Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                       Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                       Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                       Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                      Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                      Unbowed And Unafraid                                                                       Unbowed And Unafraid










World Affairs








Gays Are People, Too

To its eternal shame, Sri Lanka last week abstained from adopting the UN’s non-binding declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. The statement, which called on "States to take all the necessary measures... to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests or detention", was supported by 66 nations, including all 27 members of the EU. Sri Lanka, together with 65 other states, abstained. It might have been worse: 59 countries backed a Syrian statement opposing the declaration, which they claimed could lead to "social normalization [sic], and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including paedophilia".

Amazingly in this Third Millennium, homosexuality remains a criminal offense in 77 (almost all Islamic or developing) countries, in seven of which it carries the death penalty. Among developed nations, only the United States declined to sign, apparently because of President Bush’s religious convictions. Nevertheless, same-sex marriage is allowed in two US states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) while eight others recognize gay and lesbian civil unions. Next door, Canada has completely legalized same-sex marriage.

While Israel, among the non-secular states, supported the declaration enthusiastically, the Vatican and Syria found themselves cast as strange bedfellows in opposing the proposal, timed to coincide with the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their antagonism to the decriminalization of homosexuality is not surprising. After all, both Islam and Roman Catholicism regard objectivity as some kind of poison. And it cannot have helped the Vatican’s angst that all Europe’s Catholic nations, together with almost all of Latin America, signed up.

Next year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s invention of the telescope. Yet, for demonstrating that the earth goes round the sun, Galileo stood accused of heresy by the Vatican. On pain of death the Inquisition in 1633 forced him to "abjure, curse and detest" the very idea that the earth orbits the sun, having done which, however, he muttered famously under his breath, E pur si muove—"But it does move". It was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II finally conceded that the earth goes round the sun after all—something the rest of us somehow knew all along—and admitted that the Galileo affair "may have been mishandled" by the Vatican. And the reason the Church had condemned Galileo in the first place was because of a passing statement in the Bible that "The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved" (Psalm 104: 5).

Likewise, the same scripture condemns sex between people of the same gender (or at any rate men, for women in scripture, with a handful of celebrated exceptions, seem to have enjoyed about the same status as cattle). "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman," says the good book, "both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads" (Leviticus, 20:13). All very cut and dry—as far as the heads go, at any rate. As for Islam, while there is no doubt that homosexuality is frowned upon, no punishment is prescribed in the Qu’ran. Many Islamic countries, however, nevertheless punish gays with death. Put tritely, the Judeo-Christian religions seem to say, "Kindly note that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

But if our societies are to operate on the basis of a morality codified in a remote desert several millennia ago, we would have to condone a wealth of horrible practices including genocide, infanticide, slavery, mutilation, human sacrifice and torture. Human societies have come a long way from that. It is humanism—not divine morality—that gives us the values we treasure most today: democracy, egalitarianism, liberty. As much as the adherents of many religions may dislike the fact, the UN Charter on Human Rights transcends the values handed down by most religions, certainly the Judeo-Christian ones. Thus we no longer burn heretics at the stake or chop people’s hands off for thievery.

It is a pity that Sri Lanka and the others that refused to sign the UN declaration cannot bring themselves to recognize that the legalization of homosexuality—treating homosexuals as socially equal to heterosexuals—is a necessary step in the progress of humanity. We have come a long way since the Middle Ages, abolishing slavery, shunning autocracy, giving equal rights to women and members of ‘lower’ castes, and preventing the exploitation of children. None of these ideals are embodied in scripture or religion: they represent the progress of man beyond the bounds of a code that may have worked well for a tribe of herdsmen in Judea 2,500 years ago, but has no relevance now.

