- The Gay Movement In Sri Lanka
By Sherman Anthony De Rose
I am from a family of seven from the countryside of Kotahena. When I was young, it was a very crowded area where low class people, who earned only for their daily needs, lived.
The area had very strong Catholic families, Colombo Chetties and Burghers. That was the environment in which I grew up.
St. Lucia’s Cathedral was walking distance to us. I had a lot of connections with the church in terms of attending daily mass and becoming an altar servant. Most of my relations lived around Kotahena. I did not do what they called “the usually done thing”, which was playing football or cricket with the boys. I was close to the church. I studied in a small public school in the city. During the riots in 1983, even though it did not directly affect us, we had to leave town to a different suburb of Colombo.
Mine was a big family. Everybody was very close to each other. I had sisters, two elder to me and two younger, and brothers, one elder to me and one younger. I consider myself the odd one in between all of them. Being close to the church brought me the opportunity of becoming a priest. I thought becoming a priest would be clean and honest. People look up to him as a role model. I wanted to be that different character. In my early stages of growing, I did not relate to foot ball, cricket and other boys sports. I was looking towards this role model with nice robes and wanted to be part of that society.
Before I completed my studies, I decided to join the seminary. It was a small seminary about 75 kilometers from the city of Kandy, called the “Poornawatte Seminary.” That was a good time for me. We had tutors coming in to do classes for our Advanced Levels. I must have been about 17 then. I did not last long there. I was in Poornawatte for a couple of months only. I got an opportunity to go to Ireland to a secular denomination school and take up my primary studies in Ireland. The place I was studying was called the “Water Fall”. A lot of exposure to religious studies was given.
Theology and Philosophy were the two main subjects we covered, accompanied by discipline and all kinds of other issues. That was the year 1989. I did not come back to Sri Lanka until 1992. At this point, my work experience was working with people with learning difficulties.
About this time, I had learnt about my sexuality, of course. In my early teens, I had experimented with my sexual desire towards other men long before I entered the church. Now I was a grown man and a consenting adult. My experience told me more about my sexuality and I had to deal with sexuality, sex and all its dynamics including how one gives oneself. I also felt that my studies and my beliefs did not go hand in hand with that. I had this feeling of shame and guilt. Because you are in robes, you say something in front of an altar, but you act different and your desires are so different. I had confrontations with my religious upbringing and with the Bible itself about my sexual orientation.
I had discussions with my superiors who then happened to be Irish men. Here I was working with about 11 local brothers of the church, dealing with many other priests outside our circle. I happened to explain all this to my superiors who told me, “This is just a passing phase. You are going to be okay, just give it time, you are young.” I tried to deny my sexuality. I did not show desires to other men, even though I had a little bit of sex with people of my own community and beyond. I have never been forced to have sex.
It was more an experimental thing, to see what it was like. One morning, I decided to say that enough is enough. I could not try any longer. I felt guilty. I felt angry about myself and that I was not very much a part of the church. I might as well get out. I left the church and found a small job in a restaurant in Colombo. While I was doing this work, I used to travel. In these travels, I made friends in the streets, in places such as the Galle Face Court, Thunmulla Junction and Dickman’s Road. I used to meet like-minded people. Some of them were selling sex. Some of them were doing it for pleasure. For some of them, it was just a meeting space. I happened to discover that there were a lot of problems that these people were facing.
Police harassment was one of biggest problems they faced. Some of them were desperate about their lives. Some of them had committed suicide. Some of them did not know what they were into. Some of them thought they were influenced by others to be there. For a period of about a year, I was faced with all this experience. Everybody around was so unsettled about their lives. Some of them were confused. Some of them tried to blame others, their parents, their relatives, and people with whom they had encountered sexual experiences. This gave me motivation, perhaps because of my background, to sit with some of these people and thrash things out.
We started a discussion. A hotel in Colombo was the venue. Of course, I was working for a very poor salary. I sat with a few people and had a discussion as to what we were going to do. The first idea was that their self-esteem was so low. There were deep wounds that needed to be healed within themselves. How do you first heal these wounds? It is not about an NGO, a structure, or money. We did not know anything about them at that point of time. It was just pure innocence of trying to come together and heal those wounds. We had about five meetings.
