yself and few representatives of the community of diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identities and Sex Characteristics (SOGISEC) (or else LGBTIQ+ Community) of Sri Lanka were invited by JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-Peoples Liberation Front) to participate at a public dialogue on the struggle for democracy and the role of intellectuals in Sri Lanka on November 12. JVP, with six MPs in the Parliament, has been subject two insurrections. A party that is largely based on a rural, educated Sinhalese votes base, is in the move to include larger issues that are not championed by major parties such as UNP and SLFP.
"The major call which echoed through all the speeches was to stand and join hands for a broader democratic coalition against authoritarian moves of President Sirisena. Such a broader platform entails representation of different progressive rights and interests of the larger society"
Recognising SOGIESC Community
This was the first such invitation that representatives of SOGIESC communities in Sri Lanka has received from a political party to join a high level public political dialogue. This invitation has come at a time when the SOGIESC community has been continuously demonised and deliberately ignored by the major political parties like UNP. Our request to meet the then Minister of Justice Thalatha Athukorala and the Chairwoman of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender Dr. Thusitha Wijemanna in September 2018, with regard to their statement made to the ‘Ceylon Today’ newspaper, claiming that they are yet to receive a formal request to decriminalize LGBTIQ, were fallen into the ears of deaf. (https://www.lankanewspapers.com/2018/09/10/india-lifting-gay-sex-ban-gosl-wants-formal-request-consider-legal-reform/?fbclid=IwAR1xii9E3nirVJSb1elrxtRMMJPP7KxeiOEq_xR4gGQc1Oda1cKcUFsGvOo). Particularly this invitation holds value as it came during a situation where the Sri Lankan SOGIESC community is being demonised by President Maithripaala Sirisena, who represents the SLFP, during his speech at a mega rally on November 5. The president’s homophobic remarks were met with fierce criticism from diverse segments of the society (http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Prez-should-apologize-says-LGBTQ-community-158026.html). With the JVP’s progressive stance against the discrimination of SOGIESC community in contrast to the homophobic SLFP and UNP, this is a solid start to the LGBTIQ which has been historically oppressed.
Call for broader democratic progressive alliance
The event was organised by the JVP under the theme ‘Intellectuals for Democracy’. The event was well-attended by many of my colleagues from the universities, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, activists, public servants and the clergy. The entire hall at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute was full, which made some stand. The major call which echoed through all the speeches was to stand and join hands for a broader democratic coalition against authoritarian moves of President Sirisena. Such a broader platform entails representation of different progressive rights and interests of the larger society. However, it has also been highlighted that producing a counter hegemony against dominant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a major challenge for mainstreaming and the eventual victory of a political strategy based on democracy. Despite that, party Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake invited all interested parties to join hands for democracy and highlighted the role of intellectuals in fulfilling that mandate.
JVP’s Position on SOGIESC Community
At the discussion session of the event, a person raised the question as to the official position of the JVP regarding the discrimination against SOGIESC community in Sri Lanka. In his reply to the question, the JVP Leader Dissanayake explicitly stated that the JVP stands for equal rights while adding that all individuals are equal human beings. His statement says, “sexual orientation is a private matter of an individual. We may have different divisions in our society, based on language, religion, culture. But as the JVP we believe that all of these communities including SOGIESC communities have equal rights and equal recognition. Our position on SOGIESC community is that. We are human beings before any divisions are done based on our sexual orientation, sexual preferences, language, culture and religion. We approach all issues based on the idea that we are all human beings. Therefore, we are a movement for equal rights.”
This speech is remarkable in the struggle against discrimination of the SOGEISC community in Sri Lanka. It was the first time in the political history of Sri Lanka that a party leader publicly expressed his party’s support for equal rights which would eliminate the discrimination against sexual minorities. The leaders’ remarks were welcomed with a huge applause from the audience. I was stunned to hear and feel the momentum in our struggle to eliminate discrimination against SOGIESC community in Sri Lanka.
"In his reply to the question, the JVP Leader Dissanayake explicitly stated that the JVP stands for equal rights while adding that all individuals are equal human beings. His statement says, “sexual orientation is a private matter of an individual"
A beginning for a Sri Lankan approach
A party that was subject to heavy criticism by the civil society for homophobic remarks made by one of its few MPs Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa(http://www.dailynews.lk/2015/12/10/features/extreme-no-extremism), has now become the only party in Sri Lanka that has openly come out with a position for eliminating discrimination against SOGIESC community. This is a sign that a locally grounded path for SOGIESC rights has been created. A party that is largely based on rural educated and urban civil society votes with centre-left political orientation indicates ‘left’ political approach as the only viable path for Sri Lanka’s SOGEISC community to win their rights. It is an approach not backed by foreign money, but by the commitment and passion of people at the grassroots, engaged in progressive politics. It is an approach where class, language, caste, cultures and ethnicity intersect with SOGIESC identities. Finally I left with the hope that the democratic forum that took shape under the leadership of JVP could be a viable way forward for winning the SOGIESC rights, because no major political parties throw their weight behind it.
(Thiyagaraja Waradas is a SOGIESC rights activist and a lecturer at the Department of International Relations of the University of Colombo. He is also a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Bath, U.K. firstname.lastname@example.org )