Last edited: July 16, 2004

Women Gather Support For Fight To Legalise Lesbianism

South China Morning Post, August 17, 1999
Hong Kong

By Susannah Price

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA —A group that announced it was holding the country’s first national convention for lesbians, even though homosexuality is illegal, said it had been overwhelmed by the positive reaction.

The group, which is part of the island’s main gay support organisation, called Companions on a Journey, said it had originally expected about 80 participants but many more had put their names forward.

"We want society to understand that lesbians exist in all walks of life, in all races, religions and social levels," said one of the convention’s organisers, identified simply as Kumari.

"We are now expecting more than 200 women to take part."

The group hoped the National Lesbian Conference, planned for December, would help build alliances with international groups as well as boost the campaign to achieve the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Sri Lanka.

Lesbianism was only outlawed in 1995 when Constitutional Affairs Minister Professor G. L. Peiris came to Parliament to try to undo existing legislation - more than one hundred years old - that made homosexuality illegal.

However certain members of parliament then pointed out women were not included in the original law and instead of softening legislation, MPs voted to also outlaw female homosexuality. It is punishable by up to 12 years in prison, although there are few prosecutions.

The local press has been extremely supportive of the gay movement and given widespread publicity to the planned lesbian convention.

"We are really a very tolerant society," said Philip Coorey, chief editor of the Weekend Express newspaper.

"We have been flooded with calls from here and abroad asking for more details about the lesbians. We have not really found any discrimination here."

An editorial in the state-run Observer newspaper said that until colonisation by Europe, homosexuality was considered so natural it was never a matter of controversy.

"The challenge is to recognise our own Sri Lankan sexual natures . . . to normalise our island society in a way that it will become socially inclusive," said the editorial.

Women involved in the support group said that there were many high profile intellectual and academic women in the movement who did not suffer from overt discrimination.

However, they said that those from the poorer communities found it very difficult because they were isolated.

Two women in southern Sri Lanka recently committed suicide because they said society would not allow them to openly express their love for each other.

The director and founder of Companions on a Journey, Sherman De Rose, has said he is confident homosexuality will be decriminalised in the near future.

"The law may not be put into practice but it helps legitimise anti-gay prejudice and forces many homosexuals to live their lives secretly," he said. "It can also lead to blackmail.

"We have been lobbying politicians and religious leaders about repealing this part of the penal code. Government sources say that with a general election due within the next year, it is unlikely the ruling Peoples Alliance will put forward any measures that are likely to upset the clergy or more conservative sections of the population."

However, Companions on a Journey and its sister group say they will not give up the fight for legal recognition for gays.

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