By Sherwani Synon
Q: How is the gay and lesbian community viewed in Sri Lanka considering the country is steeped in traditions and culture?
Well unfortunately not in a positive light, mainly because over a 100 years ago the British brought in old Victorian laws which criminalized homosexuality and these old Christian values or new Christian values or most religious values at this point vilify homosexuality as something bad against the Quran and against the Bible. However, I think (it’s) a debate that wages even now. We, as a gay community don’t feel the Bible and the Quran vilifies us. We feel the text was taken out of context and twisted to serve people’s agendas and at the end of the day, if you’re looking at any kind of religion, it preaches love, tolerance and acceptance. God is supposed to be all loving and caring and I highly doubt that God will say homosexuals are nasty or condone killing and imprisoning them. I think at the end of the day it’s up to God to judge and not for people to voice their own beliefs on other people.
Q: When you addressed the Pride Fashion Show held in Colombo you said it’s time Sri Lanka emulated India and the gay and lesbian community should be given equal rights. What kind of equal rights are you looking for?
The same rights a heterosexual person enjoys. Is it a criminal offence for them to have sex? It’s not. It’s not a criminal offence to be dependents, it’s not criminal to be married or adopt children or be on someone’s health insurance or be a beneficiary or any of these things. When you say equal rights it’s about everybody having the same rights. We are not saying we need gay marriages, it’s an institute based on religion and since I just mentioned how religions view homosexuality, it’s up to them to decide whether they are going to change their religious outlook to fit human right agendas of this day and age. But it’s up to the state to safeguard every single citizen regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity and regardless of their ethnicity or religious belief. The state should not interfere in private lives but unfortunately the British brought these laws and we are stuck with them, I think it’s high time these laws were changed.
Q: Do you think Sri Lanka is ready for that change?
It should be ready. Human rights are not a negotiable thing. Human rights are something that every citizen of this country should enjoy regardless of who they are. We can’t say the Sinhalese deserves these rights, a Tamil deserves these rights and a heterosexual deserves these rights and a homosexual doesn’t deserve these rights. You can’t do that if you’re living in a country that is a democracy and Sri Lanka is a democracy so we need to have equal rights across the board for everybody. We are not asking for special rights. We are asking that the LGBT people, (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) are granted the ability to access the rights that are due them as human beings.
Q: Have you encountered any incidents of discrimination personally?
Being a woman in Sri Lanka is tough enough. I’m always thought of as a foreigner so they feel I’m coming with convoluted ideas trying to change people’s way of thinking. But actually, I’m a Burgher, I’m minority in this country. At the same, time I don’t feel comfortable living in this country even though I live here because it’s my country. Where else should I go? But I don’t feel comfortable living here sometimes because of my sexuality, of being a woman and also because of my ethnic minority. We don’t really have a lot of choice.
Q: How was Equal Ground started?
Equal Ground was founded in 2004, because at that time we felt that there was a pressing need to have a mixed organization of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual people. We are probably the only organization in Asia that is so mixed that we have heterosexual members as well. We feel very strongly that we must lead by example. In everything we do, we are equal opportunity. Our board of trustees, our staff consists of all ethnic backgrounds, all sexual orientation and gender identity backgrounds. We have a gender balance program in our office so there’s an equal number of females and males and transgender. We carry that throughout all programs and all the work we do. We do not discriminate against people because they are poor or their cast is different or class is different. Everybody who walks into our office is treated with the same VIP treatment.
Q: Has your organization faced threats or abuse considering that openly speaking of being gay or lesbian is a sensitive subject?
