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Sri Lanka: Road Towards LGBT Rights

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Constitutional reforms recommended to reduce vulnerability of sexual minorities

Highlights

  • Sri Lanka recently votes against African bid to repeal UN expert on sexual minorities
  • Recommendations made to include LGBT rights in new constitution
  • Key politicians join the fight for LGBT rights

Last month at the UNHRC, Sri Lanka was the only South Asian country to vote against the move by several African nations to block the appointment of a UN expert on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI expert). This follows Sri Lanka voting against the Russian bid to stop the UN extending staff benefits to same-sex couples in March 2015.

Under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka, however, homosexual activity is still criminalised. Despite assurances by successive governments regarding LGBT rights, activists continue to raise concerns over the vulnerabilities faced by homosexual and non-cisgender individuals across Sri Lanka.

Yet, recent developments seem to signal that Sri Lanka is ready to move in a new direction regarding LGBT rights. The Parliamentary Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights appointed by the Constitutional Assembly recently submitted its interim report , calling for the inclusion of LGBT equality in the new constitution. This is the first time an official document of the Parliament acknowledged the rights of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Victorian Hangover

According to Rosanna Flamer Caldera, Executive Director of Equal Ground, one of the few LGBT rights groups in Sri Lanka, Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code were introduced by the British to prosecute gay men. Speaking to FrontPage, she said, “Before the British came in, we never had these laws banning homosexual activity. Those who want to preserve the culture by retaining the anti-gay laws, especially the Sinhalese Buddhist hardliners, are only embracing British Victorian ideals.”

Interestingly, the same notion was recently expressed in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament by Chris Briant, Labour MP from Rhondda. Speaking moments before the vote at the UN on the retention of the post of the SOGI expert, he said that it was a “particular irony” for the progressives of Britain that “90% of those who live in Commonwealth nations live in countries where homosexuality is illegal because [the British] wrote those colonial laws.”

Constitutional Change?

Last week (16th December 2016), the Family Planning Association  of Sri Lanka (FPA) held a High-Level Dialogue on Human Rights and Constitutional Reforms, under UNDP Bangkok’s Regional Multi-country South Asia Global Fund programme. State Minister Wasantha Senanayake and UNP MP Hirunika Premachandra addressed the gathering, pledging to take fellow MPs to task on LGBT rights.

Although he is not a member of the Cabinet Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights, State Minister Wasantha Senanayake said he personally intervened in the committee to ensure that the words ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ were included in the final draft. Assuring the audience that he would continue his commitment to the cause, he went on to say, “Now we need to continue to fight the good fight to make sure that these words are included in the new constitution.”

Speaking subsequently, MP Premachandra stated it is impossible to discuss LGBT issues in Parliament as most MPs are ignorant about the subject. “Most members of the cabinet sub-committee for fundamental rights are elderly people, and many of them don’t even know what LGBT stands for,” she told the audience lightheartedly.

However, JVP MP Nalinda Jayatissa is skeptical whether constitutional provisions on LGBT rights will be mandated by the people at a referendum, even if Parliament grants its approval for it. When contacted by FrontPage, he said that while the JVP is open to discuss it as a legitimate human rights issue, Sri Lanka still lacks a comprehensive social dialogue on the subject. “But let’s also not forget that this country already has enough problems, and this would only add to them,” he added.

Unique Woes of the Trans Community

A report released by the Human Rights Watch in August, 2016 revealed that the transgender community in particular, faces discrimination because of problems of identification in Sri Lanka. Following this report, the Government of Sri Lanka began to issue Gender Recognition Certificates (GRI) for transgender individuals – including to those who have not undergone sex reassignment surgery.

However, transgender activists are of the view that this does not address the broader concerns of the community. “Our birth certificates, our driving licenses, our passports and every other official document still mention our birth gender. When we go to job interviews, they pick up on our identities not our skills,” Aparna Singh, who identifies as transgender, told the audience at FPA’s dialogue.

Pointing out the issue of birth certificates in particular, State Minister Wasantha Senanayake said that the constitutional reforms should also include progressive provisions to allow transgender people to change the birth sex on their birth certificates with dignity. “Today transgender people have to lie and say their parents mistakenly put the wrong gender in the birth certificate when registering them, because that is the only way you’re allowed to change gender information according to the current law. It is ridiculous that people are allowed to undergo sex reassignment surgery in this country, but aren’t allowed to alter their birth certificates accordingly afterwards,” he added.

Stigma, ignorance and attitudes

At the FPA dialogue, State Minister Senanayake also noted that the general hostility to LGBT individuals in society stems from ignorance. “The common myth in society is that being gay or trans is unnatural – something that can and should be corrected. But what many people do not understand is that just because something is rarer than the other, that doesn’t make it unnatural.”

MP Premachandra asserted that discrimination against LGBT individuals is particularly bad in village communities because of socioeconomic factors. “What we see most of the time is that the experiences of LGBT people living in Colombo are vastly different from the experiences of LGBT people from rural areas. When you have money and privilege, it is easier to survive than when you live in an unsupportive area with no awareness,” she elaborated.

However, Saman Kumara, a panelist who identified as gay, believed the main obstacle surrounding the LGBT community is false perceptions. “Some believe homosexual people live only for sex. Many fail to see us beyond that false frame. That’s why we are marginalized in families, schools, at work and in society at large,” he said, during the panel discussion at FPA’s dialogue. Admitting that the situation for the LGBT community in Sri Lanka has improved compared to 20 years ago, he added that full equality would only be possible if the stigma associated with LGBT can be eradicated. “If we pay taxes, if we vote like anyone else, why hold back on some other rights?” he asked.

With a diversity of views being presented, Sri Lanka’s dialogue on sexual orientation and gender identity is still in its primary stages. Though it seems that marriage equality at this point might be a long haul effort, the discussion on fundamental rights of LGBT citizens is picking up traction, slowly advancing the country’s general opinions on sexuality and gender.

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