One Sunday while I was walking to one of those meeting places (we had contacts and linkages built already), I happened to meet a foreign gentleman at the Galle Face Court who was gay and from a leading international NGO. He took me to the Taj Hotel and said that he was here to set up a project called Alliance Lanka. He was from London representing International HIV/AIDS Alliance. We had a discussion. He asked me what I was doing there and I said I was cruising.
He said that he was there to support a group of HIV positive people and people vulnerable to HIV. They could be sex workers, drug users, and gay men. He asked me, “If we set up something like that, would you like to be part of that process?” This organisation which is now in existence was not even established then. I agreed and said I did not know anything about HIV and AIDS. I said there were issues in my community: people being thrown out from their homes and workplaces, some attempting to commit suicide, some living in rented houses, some not being able to face their families, some have been caught in the act, and some could not operate as sex workers. The most difficult thing was to find sexual partners. They had been blackmailed and were going through all kinds of things. This discussion went on one whole night. Of course, I also had sex with him. He went back. Two months later, I received a call from him asking, “Could you come and meet me in my local organisation?”
That was reproductive and women’s rights work. I went there. This was in December 1994. I was asked whether I was interested in participating in the first South Asian Lesbian and Gay Conference titled “Emerging Gay Identities” which was organised by the Humsafar Trust and the Naz Foundation International. It was in Bombay. That was my first exposure to Indian gay people. There were about 60 of them from all parts of India. There were Indians living outside of India such as New York, New Zealand, Indonesia and Trikone guys from San Francisco. I happened to be the only representative from Sri Lanka.
There were huge discussions and arguments about the gay movement in South Asia. I understood nothing. What I only knew was that I was part of a new world. There were very creative and expressive people around me who were activists from the region. We spoke a lot about organising, setting up groups, strengthening the region – all to which I was totally new. I was listening very carefully to the conversations they were having and a lot of interesting things came out.
It was about gay politics, coming out, how to deal with the media, what the judiciary is saying in each of our countries, where the law came in and was the law being enforced. Most important was how can we work with our families, how do we deal with stereotypes, how people identified themselves differently from each other, and what does the term gay or lesbian mean?
What these western terms mean in our lives was one of the things we were trying to answer at that conference. Not all questions found answers. We were somewhat empowered at the conference to come back to our small towns, cities, countries and do something. I came back fortunate enough with the group I was networking with already there and conveyed this message to some of these like minded guys. Many did not speak English. The term ‘gay’ did not make much sense to them. But I asked them the question, can we set up a group?
One of my colleagues said that there was this article on Shyam Selvadurai, the author of Funny Boy, being in town. He was to talk about growing up being gay, coming out as an open gay person and the riots in 1983, at the British Council. This was in 1995.
I was impressed that someone Sri Lankan was speaking about homosexuality. I jumped into the scene and went to the British Council. After Shyam’s speech, I excused myself and asked whether I could have a discussion with him. Shyam said of course I could. We were sat in one corner of the British Council. I told him that I attended this conference and there are these guys who are very serious about their lives and meant to do something about it. He said his book was to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil.
For that, he had got some money from the Dutch Embassy in Colombo. He felt strongly that instead of translating the book, it was better to set up a support group. He gave me the name and contact details of a person at the Dutch Embassy. I contacted him and he said there was a limited amount of money. I did not know how to write proposals. The embassy person gave me a set of guidelines on how to write a simple proposal to conduct a needs assessment of people like us, in meeting places and cruising joints. He also asked me that if I knew people from beyond that network, to speak to them. I took it up seriously. We were given a small grant to set up office space. That was in the suburbs of Colombo. We signed a contract and asked the existing contacted persons whether there was a need. Some people belonged to the elite community. They said, “No, don’t talk about it. We will be in trouble. Just leave it like that.” Interestingly so, since I was also from the low middle class, the majority of the boys from similar backgrounds said, “Yes, set a small group up. Lets look after each other. Lets look after ourselves and support others.” That was the idea. It was not about winning battles or outing people.