We have faced a lot of threats. For example last year we were being threatened by a Muslim extremist group operating in the East coast. The main branch is in Mawanella. They felt that we were polluting Muslim minds and spreading homosexuality in Sri Lanka. They also accused us of being Jewish and having a Zionist agenda. This is just to raise fear and actually people will believe them because they are not hearing our side of the story. It’s amazing that even moderate Muslims are beginning to think this is exactly what we are doing, spreading homosexuality. As you know you can’t spread anything called homosexuality. It’s not a disease, it’s something your are or you are not. If we were able to spread homosexuality by this time the entire world would be gay and we’ll be living very happily without having all these issues. And of course we get threats all the time on our blog, on our website, by email and telephone calls. Especially after Rainbow runway, the Daily Mirror I believe printed this article which first went on the internet and then it was published. There were a lot of comments, hate filled comments. We started getting emails calling us all kinds of names and saying that we are basically trying to prey on young people and turn this country into something that it’s not. I mean homosexuality has been in this country for as long as time exists. It is not something new. It is the laws that are western imports, not homosexuality. We also feel that we are doing our work properly and we are actually reaching people if we are getting threatened and we are getting negative comments. When that happens you know that you are doing something good because people are beginning to listen and they are getting scared because you are doing something good and changes will come, as you know in this country to make A change is very difficult because people protest against change a lot. They don’t like change. I think any human being has a hard time coping or dealing with change and some can deal with it better than others but by and large we are a society that change comes slowly to because we resist it.
Q: Tell us about your personal life? Are you married?
Let’s just say that my personal life should remain personal. All I can say is when I was 18 and I was struggling with my sexuality, I had the opportunity to go and live in the States. That was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life because it opened my eyes to a lot of things. It made me the person that I am today. Some might say that I’m aggressive or I’m very hard. One needs to be aggressive and hard in order to do what I’m doing, running an organization that is controversial and dealing with a subject matter that is controversial. But I wouldn’t change anything about myself.
And this month something happened quite by chance because we wanted to have the rainbow runway fashion show but we couldn’t find a venue to hold it and the only date available was June 20 so we grabbed it and we worked all the other pride stuff around it and it fell into place like that. There are four events happening, we have the film festival, art and photo exhibition, the play and the kite festival as well for one week. That’s the week that it was scheduled for but then we decided it would be better to spread it for our own peace of mind and as it’s a very tiring to do to do non stop events in 2008 we did something similar a show called ‘I have a dream’ at the Lionel Wendt.
Q: Do you think discrimination is limited to one part of society?
Discrimination is across the board. You could be a Tamil, a Burgher, a Muslim a Sinhalese. You could be a lawyer, a teacher, a rich person or a poor person. I mean we discriminate against each other at all levels and that’s where the problem lies. The LGBT community is every where. Its conservative estimate of the island’s population is 10% and that’s a very conservative estimate because Lord knows we have a very gay society in Sri Lanka although we don’t want to admit it.
Q: Is the prejudice against gay and lesbian community less in poor classes?
I don’t think it’s less or more, I just think that people don’t know and when they are informed and they are able to choose for themselves they realize that what they have been thinking before or feeling before has completely changed because its easy to tell people that homosexuality is bad its against the Bible and it’s against the Quran and that they are sick and that they are deviants. But there is nothing to support any of those arguments because by now all these arguments have been exhausted. There’s a counter arguments for everything, you might be sitting next to a person who’s gay but you wouldn’t know it and you would like that person for who that person is, a good human being. You don’t like that person because they are gay or straight. It’s kind of ludicrous actually to pin point and say that a person is a nasty person because he is gay or he is sick. It’s not a nice thing to do to negatively stereotype people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Q: what are your future plans both for Equal Ground and your fight for equality?
I hope we can take the Prime Minister’s statement that he would like to discuss things with us and take that forward and perhaps convince the government that’s its time to decriminalize homosexuality. Part of our battle or our work would have been fulfilled with that happening if it does happen and I think it will, I think the government is actually thinking about these things now and they are thinking very positively about human rights in general and I think they are willing to address these kind of issues. I think that it will happen sooner rather than later we are well in to the 21st century, we have to realize that cultures and societies evolve and change. For example, we had customs where children were given in marriage and now we have laws protecting children and that is no longer allowable under the law. So cultures have to change to accommodate human rights. Human rights is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It means we can all live harmoniously and equally, because to me the worse thing that could possibly happen is that I can’t have the newspaper delivery person sit with me at my table and have lunch with me. Why not? what’s wrong with that person? Or a newspaper editor doesn’t want to sit with an art director at a function because he is the art director. Those things need to change and those are positive changes and they are not changes that will adversely affect our cultures or our society. I think it’s a good thing to change and any religion or culture that doesn’t want to evolve with the times and give people an equal opportunity to be who they are and live productive lives, then those things must be changed.