Fortunately today, as a positive result following the recent rejection by President Maithripala Sirisena (in the much discussed National Human Rights Action Plan), LGBTIQ rights are strongly and openly discussed by the old and new generation of rights activists. Those who remained in their closets during those years have now started coming out strengthening the visibility of the LGBTIQ community.
he ongoing discussion on LGBTIQ rights and issues is hugely welcome. In the recent past many LGBTIQ persons have come out of hiding and are lending their faces and names to a much taboo subject. I find this current trend extremely encouraging, being an activist since an era when such discussions were frowned upon in our country. This is important, as being visible as one’s own self is crucial in this fight for rights for the Sri Lankan lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) community. When the fight for rights of the LGBTIQ community started, nearly two decades ago, through a collective of broadminded, visionary men and women with remarkable understanding, the greatest obstacle was the buried nature of the community. Fear of social stigma, criminalising, arrests, mistreatment made this minority a largely hidden one. Only a handful were brave enough to be visible in society to run this rights based struggle while many others left the country. Those who were fortunate to gain experience of the global LGBT movement shared their knowledge and activated the struggle for the rights of the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka as a key segment of its human rights struggles. As years passed by the conditions became shoddier. Times got worse during the previous regime when religious extremism was promoted and sponsored by the state itself. EQUAL GROUND, the only rights based LGBTIQ organisation in Sri Lanka, was trashed by law enforcement agencies on the instructions of leading characters of the Government at that time. From 2012 till 2014 EQUAL GROUND was under threat.
The organisation and the Community Based Organizations it worked with in several districts became the target of the State Security Services. Our partners in Galle and Anuradhapura were raided by the CID and files and documents pertaining to EQUAL GROUND’s work in that area were taken in to custody. A team of us met with the OIC of the CID in charge of the so called investigation. It was scary when he told me exactly how I got to work, where I went and what I did. I had been under surveillance for almost a year! The crime committed was standing by the rights of a minority of the Sri Lankan population. So, there was a time in this country when openly working for rights of the LGBTIQ community was threatened by law enforcement agencies based on views of religious and racial extremists and aided and abetted by the then government. Just holding a community sensitizing workshop or celebrating PRIDE was looked upon as an act against the country. Unlike today, open discussions about LGBTIQ rights were not easy at that time. We still operate cautiously after this experience. Fortunately today, as a positive result following the recent rejection by President Maithripala Sirisena (in the much discussed National Human Rights Action Plan), LGBTIQ rights are strongly and openly discussed by the old and new generations of rights activists. Those who remained in their closets during those years have now started coming out strengthening the visibility of the LGBTIQ community.
"Met with the OIC of the CID in charge of the so called investigation. It was scary when he told me exactly how I got to work, where I went and what I did. I had been under surveillance for almost a year! "
The LGBTIQ community was never limited to the elite of society. Lesbians, Gaymen, transgender men and women and those questioning their sexuality or gender identity are coming out in far rural areas as well as urban areas, seeking support to live as who and what they are. The continued advocacy over the years has created an environment where accepting one’s own sexual orientation and or gender identity is becoming easier. However, this is still a hard road for many. It certainly was no bed of roses for those who worked with EQUAL GROUND and stood by us rock solid during all those years. The political and social climate made our lives miserable. It must be this rough path that made us hang tough and stimulated us to form a thicker skin. Even during the time when the political environment was extremely threatening, when there was no option but to close our operations – we stayed open and worked, when all around us, organizations closed down and activists dived for cover. We reinforced our minds to face the wave and survive the storm. And we have survived.
Analysing the work EQUAL GROUND has done over the years, it has become obvious that the pressure of lobbying locally as well as internationally is what paved the path. Influencing decision makers at international levels, urging governments to think globally and act locally is key and holds as much importance as collective efforts of local activists to campaign locally.
If both do not perform together, we will never achieve our targets. Supporting the logically planned international lobbying of other concerned parties is as important as implementing your own indigenous action plan. It is nothing but supporting the collective effort. As the world becomes smaller and more interconnected and interdependent, one cannot exclude seeking support from international players and decision makers. When a government fails to pay attention, be sensitive towards the rights of minority groups, an alternative pressure needs to be imposed through the support of the international community.
"And one must not forget this is not the grand finale, either. As Winston Churchill once said ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts"
To come this far EQUAL GROUND in its 12 years of existence, has had to convince international bodies such as the UN, The LGBTIQ Equality Coalition (a group of 29 governments dedicated to fighting for LGBTIQ rights) and gain their support. The opportunity received by the writer to co-chair the International lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex association (ILGA) created a conducive environment for proper rights based international lobbying. Currently EQUAL GROUND holds the Chair of the Commonwealth Equality Network – enabling us to partner with International activists and organisations to fight for each other’s rights within the Commonwealth.
Nowhere in the history of this world were rights achieved without a struggle. These were never just struggles that happened locally. International support, at least regional support, as a result of international lobbying by activists, had been a compulsory part and parcel of the total struggle. This is the practical use of knowledge. Success is where preparation and opportunity meet, as they say. And today, the preparations, made by old time rights activists who are dedicated, committed and have sacrificed themselves to fight for the rights of this community, are making an opportunity we should not miss. When the opportunity arises, one must not forget the process that prepared the path. And one must not forget this is not the grand finale, either. As Winston Churchill once said ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’.