- LGBTIQ community still marginalised
- Most people not reporting on abuse
- We don’t have to hide in the closet to have sex
- Not acceptable globally for people to be discriminated against
- Adult same sex sexual relationships are criminalized by articles in the penal code
LGBTIQ rights have been and are still a very sensitive topic in Sri Lanka. The topic is sensitive mainly because of Sri Lanka’s strong cultural background, a culture which refuses to accept gay rights.
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera has been pushing for the recognition of LGBTIQ rights in Sri Lanka. Yet those attempts have yet to reach a successful conclusion.
Following are excerpts of an interview done with Rosanna Flamer-Caldera:
QYou are the Founder of EQUAL GROUND and have been advocating for LGBT rights in Sri Lanka for a long time. Have you been successful in your attempts?
Well, I think it all depends on what successful really means. Do you mean whether we have managed to change the laws that criminalise adults, same sex sexual relationships? No. If you talk about public opinion or the levels of acceptance, those have risen. We started EQUAL GROUND in 2004 and I’ve been an LGBT advocate since 1999. So it’s been 21 years since I’ve been an advocate for LGBT rights and 16 years that EQUAL GROUND has existed. And I feel that there has been a huge shift in attitudes and the support that we are receiving from the general public as well as some politicians and governments. Now, it’s a very rough road because LGBT rights can be politicised just like any other issue. But at the end of the day, there’s absolutely no reason why rights cannot be granted based purely on the fact that this issue was brought to us by the British in 1883. The criminalization was in the law since 1883. Homosexuality isn’t a Western import, but the laws are definitely. It is definitely from the colonizers. So if we are talking about our culture, our culture had homosexuality and other forms of sexualities and gender identities long before the Brits arrived and it was embraced, there were former kings of Sri Lanka who were gay. People didn’t think it was such a big deal. It’s just the way a person is born, the way they carry on in life, its sexuality, just like heterosexuality. So I think it’s time that people decided that they need to get their heads back into the 21st century.
So, you know, the worst thing that can happen to a child is for his/her family to say we don’t love you anymore because you’re gay or lesbian or transgender. They didn’t ask to be born that way and they were born that way. You don’t suddenly decide, OK, I’m going to be cool down here. I’m just going to be gay. It doesn’t happen like that because if they do that, they will soon find out. Is not that cool.
QBut why do you think policymakers and even the public at large are refusing to accept what is now accepted globally?
I don’t think they’re refusing to accept. I think mainly it’s a matter of us versus them; in the sense that no matter how much we put out there and no matter how much it’s happening across the world, you will always find the ‘naysayers’. You always find politicians who are trying to capitalise on, you know, making somebody a bogeyman, so that you have somebody to lash out at. And that’s what’s been happening all across the globe. Even during Trump’s era he was lashing out at everybody, including the LGBTIQ community. And they have made huge strides in the United States having gay marriage and everything like that. But at the same time, you do have sections of the population who will not tolerate anything that they feel is a threat to their culture or religion or whatever.
In fact, it’s not. There are LGBT persons everywhere. You wouldn’t even know that you are sitting next to a person. So how can you just judge a person based on, you know, what you think they do in bed or who they love or whatever?
QBut these ‘naysayers’ seem to be having a stronger voice in Sri Lanka.
The problem is that you will find the naysayers. And yes they might have a stronger voice now, but they don’t have as strong a voice now as they did like ten years ago and 20 years ago and 40 years ago. So those voices are becoming fewer and the people who support and are allies of the LGBTQ community are getting bigger. And really, it’s just about educating and sensitising people to accept others. Everybody’s different. You and I are different. I mean, we may come from a similar background, but we are different because we dress differently. We act differently. We talk differently. Our colour of our skin is different. So what I do in my bedroom or who I choose to love shouldn’t be the state’s business.
So if we are talking about our culture, our culture had homosexuality and other forms of sexualities and gender identities long before the Brits arrived and it was embraced, there were former kings of Sri Lanka who were gay. People didn’t think it was such a big deal. It’s just the way a person is born, the way they carry on in life
QSome people feel that becoming gay is not real. It’s just this ‘in thing’ which makes you look cool and part of a high-class community in Colombo.
If I had a kid and they said that he was gay, the first thing I would think is, oh, my God, he or she is going to face so much adversity in his life. It’s far from being cool. It’s the amount of harassment, discrimination, marginalisation, bullying, violence perpetrated against us. I have to constantly look over my shoulder whenever I’m out in public. Try living with that. It’s really very difficult for some people. Their parents don’t accept them and their families shun them. So, you know, the worst thing that can happen to a child is for his/her family to say we don’t love you anymore because you’re gay or lesbian or transgender. They didn’t ask to be born that way and they were born that way. You don’t suddenly decide, OK, I’m going to be cool down here. I’m just going to be gay. It doesn’t happen like that because if they do that, they will soon find out. Is not that cool. You need to go and run and hide because everybody’s after you. Now maybe not as much as before in Colombo, but definitely when we started our activism the amount of hate stuff. I’m still getting hate stuff on our Facebook pages and my personal WhatsApp. So it’s not something that you just decide to aspire to one day. You either are or you’re not.
