Ensuring Gay Rights in Sri Lanka
- Sherman De Rose Determined To Work Towards The Decriminalization Of Homosexuality In Sri Lanka
Around the controversial Human Rights Committee sessions happening in Geneva, much has been said about equality, human rights, minority rights, respect for each other and recognition of the fact that we are a pluralistic society.
Despite many differences, thousands of people stepped on to the streets to say that we respect human rights of all people. We have told the Western world that, as a country living with social, political and economic issues yet striving to overcome our difficulties and shortcomings, and as a country which protects human rights of all people, we are committed to protect those rights at all times. This itself has given hope and courage to the minority groups and people who have faced circumstances of stigma, discrimination, violence and torture. We hope the dialogue so developed on human rights will not take a negative turn but be one which strengthens and confirms human and citizen rights. We urge the authorities to foster that kind of dialogue.
Despite political agendas, the attempt to forget our personal differences and stand together as one country gives out optimistic overtones to a certain degree. We clearly need a broader involvement of all people engaged in human rights protection to strengthen the country’s human rights mechanisms. Especially as an organization which struggled during the past few years on behalf of sexual minorities and people with alternative sexualities, we feel we will be able to live up to that promise and continue to respect each other to live together in harmony. We know that Sri Lanka is home to very charismatic leaders and widely diverse people despite the existence of few extremists. We have demonstrated ourselves that we can exist together. We, both as an organization and individual, take this opportunity to call upon the government and all other decision making bodies to make this promise a reality through meaningful actions.
Sherman De Rose, Executive Director of Companions on a Journey (COJ), made these remarks a few hours prior to his departure on a private visit to meet his overseas counterparts to strengthen further the rights of sexual minorities in their respective countries.
At this juncture, Sri Lankans condemn foreign powers exerting undue influence in our country’s affairs. Likewise, we, as people of alternative sexualities, strongly oppose suppressive laws imposed on us during the colonial era. These laws should go as they were never part of the Sri Lankan culture or morality. Before the colonizers, ours was a more accepting, fluid and open society which accepted differences. We are striving to be a modern society with culturally deep rooted values. For such a society, these archaic laws imposed on us by the colonizers, such as Section 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code, will be a hindrance.
The past period of time has seen COJ as an organization being subject to many forms of harassment, prejudices and violence by extremist elements. We faced negative attitudes towards sexual minorities through activities of some elements of the local media and extremists. Even though the contribution of our organization towards the members and other individuals were welcomed by various segments of society, Ministries and civil society actors, there were other negative reactions towards its existence. This discrimination further led to the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Police Department questioning and searching COJ premises and its activities. They further questioned the staff and outreach workers about activities implemented.
De Rose added this move was welcomed by the organization and that COJ fully co-operated in a very honest and transparent manner to respond to allegations of promotion of homosexuality and distribution of condoms and lubricants, continuing further dialogue with decision makers and civil society actors and creating alternative spaces where people who desire people of their same sex could live with greater self-esteem and self-respect and access life-saving services. “Clearly, we are in the business of saving lives. We saved lives from contracting diseases such as AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections. Furthermore, we were and are working very closely with the government health sector. There is nothing criminal about the work that we do. We are clearly improving access to services of a particularly marginalized segment of our society,” said De Rose.
De Rose also suggested that issues confronted by sexual minorities too should be taken into account when the Health Ministry implements decisions with regard to the service provision of mental and sexual health.
The outcome of the CID findings would have revealed that COJ had not been involved in wrong doing or any immoral activities or been part of the so-called promotion of Western concepts of homosexuality. De Rose further said there are people with different sexual identities in any given society, whether they be politicians, religious leaders, civil society representatives or ordinary workers. He further recalled there was a time in history not so long ago when human rights was considered a dirty word. We, together as a nation today, demonstrated to the rest of the world that it is not so. We are a nation who share our differences under different circumstances and most importantly, support people who are not necessarily like-minded.
“If we are a functioning democracy, which we say we are, there has to be a space where people can express their views (freedom of expression), and come together as different individuals and groups opposing social injustice (freedom of association). COJ, as an organization and us as individuals, believe that despite all differences the people of this nation should have the right to live with respect and acceptance and share their differences, realizing the vision of a pluralistic society. The process of organizing groups opposing unethical and unacceptable ancient laws and discriminative legislation has been common in the past.” Added De Rose who further said, “We do not need any more martyrs in this nation as we ourselves have made a commitment towards the protection of the very being of our fellow men, women and transgendered people. Unfortunately, in the recent past, we have paid the price of acting inconsiderately towards minorities as aliens, outcasts and of being different. Today, we say very loudly and clearly that discrimination does not have any place in a modern nation. We have learnt through experience and knowledge that discrimination creates further disasters but no tangible long term benefits.”
It is strange that in the national discourse of minorities only racial and religious minorities get prominence. But even within a small country like ours, there are many more minority groups and they have many issues and concerns which need to be discussed and acted upon at national level. Sexual minorities are one such group and there should be platforms where we can bring out issues relevant to our communities.
As COJ is determined in its attempt to continue its work with the sexual minority community, we stand by the rights of all forms of marginalized people in our nation. De Rose said he is absolutely confident no interference or sanctions could be placed upon our country if we, as a country, can keep our promise of treating every citizen equally. Let’s work towards implementing this pledge that we made so public in a genuine and honest manner.
We expect our political leaders, religious leaders, civil society leaders and our brother and sister citizens and people who respect human rights and embrace diversity will build a society and a country where people will respect each other. More or less, different groups have contributed towards this goal. Our dream is to make our Motherland a welcoming, accepting and liveable space for all its people.