Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: Gay Community Takes Heart in Indian Court Ruling

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jul 27 2009 (IPS) - This month, Sri Lanka’s gay and lesbian community, long struggling for acceptance and respect in a conservative, majority-Buddhist country, cheered a landmark court ruling in neighbouring India.

On July 2, the New Delhi High Court knocked down a colonial-era law to decriminalise consensual homosexual sex. It was a historic ruling on gay rights.

“It was a fantastic order,” exclaimed Sherman de Rose, the founder of Companions on a Journey (CoJ), Sri Lanka’s first homosexual rights group. “I shouted, ran, screamed in the office – this was what we have been fighting for.”

“The ruling marked a historic day for gay and lesbian groups in the region and all over the world,” he told IPS. Sex between people of the same gender has been illegal in most of South Asia, including Sri Lanka, for more than a century. Archaic laws promulgated by the British in the 1860s, classified gay sex as “against the order of nature”.

According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, homosexual acts in India are punishable by 10 years in prison. A similar jail term is applicable in Sri Lanka, although no one has been charged or jailed yet for such an offence.

However, Rossana Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director of Equal Ground, a nongovernmental organisation which fights for human and political rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning (LGBTIQ) community of Sri Lanka, is cautious about the ruling.

“While we are hugely thrilled by the decision and it gives us a lot of hope, we also have to be cautious in moving forward,” she said.

In the past six months, Flamer-Caldera and her colleagues have received death threats by phone and emails from what she describes as ‘Muslim fundamentalists.’

“We did a workshop in the eastern region (where there is a sizable concentration of Muslims) and one ‘gentleman’ accused us of trying to promote homosexual behaviour. Since then we have had some threatening calls and emails,” she said.

Between 8 to 10% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are believed to be gay, according to activists. De Rose, the first gay person to come out, said activists were planning a consultation in coming weeks in the capital Colombo, bringing together the gay community from across the country in an interaction with stakeholders like judges, parliamentarians, religious leaders and decision-makers.

“We hope to attract the participation of about 200 people from all over the country. Indian experts are also attending,” he said, adding that they plan to re-examine the Sri Lankan issue in the light of the Indian judgment. “I have found Sri Lankan leaders supportive of our rights to live the way we want but that is their individual view. That view is not common on an organized scale,” he said, noting that same-sex couples are always worried about public opinion and want to “run away abroad.”

“Even in Britain, this (old British law) law has been off the books. Why then should it exist for citizens of our land, after we got independence from British rule?” De Rose said, adding, “We are not criminals and have a right to live in dignity and peace.”

CoJ has been in the forefront of the rights for homosexual activism, and in the 1990s along with the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan policy research group, it prepared a discussion paper on this issue for the first time ever in the country.

A sexual rights activist from Women’s Support Group (WSG) said they were overjoyed by the ruling but also expressed concern that there have been some appeals filed against the judgment. “We need to wait and see what happens,” she said. WSG, along with CoJ and Equal Ground, is among the more prominent groups fighting for the rights of LGBIT community. There were others reasons for not being ‘over-excited’ over the ruling.

“Up till 1995, the subject of this law was only men. However, the 1995 amendment to Sri Lanka’s Penal Code made it ‘gender-neutral’ and now the Penal Code criminalizes both male and female homosexual sexual activity,” according to a statement on WSG’s website.

“That’s why we need to be cautious (in trying to change the laws,” said the sexual rights activist. Flamer-Caldera says, “There have been discussions with civil society on how to move forward.”

While there is a higher level of tolerance and more awareness in Colombo for gay community’s rights, there is still ignorance of these issues at grassroots level.

However De Rose believes there is much more acceptance from society over their rights now compared to when he launched the organization in 1995. More homosexuals from South Asia, including Afghanistan, want to come into the regional grouping of associations while groups in Iran are also keen to join, he said, adding that the regional movement has grown since the 1990s.

The WSG website says LGBT people are subject to discrimination on many fronts. They face blackmail by others, face threats to their family, career, and their life while some have been thrown out of their homes and others have lost their jobs. It says the legal system and the stigma associated with being ‘different’ in Sri Lankan society makes it difficult for members of the LGBT community to come out of the closet.

“Around you, there are many people who hide their sexual and gender identity from those around them due to the fear of what may happen to them if their identity is known,” it said.

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