Sadly for Sri Lanka, its Penal Code is based not on its own traditions and values, but on the Victorian morality of its one-time colonizers. There is no explicit mention of homosexuality in either Buddhism or the Mahavamsa. Perhaps same-sex love was one that dared not speak its name, but neither the country’s religion nor its culture seek to regulate what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms. The Penal Code bequeathed us by the British in 1883 (coincidently the same year the word ‘homosexuality’ entered the English lexicon), however, has a different take on things. Its section 365 makes "any act of gross indecency" in public or in private between persons of the same sex an offence. For more than a century the provision applied to male homosexual activity alone, but in 1995 it was amended to include females, and the penalties enhanced. It warrants note that this amendment, which in effect made homosexuality an even greater offence, was brought to cabinet by none other than G. L. Peiris.

It is widely considered that the most outspokenly homophobic men are themselves often repressed homosexuals struggling with their own sexuality. This was, for example, the case with the Rev. Ted Haggard, the US anti-gay crusader and leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, who was last year exposed as having a relationship with a gay masseur who was also supplying him with cocaine. At the time of the exposure, Haggard was married and had five children.

The argument put forward against the UN declaration by the Muslim world holds that homosexuality is not genetic, but a deliberately acquired lifestyle choice. This is sad, for there contemporary science shows unequivocally that sexual orientation is genetically and environmentally determined. We must therefore rise above stereotyping homosexuals as evil monsters who have AIDS or who prey on little boys. As Mark Tewksbury, the gay Canadian Olympic swimming medallist put it, "Why would anybody choose a life that’s going to be filled with difficulty and discrimination?"

Sherman de Rose (who founded the gay-rights NGO Companions on a Journey) regularly points out that 80% of our HIV-positive cases are exclusively heterosexual. And when it comes to paedophilia, while the cases of a few homosexual paedophiles are notorious (especially Roman Catholic clergymen church vis-ŕ-vis boys in their care), the incidence of incestual heterosexual paedophilia is known to be far more widespread in Sri Lanka. Sadly, because custodians of the children in question are themselves often the perpetrators, such cases are rarely reported or prosecuted. Besides, in a predominantly Buddhist society such as ours, we rarely even stop to think of the fate of the hundreds of little boys handed over as abittayas to the all-male societies of Buddhist temples each year, for whom there is almost no redress in the eventuality of abuse.

To a large extent, the problem lies with officialdom and not society at large. Sri Lankan society itself is remarkably tolerant—perhaps even more so than some western ones. For example, see two men holding hands as they chat on a street in London and you immediately conclude they are gay. See the same in Sri Lanka and the thought does not cross your mind: young men here hold hands even if they are just friends. Even though Sri Lanka has had its share of gays in public office and even in the cabinet, neither the media nor the people seem to think it matters in the least. Sexual orientation has never been an issue in politics, as indeed it should not.

The media, however, have from time to time behaved less than commendably. While it is commonplace for cheap cracks to be made on the ambiguity of the word ‘gay’, the tone can often turn more menacing. In 1999, for example, The Island newspaper published a homophobic letter protesting a lesbian conference, which called on the police to "to let loose convicted rapists among the jubilant but jaded jezebels when their assembly is in full swing so that those who are misguided may get a taste of the real thing." Gays and lesbians were outraged by the incitement to violence against them, and Sherman de Rose took the matter to the Press Council. Shockingly, the Council unleashed an even more shamefully homophobic tirade against de Rose. "Lesbianism is at least an act of gross indecency and unnatural", it held, adding that homosexuality is an immoral and abnormal crime. "Somehow [presumably by means including rape], misguided and erratic women should be corrected and allowed to understand the true sense and reality of life." Not stopping there, it went on to attack de Rose personally, claiming that if he "encourages and promotes abnormal or immoral acts in society, he cannot argue that the media has no right to criticise such activities." Finally, the Council held that as the complainant was a male (and therefore not a lesbian), he could not suffer rape in the manner referred to in the letter and as such he had no standing on the issue. Ironically, it is an open secret in media circles that more than one of Sri Lanka’s newspaper moguls is a closet gay, which perhaps explains their homophobia.

