice (and the inevitable victories of that struggle) with neo-imperialist and coercive agendas coming from corridors of power in the global North [that those treading such corridors require sensitizing on these issues is another matter. This writer, and many other activists who navigate the North with their roots {and their hearts} in the South are at work tirelessly on this front].


This writer’s aforementioned stance is one that is simultaneously unpopular with quite a few people in Western-funded LGBTQIA activist circles, as well as with political circles that support an anti-imperialist ethos, national sovereignty and global South partnerships.

The former finds a position of this nature as detrimental to their interests (coming from a Sri Lankan Trans woman, a “someone in our own community criticising our hard work”-type reaction).


The latter, despite its non-negligibly important political positions, is very often all-cis-hetero-normative male (with a small minority of cis-hetero-normative women), and is deeply prejudiced against anyone who is not Sinhala, Buddhist, heterosexual, cisgender and preferably cisgender male. Social conservatisms and internalised prejudices are such that ethnic minority leaders (many of them also cis-het-male) happily side with this latter category, despite the fact that they themselves are at the constant receiving end of majoritarian-nationalist agendas. It also includes a large majority of faith leader-patriarchs. Dr Jayatilleka’s public social media profile provides revealing examples of the views of people in this category. In his responses to comments made by members of the LGBTQIA community on a post that concerns Mangala Samaraweera MP, perhaps the most high-profile openly gay (cis-male) politician in South Asia today, Dr Jayatilleka describes people opposing his homophobia as ‘LGBT trolls’. The following line clearly shows where he (and many others of the same socially conservative category) stands on the fundamental rights of oppressed and marginalised fellow citizens: “…it [the presence of openly LGB people in power] will feed a backlash by the most horrible forces such as the ethno-religious fascists of the BBS”.


It is evident that he has no interest in defending the rights, visibility and upward mobility of marginalised groups, that he chooses to be a silent onlooker predicting an ethno-religious fascist backlash. The statement “if you are neutral in/oblivious to situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” comes to mind.



#QueerLiberation as the way forward


In sum, a strong drive for Sri Lankan Queer Liberation needs to be one that systematically invalidates Jayatilleka’s remarks on the LGBTQIA community. It is the only strategy robust enough to challenge the patriarchal and [cis-and-trans]misogynist hatred that pervades against the LGBTQIA community [and also within the global LGBTQIA community/ies]. It is also the most insightful path towards ‘un-learning’ biases, prejudices, and challenging cis-hetero-normative inanities. Queer Liberation work involves a form of activism and public engagement that goes beyond constant finger-pointing the Government of Sri Lanka [or any other government in the global South, for that matter] on the international stage.

Instead, it is a form of engagement that takes pride in our Sri Lankan identity, our languages, our national sovereignty, stands for human dignity, equality and justice beyond patriarchal and misogynist oppressions. This involves a trenchant and fierce, yet nuanced critique of our government and our institutions. Most importantly, Queer Liberation ‘must’ boldly and openly claim spaces right across governmental structures, from Parliament downwards. This, needless to say, is the harder path, much harder than NGO-financed neoliberal (and considerably elitist) LGBTQIA activism. Yet, the harder path is also the most promising and necessary path forward, for the betterment of lives of ALL, irrespective of their SOGIESC.


Making way for this new generation of proudly Sri Lankan, cosmopolitan and Queer/Trans citizens who carry the torch of Queer Liberation, who travel the world with Sri Lankan passports and have a vision for a shared future that ensures equality and justice to all Sri Lankans, and standing unconditionally with locally-grounded Queer Liberation, are, at best, the primary responsibilities of Sri Lanka’s intelligentsia today.


Colombo Telegraph, 11 July 2017

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