Last edited: December 08, 2004

Sri Lanka’s Gays Join South Asian Fight for Rights

Garavi Gujarat, July 9, 2004

HOMOSEXUALITY is a criminal offence in Sri Lanka and lesbianism has been officially labelled “sadism”, but the island’s gays believe their long fight for equality is picking up pace amid regional moves to legalise homosexuality.

Sri Lankan law makes sex between consenting men punishable by 12 years in jail, although it is rarely enforced.

The main gay rights group on the island, Companions on a Journey, said Sri Lanka’s turbulent politics has left activists and authorities groping for a solution to the issue of gay rights.

“We engage the minister of justice in a discussion one evening and the next morning he is out,” Companions Director Sherman de Rose said, referring to the sudden sackings of two governments in the past three years.

The gay community in Sri Lanka is now awaiting the outcome of a similar campaign in neighbouring India whose courts are reviewing laws against homosexuality.

“What happens in India can have an impact on us,” said de Rose, a 32-year-old former trainee Roman Catholic priest.

“We could use the Indian example to strengthen our case. There is similar action in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” he said.

Shifting from individual lobbying, the Companions are inviting key decision makers for a face-to-face meeting next month to thrash out differences over the status of homosexuality in the Buddhist-majority island.

The Companions are also working with the private Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo for legal and legislative advice on changing the penal code.

Thousands in the closet

De Rose said nearly 7,000 gay men and women have made contact with his rights group since it was started nearly nine years ago while some 1,800 have taken full-time membership.

Hundreds gathered at a lake resort here in March for an annual gay celebration with day-long festivities, including the selection of a drag queen.

The Companions say many more Sri Lankans are waiting to come out of the closet.

Officials of the attorney general’s department argue that they have not prosecuted anyone under the anti-gay laws in recent decades, making the campaign to have the penal code repealed superfluous.

“What we say is why keep in statute books something that you are not going to use?” de Rose said.

“Article 365 (of the penal code) attaches a stigma to those who are gay,” de Rose said. “It leads to a lot of abuses of gay people in our community.”

De Rose himself has come a long way since he first dressed in his mother’s saris and his sisters’ skirts and played with their dolls, shunning the rough play of his peers.

His introverted and shy behaviour made his parents send him to the church. It was at a seminary that he discovered he was attracted to other men and decided to quit training for the priesthood.

Fighting back

Since becoming an activist his office has been stoned and police have raided it, but instead of turning the other cheek, de Rose is fighting back.

While the penal code, introduced in 1883 under British rule, makes sex between men illegal, lesbianism is not even acknowledged.

However, Sri Lanka’s Press Council in a landmark ruling four years ago held that a letter to the editor published in a newspaper calling for convicted rapists to be unleashed on lesbians was in the larger interest of the community.

The council said that de Rose, who filed a public interest complaint against the offending newspaper, had no standing in the case as he was male and arguably would have no knowledge of lesbianism.

“Lesbianism itself is an act of sadism and salacious publication of any opinion against such activities does not amount to a promotion of sadism or salacity,” the council ruled, underscoring how far Sri Lanka is from accepting homosexuality.

[Home] [World] [Sri Lanka]