Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Sri Lanka: 'erasure of the gays'

Coat of arms of Sri Lanka.Image via Wikipedia
Source: ILGA

By Sass Rogando Sasot, ILGA Communication Team Asia

Homosexuality is often sidelined by the mainstream social discourse in Sri Lanka. This does not suggest that our society does not tolerate homosexuality; rather it seems resolved to overlook it by rejecting it completely from the popular consciousness. This defensive approach to homosexuality signifies a need to conserve the sexually homogenous character superimposed on our society. Thus homosexuality is not an “issue.” However this does not mean that the Sri Lankan LGBT community does not have issues. These issues could only be addressed through foregrounding homosexuality per se. In as far as our society does not acknowledge the LGBT community as a part of its fabric, their grievances will remain unrecognized.

Homosexuality, at least on paper, remains a crime in Sri Lanka. Nishada, an insider of the LGBT rights discourse claims that this is the greatest challenge that the gay community is facing today. He claims that every time he goes out with his boyfriend, they feel that they become the focus of the condemning “gaze” of society. (I pointed out to him that straight couples are also not exempted from society’s gaze. We are the victims of a sexually frigid society). Nishada tells me that gays are hardly ever harassed physically, although he claims that the Nacchi community, or men who think of themselves as women, are often subjected to harassment. Nacchi people he says is the “face” of Sri Lankan LGBT community. “They are great dancers; they get paid for dancing at weddings. Sometimes when they return from wedding ceremonies, the police would stop them and take their money,” Nishada says. The dress and behaviour of the Nacchi people, or the “queens,” make them easily recognizable targets. As a socially marginalized group they are vulnerable and often sexually exploited, I gathered from Nishada.

He says that many gay men and women are stuck within their unhappy marriages (obviously making their spouses equally unhappy) because they are compelled to remain closeted owing to the stigma attached to homosexuality. It seems to me that homophobia in our society works at an insidious level; it does not openly manifest itself as it is jettisoned from the collective consciousness of the masses. It is at micro-level that the homosexuals are discriminated and condemned, often by the immediate family members. This makes it difficult for homosexuals to openly acknowledge themselves and embrace their identity. Nishada says that HIV positive homosexuals are often discouraged from seeking medical attention as homosexuality is a crime in our country. He also adds that on the grounds of sexual orientation, they are often discriminated at health clinics. This connectivity compels homosexuals to remain without proper medical attention, which is hazardous to their health and that of the entire body-politic.

Nishada contests the claim that homosexuals are the principle spreaders of HIV/AIDS. He argues that this claim is groundless due to the lack of data. However he acknowledges that HIV/AIDS is an issue that the LGBT community is facing and that it should be addressed. He stresses that decriminalizing homosexuality can substantially lessen the stigma attached to this orientation, and this in turn would encourage homosexuals to seek medical attention.

I was once told by an elderly, university educated woman whose son is a homosexual that, homosexuality is a myth prevalent among the “English speaking people in Colombo.” It is certainly a myth prevalent among most of the straight members of our society that homosexuality is a “disease” that can be cured, especially by counselling. It is this kind of mythology that gay activism should seek to counter. Nishada says that there are four gay rights organizations which are actively engaged in promoting the rights of the Sri Lankan LGBT community.

However, he admits that these organizations are elitist in character and the administrative positions in the organizations are reserved for an elite coterie. Nishada tries to rationalize this state of affairs by saying that given the nature of the issue, only those who are economically and socially empowered can be openly gay. However it seems to me that this marginalization of the non-English speaking, subaltern homosexual has paved the way for the collective self closeting of the LGBT community. Colombo-centric homosexual mainstream hardly ever leaves its elitist cocoon. Even though I do not wish to underrate the work that is being done by the existing organizations, grassroots level alternative organizations are necessary to take gay activism to a national level.

I have suggested in this article that homosexuality should be ‘issufied’ - i.e. it should be made an issue. This does not suggest that homosexuality is not already an issue; rather my point is that it is not an issue because society does not acknowledge it as such. Same politics are at work when a Sinhalese argues that ethnicity is not an issue or when the elite declare that class is not an issue. The ability to overlook differences is the prerogative of the privileged group. Homosexuality should be recognized in order to empower the homosexuals.

Once an undergraduate at Peradeniya told me after a lecture on Funny Boy that she would like to hit Shyam Selvadurai with her slipper. This maybe an isolated incident but it does showcase the deep-seated homophobia in our society. Issufying homosexuality entails the potential danger of exciting homophobia at a macro-level, but this would inevitably happen as more and more homosexuals are opting to be openly gay. The Sri Lankan body-politic would soon have to perceive homosexuality, and acknowledge it as a part of the social-fabric.
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