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FeaturesIn Sri Lanka, I am Considered a Criminal Just Because of Who I Love – Shyam Selvadurai

In Sri Lanka, I am Considered a Criminal Just Because of Who I Love – Shyam Selvadurai

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The Daily Mirror  interviewed well-renowned Sri Lankan Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai regarding this concern. He was the first Sri Lankan writer to address issues concerning LGBT rights. The theme of sexual identity can be blatantly observed in his first novel, “Funny Boy” (1994), which won the ‘Books in Canada First Novel Award’ and the ‘Lambda Literary Award in the United   States.’ His most recent novel, “Hungry Ghost” also addresses the issues regarding sexuality and the deep inner conflict that characters feel due to infringement of LGBT rights in Sri   Lanka. Selvadurai was born in Colombo where he is of hybrid heritage as his mother is Sinhalese while his father is Tamil. The ’83 riots drove the family to emigrate to Canada when Selvadurai was 19 at the time.

Strengthening of Legal Protection for LGBT in Sri Lanka,’ a pilot study by EQUAL GROUND states that though the constitution lucidly declares that there can be no discrimination based on gender, religion, ethnicity or cast, sexual orientation is not included. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) citizen is protected only if he/she maintains a hetero-normative performance. The research paper further argues that the act is criminalized only under section 365 and 365A, and that under freedom of expression (Article 14 of the Constitution) a person’s gender performance is protected and that harassment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) citizens will be a violation of Article 14.

“The first thing is to de-criminalize homosexuality. It is ridiculous that the old Victorian law is still in our books”

The analytical research also remarks that Buddhism and Hinduism did not deem homosexual acts immoral, and that in several architectural structures there was an acceptance if not a celebration of various sexualities. The research paper further asserts that the LGBT community has been forced to exist as secondary citizens unable to access the welfare measures of the State. Elaborating on issues faced by LGBTQ citizens, the survey conducted shows that gay men have fled Sri Lanka in recent years and are at present seeking asylum in various countries as they would face persecution in Sri Lanka if they returned. Homosexuality is still considered a ‘mental illness’ by many despite the spread of liberal thinking. A brief analysis of the interviews conducted with the LGBT community by EQUAL GROUNDS shows that Transgender and Crossdressers constantly faced harassment by the police for ‘misleading the public,’ and in several cases were forced to provide sexual favours to avoid arrest. It is also important to note that the police take on the role of the court in apprehending such persons.

Through a study by EQUAL GROUNDS where they took a sample size of 119 LGBT citizens of Sri Lanka, we could perceive the following statistics. Only adults over 18 years were taken to derive the following statistics. LGBT people do not possess the freedom to live and reside with their same sex partners due to laws, stigma, security reasons and discrimination. Partners who do decide to live together, regardless of backlash only account to 30% of the respondents. The grave divide with those who are living together and those living apart are due to social, economic and cultural constraints where most people remain in the family household until they are married to a person of the opposite sex. 12% of the LGBT community resort to marriage of the opposite sex, while most opt to remain single because of societal constraints.

“If your family accepts you, then you are in one world. But, if your family doesn’t and uses intimidation and often violence to make you conform, then you are in another world – a hellish world”

74% of the respondents have experienced verbal abuse and threats due to their sexual orientation. Verbal abuse is either direct or indirect by means of rumours and gossip. Verbal abuse damages the reputation of those in the community where in some instance their job security is tarnished. 63% of the respondents have also experienced physical abuse, harassment, assault and corrective rape. The extent of physical abuse is extremely concerning. A handful of abuse cases have been reported by the victims. The abuse is unprecedented, however, the system of justice has arrived short in the prosecution of such perpetrators. The recurrence of verbal and physical abuse can be perceived as lack of respect and regard, and also increases the sense of fear within the LGBT community.