QDoesn’t the LGBT community in Colombo have more protection than people in other parts of the country? We hear of incidents of intimidation, harassment and violence perpetrated against them more than we hear maybe in Colombo.
But it’s happening in Colombo as well. The thing is that LGBT people in the rural areas tend to not be out. Yes we do hear about many issues. That there are some segments of society or some segments of, for example, law enforcement that make it their prime directive to harass and target LGBTIQ persons. So we have to be able to combat all of that by sensitising, educating and trying to be a little bit more interactive with those who oppose us because they are doing it out of sheer ignorance rather than something that they know for a fact is true.
So it’s been 21 years since I’ve been an advocate for LGBT rights and 16 years that EQUAL GROUND has existed. And I feel that there has been a huge shift in attitudes and the support that we are receiving from the general public as well as some politicians and governments. Now, it’s a very rough road because LGBT rights can be politicised just like any other issue.
QOn the matter of law enforcement, Human Rights Watch recently put out a very damning report on how law enforcement is treating some of these community members. Have you addressed this?
EQUAL GROUND and Human Rights Watch, did issue the press release on the anal examinations. Quite a few months ago there was an incident at a nightclub where a transgender person was not allowed entry based on the way she was dressed. And that blew up as well because she blew it up in the press. And we also blew up the whole anal issue and Daily Mirror too carried it.
So I think in this day and age of digitalising everything, every person has an Android phone that they can just you know, it’s just like what happened in the US with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. 80 percent of the brutalities that were perpetrated against black people by the police, for example, were video recorded and so it went all over the world. So even in Sri Lanka, these things are happening. You know, people are recording. People are basically calling out those who are harassing others because there is absolutely no reason for individuals in this country to be harassed based on the colour of their skin, who they worship, who they love, what school they went to or whatever. I think we as a society have grown up to be very, what should I say, judgmental about others. And certainly we don’t look at others as our equals here in Sri Lanka. So naturally, there are all those layers of, you know, not hatred, but suspicion and perhaps this feeling that I have to be better than those people. I am better than those people. So in order for me to feel good about myself, I need to put those people down. And that is the kind of mentality, unfortunately, we Sri Lankans have.
QHave incidents of intimidation and harassment of the LGBTIQ community increased since this administration took office because we see their attitude towards this being more negative maybe as opposed to others.
Yes and no. You know, I mean, obviously, these cases that came to light recently, they actually started in 2017 with the previous Government. So while they may have been more open and friendly so far this Government hasn’t done anything to harass people. But having said that, I have to say that a lot of people who are intimidated, harassed, violated LGBT persons, that is, they tend not to report it. They tend to keep it to themselves because they fear that if they report it the same people would return to harass them again. I also consider that the harassment and intimidation take place on a daily basis regarding them. But I think that I can’t say, oh, this Government did this or that Government did this. They are all bad because they haven’t given us our rights. They haven’t treated us equally. And it’s about time they did that.
QWhat does giving rights to the LGBT community really mean? What do you expect?
Some colleagues of ours did a gap analysis as to what exactly is not in place for LGBT persons. And that report is 155 pages long. In every single social sphere there are no protections for LGBTIQ persons. Adult same sex sexual relationships are criminalised by articles in the penal code. One talks about carnal intercourse against the order of nature. We have no idea what that means. And the other talks about acts of gross indecency. So while they don’t arrest or harass on the first one because they can’t quite figure out what that is on the second one acts on gross indecency. So if two guys are holding hands or two women are hugging or something like that, they can be construed as gross indecency. And that’s exactly how they’re using those laws. They’re twisting those laws. People have sex. Everybody has sex. Even our parents had sex. Otherwise you would’t be here. Sex is just a normal human thing. So we don’t have to hide in the closet to have sex. We don’t have to hide the fact that I prefer a woman instead of a man to be a partner. It comes back into this whole cultural thing.
Even during Trump’s era he was lashing out at everybody, including the LGBTIQ community. And they have made huge strides in the United States having gay marriage and everything like that. But at the same time, you do have sections of the population who will not tolerate anything that they feel is a threat to their culture or religion or whatever.
And this is the irony of it all as well, because nonconsensual sex is accepted and consensual sex is criminalized. I think UNICEF did a study several years ago where it was ascertained that quite a large number of males at the age of 18 have already raped. What is it saying about our culture then? What kind of culture is that? And what kind of country is this if we allow that to keep happening? We are not India where there are one billion people. So we can’t use the excuse or we can’t keep track of everything. We can’t do this. We can’t do that. We have to change the legislature. We have to put in stringent laws to protect women and children here.
QHow do you change the mindset of the people? You see some media, individuals, musicians making fun of the LGBTIQ community. How do you change that mindset?
Well, the thing is that those people who are making those jokes have probably something to hide. And so I won’t go into why they do that. They’re just, you know, very small minded individuals who don’t have anything more in their lives other than to make fun or to harass other people. Once the government changed in 2015 there were more LGBT groups and organizations starting up. So the word is spreading and I think the world is also changing. And globally, it is not acceptable for people to be discriminated against because of who they love.
(The full interview with Rosanna Flamer-Caldera is available on Daily Mirror YouTube and Instagram) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu72lN14dOE