Part of the establishment’s antipathy to homosexuality comes from the uncritical adoption of Victorian values. (It was she, after all, who insisted that tables in Buckingham Palace should be covered with tablecloths because men seeing bare wooden legs might entertain lascivious thoughts.) It was also Victorian prudery that caused Colombo’s police to stamp out the charming custom of lovers smooching at sunset under the cover of golf umbrellas on the Galle Face promenade. A more enlightened country might not only have condoned the practice, but gone on to make a tourist attraction of it ("Come, see the Umbrella Lovers of Colombo!"), as Parisians have done with (usually decent) lovemaking on the benches on the banks of the Seine.

Some of the most creative minds in history have been homosexual, and they have enormously enriched the world in which we live. Elton John, Arthur C. Clarke, Oscar Wilde, Tchaikovsky, Handel, T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci and about half of Hollywood (and, from what one hears, Bollywood). Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who famously broke the Enigma Code during World War II and went on to become the father of computer science as we know it, committed suicide after forcibly being administered feminizing hormones to "cure" his homosexuality, as an alternative to prison.

Even Barrack Obama, throughout his campaign for the presidency repeatedly equated sexual orientation to race, almost always following his appeals to "All Americans, black or white" with "gay or straight". While Bush’s first crisis in office was 9/11, Bill Clinton’s was quite different: the furore he unleashed when he tried to repeal the law that prohibits anyone who "demonstrates a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the armed forces of the United States. Obama pledged in his campaign that he would by 2010 bring legislation to do just that.

Sadly among the Asian nations, only two—Nepal and Japan—signed up to the UN declaration. Even South Africa, which just 15 years ago criminalized marriage between blacks and whites, now recognizes same-sex marriage. Thailand, a country with strong Buddhist credentials might have signed if only it had a government at the time. Homosexuality is not an offence in Thailand and in 2002 the Thai government went so far as to formally announce that it did not consider the condition a disease. Likewise, the Vietnamese-Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has openly supported civil same-sex unions, while in 2004 Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk publicly called for the legalization of same-sex marriage. And anyone who thinks the ancient Hindus were averse to homoeroticism hasn’t read the Kama Sutra, visited the temples of Khajuraho or Chhapri, or heard of auparashtika.

Much to his credit and to everyone’s surprise, Nepal’s Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda personally led the parliamentary crusade to adopt the UN declaration. Following Nepal’s "Yes" (Yes, we can!) vote, Sunil Pant, an openly gay Member of Parliament pointed out that "society in general is always ready to respect one another, support each other, living in harmony together, regardless of whom we choose to love." Indeed, as Sherman de Rose put it, "We [gays and lesbians] are against the fact that we are being called criminals in our own land. We are not criminals, we are citizens... We have the right to live and be treated as normal human beings."

Ours has been a remarkable age, for in the lifetime of many of us prejudices that have dogged mankind for thousands of years have been overcome. Women are now treated as equal to men and have the vote; autistic children are no longer imprisoned in asylums; the physically handicapped are welcomed as full members of society; and racism and religious discrimination have largely been consigned to the closet. In this new Age of Enlightenment, homophibia has become the last acceptable prejudice. Women love gossiping about who might be gay, and a minority of men confused about their own sexuality shower derision on homosexuals.

Just last Tuesday, the BBC reported Pope Benedict XVI as stating that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving rainforests from destruction. Many gays probably think this rich, coming from a man who habitually cross-dresses while he himself has never been in a heterosexual relationship.

Well, Mr de Rose and others engaged in same-sex relationships, or of bisexual or transgender orientation, be assured that we at The Sunday Leader hear you. It is no secret that our commitment to liberal secularism often leads us where others fear to tread, whether in combating racism or prejudice of any other kind. The sixty-something nations that have legalized homosexuality are not in consequence hotbeds of perverted depravity. They are all progressive liberal democracies, indeed, much more so than we are. The time has come for Sri Lanka too, to move on, and to shake off the shackles of an antiquated morality the British themselves abandoned 40 years ago. It is time we joined the community of nations that subscribes to the view that gays are people, too.

©Leader Publications (Pvt) Ltd.
24, Katukurunduwatte Road, Ratmalana Sri Lanka
Tel : +94-75-365891,2 Fax : +94-75-365891
email :