Rosanna Flamer-Caldera is the founder and Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND (2004-to present), the only LGBTIQ advocacy organisation pursuing LGBTIQ rights as part of the larger Human Rights framework in Sri Lanka. Rosanna served two terms as Co-Secretary to ILGA and is the co-founder and current Chair of the Commonwealth Equality Network. She was a recipient of the Utopia Award (2005). She was awarded the Zonta Women of Achievement 2017 Award for Social Impact. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the Pink News Awards 2018 Campaigner of the Year award and the APCOM Community Hero award 2018. Rosanna is also an advisor to the Urgent Action Fund (Asia). I had the pleasure of talking to her about her experiences of the past 15 years.
Q What did you know about historical events related to LGBT civil rights in Sri Lanka before setting up EQUAL GROUND?
It shocked me when I heard stories from some of the community members, which made me realise how blissfully ignorant I was about LGBTIQ persons having no rights in this country. When EQUAL GROUND was inaugurated in 2004 it was during the time of the war and horror encapsulated all our daily lives, whether gay or straight. Additionally, rights violations were taking place because of the state of emergency in the country, something that is happening all over again with the recent crisis. For the LGBTIQ community, the violations and violence has been a constant for the past 136 years since the British brought their colonial laws and discrimination to our country
QHow did you get this information?
By talking to people, reading the newspapers and the internet. The most knowledge gained was from talking to LGBTIQ people from all walks of life who had suffered and continue to suffer greatly from discrimination and marginalisation just for being who they are.
Q15 years on – describe briefly what EQUAL GROUND’s progress has been in Sri Lanka?
Although we are still not free from criminalisation or have any nondiscrimination policies to safeguard our lives, there are more persons out and proud, and there is more support from the general population for the LGBTIQ community now and our support base is growing. The LGBTIQ community is more vocal, are not afraid to engage, and our lobbying locally and internationally has gained recognition and traction even with the government, which made some positive statements on gay rights at the UN. LGBTIQ persons are coming out in greater numbers and our protests last year during the constitutional coup was testament to the fact that our community is no longer afraid and is no longer taking a back seat. EQUAL GROUND’s work over the past 15 years is a major contributor to the openness and support we enjoy today.
Q What kind of human rights violations are LGBT people exposed to in Sri Lanka?
Discrimination is rife – in employment, in education, in health care, and even in everyday life. LGBTIQ persons suffer harassment, violence and abuse at the hands of law enforcement authorities and other state authorities and society in general, including from their own families.
They are forced into heterosexual marriages, are treated as servants sometimes by their families, are beaten and imprisoned and many are sent for conversion therapies that are inhumane and ineffective. Many LGBTIQ persons are forced to drop out of school because of the incessant bullying and violence they face in the education system, both by fellow students and faculty members. This list is just the tip of the iceberg really.
Q Does international human rights law apply to LGBT people in Sri Lanka?
Even though Sri Lanka has signed the all UN Treaty bodies and conventions, including option protocols, they are yet to effectively implement changes and international norms as far as human rights are concerned. For example, the Yogyakarta Principles is a document that outlines the State’s Obligations on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics. While many countries have accepted these principles and adhere to them, Sri Lanka does not even acknowledge its existence. So, the answer to your question is a resounding NO, although International human rights laws must apply to all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
QCan depriving LGBT people of their human rights be justified on grounds of religion, culture or tradition?
Nothing can justify the violation of someone’s rights, regardless of who they are. Not religion, not culture or custom; not anything. The time to hide behind culture and religion and other excuses is gone. Now more than ever, we must embrace everyone who lives in this country and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Q Do you believe that public opinion regarding same-sex marriage in this country is changing?
I don’t think it is. We are, by all definitions, still criminalised in this country. We need this removed in order to fulfill our rights as full citizens of this country.
Q What resources are available that you believe help educate others about the LGBT community in Sri Lanka?
There are very little resources on this issue. EQUAL GROUND has, over the years, provided the only literature available for educating and sensitising. It has done several studies and published several reports on the conditions in this country for LGBTIQ persons and the discrimination and stigma they suffer. We have also published several booklets on a variety of subjects such as Human Rights, domestic violence, parents of LGBTIQ, breast and cervical cancer, learning about sexuality and gender identity etc. We also run sensitising and educational programmes for many different groups of people, such as health care workers, the police, local government authorities, youth, businesses etc. We also run the only LGBTIQ counseling line, which is also 15 years old. Education is really the key to change in this country, but one is always amazed at how much people fight against education and change. Financially, we get no resources or encouragement from the government or social service organisations. I believe there should be curriculums in schools that teach children about diversity and inclusion. And businesses should all embrace this element in order to grow. We have had to ‘invent the wheel’ so to speak, as there were no resources available for us to avail of.