In ‘Social exclusion of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Europe’ written by Judit Takács in collaboration ​with ILGA-Europe and IGLYO (International Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organization) it has been noted through extensive research that LGBTQ persons all over the world face discrimination as a consequence of ignorance and misinformation; fear of the unknown; homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, lack of full community membership, equal rights and respect; lack of strong LGBTQ activism and awareness; stigmatization and marginalization; heteronormativity (view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.); homonegativity; and heterosexism. The survey conducted further manifests that school and family were the main social contexts in which LGBTQ had problems fitting into, especially as family members demanded that they ‘change back to normal’ when their true identity was finally revealed. The reason behind such demands and denial of LGBTQ rights by family has been identified to be stereotyped misconceptions.

“Verbal abuse is either direct or indirect by means of rumours and gossip. Verbal abuse damages the reputation of those in the community where in some instance their job security is tarnished”

Despite lengthy discussions, fora and awareness programmes, LGBTQ people continue to face discrimination, verbal abuse, physical harassment, violence, arrest and torture in Sri Lanka. It is a pity that parts of ‘civil’ society still resort onto such means when in reality a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (or questioning) individual is an integral asset to society. It is unfair to judge, condemn and marginalize such people on the basis of the legal status of a country, religion or culture because after all they are as human as any heterosexual. We need to create a society where we could empathize and understand the plight of another.

Q .  Having written a book like ‘Funny boy’ setting Sri   Lanka as the background, where do you think this country stands with regard to LGBT rights?

I think we have quite a way to go. The first thing is to de-criminalize homosexuality. It is ridiculous that the old Victorian law is still in our books. Then there is the building of awareness through education and the arts, which has a pivotal role to play in
LGBTQ rights.

Q. According to your understanding, what are the challenges that the LGBT community face in Sri Lanka?

Acceptance and just being free to live their lives without harassment and intimidation. The other big issue is family. If your family accepts you, then you are in one world. But, if your family doesn’t and uses intimidation and often violence to make you conform, then you are in another world – a hellish world.

Q . But things are shifting gradually. Today, even some politicians (like Wickremebahu Karunaratne), openly demand that LGBT rights should be accepted constitutionally. What are your thoughts on this?

Great to hear this is being done. There is already more acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ issues since Funny Boy came out 21 years ago. I was the first person ever to come out in the Sri Lanka media, and it was quite a shock for people. But now people are more accepting or at least aware that LGBTQ people exist and are asking for rights.

Q.  What can you say about your experience in Canada and in Sri Lanka with respect to being gay?

Well, here in Canada I have equal rights as any heterosexual person. I live without fear as a whole person. In Sri Lanka, I am considered a criminal just because of who I love.

“We need to get past this notion of ‘homosexuality is not part of our culture.’ Culture is not a fixed thing. It changes all the time”

Q.  How do you think your writing facilitates the minority communities like gays in Sri Lanka?

It helps the majority community see things from the minority’s point of view, and hence builds tolerance and acceptance.

Q . Do you think that it is vital for public gay figures in Sri   Lanka to come out of the closet, even though being gay is considered unlawful?

If possible, yes. But I don’t demand this or prescribe this must be so. If you can raise visibility by coming out, that would be a great thing. But if you can’t come out in public at least coming out to your family and workers would build tolerance in society.

Q.  How do you think our society could improve in accepting LGBT rights? Do you have any suggestions or requests?

Yes, it could definitely improve. First, we need to remove the law that makes homosexuality illegal. Second, there needs to be more awareness and I am hoping articles such as yours, depending on the tone, will help with that. Third, we need to get past this notion of ‘homosexuality is not part of our culture.’ Culture is not a fixed thing. It changes all the time. 100 years ago it was not considered part of our culture to give working class people the vote, or for women to be educated or work. So our culture does change. Same with religious ideology. That too changes over time. Sometimes for the worse, unfortunately. For example, Christians don’t burn midwives and natural practitioners and left handed people at the stake anymore! Now many Christian sects accept LGBTQ people and even ordain LGBTQ ministers.

Original caption: IS EQUALITY A MERE SLOGAN?

Courtesy Daily Mirror

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