We got an office, a TV and cooking equipment. We used to have weekly meetings. We went out reaching out to other people. It was very interesting. Slowly, people increased. It was very Colombo-oriented as we guys knew each other. I wanted to call a press conference. This idea came from one of the guys. The only paper I was reading at that time was the Yukthiya paper. I spoke to the Yukthiya and asked whether they had any other news paper contact details. Yukthiya was based in Jayaratne Mawatha. I went there and collected the details.
We sent out a wonderful letter saying that we were having a press conference to speak about the rights of marginalized people like us. Some of us identified themselves as gay. Some as “sama lingika.” Some of us were confused. Some of us cross dressed. I told two of the guys, “I can’t do the press conference all by myself, Are you guys ready to do it?” They said, “Yes, we will come.” I consulted Mr. Sunanda Deshpriya and he said that if we have the press conference on a Wednesday, we can have publicity on Sunday.
The day of the press conference, I sat at the Sea View Hotel in Colpetty, waiting for my colleagues to come. They did not come. There were press guys with cameras; there was BBC, Sunday Times, Sunday Leader, MTV, Tamil and Sinhala newspapers, Divaina and Lankadeepa. A huge amount of media people. I was seated all by myself and did not know what to say.
I have never seen so many people take photographs of me. I told them a little bit about our needs assessment and that I was out. I said I was gay and happy to be a Sri Lankan gay and the conversation started. There were some stupid questions – they said it would destroy the very fabric of society. They asked, “Are you trying to introduce something which is a western concept ?” Being gay is not a concept. A majority of our people do not speak English. Some said, “There is a war going on. The priority should be given to this issue and trade union and economic issues.”
I said, “Look, we are all going through these same issues but we are also going through the issues of being gay and being stigmatized in our families. More problems added to what you guys are talking about. As hidden gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or sama lingika or nachchi or whatever you call it, it is extremely difficult to live with that hidden agenda because the very people you are lying to is your family. You talk about close family and close unity so why can’t we talk about ourselves?” There were these counter arguments. Then stood this woman that I never knew in my life, Sunila Abeysekera. She had represented Yukthiya. Her office was next to Yukthiya.
She stood up and said, “Are you seriously out?” Then she turned around and told other media people, “Please publish about this press conference with sensitivity to the issue, because this is a young man coming out for the first time. We have not seen this happening in this land before. Please try to keep a balance, supporting this initiative.” Both Sunila and Kumudini Samuel were there. That was the first time I met Sunila. The press conference ended and some of the journalists asked me whether they could have an interview with me. There were two ladies. I thought they were media people. While I was leaving, one of them stopped me and asked about my life. She asked, “Why have you decided to have a press conference and why alone?” They said it was a good idea and they will support us to do whatever we wanted to do. Then came that fearful Sunday – papers flashing half-page news, full page news – more than quarter page news in all the papers. Lak Handa radio announced something. TV stations featured something. I never knew there was going to be a backlash.
Jude and Dennis were with me in the church. They were with me in the group. There were these three of us in the office. I happened to see them packing their bags. I asked why. They said, “We are leaving. Our parents had seen the papers.” On Monday, there were telephone calls with death threats. I felt scared. I went home. This was in September. It was the day of my sister’s youngest daughter’s birthday party. All my relations were there. When I walked into the house almost everybody stopped talking. It was like a cemetery when the father says the last blessing.
I went to the kitchen and nobody seemed to be talking to me. One of my aunts came and said, “What did you do, Men? Why did you give your real name and say whatever you are?” I asked “why?” She said I should have got their consent. She is a teacher by profession. I too, was angry. I was all by myself, getting these fearful calls and having no counseling support. I did not know any body who could support me at that time. I said, “if I did get their consent, do you think they would ask me to go and do what I did? She said, ”They wouldn’t but you should have given another name.” I said, “No, that is my name. That is who I am. I said f… you all !” and I screamed and yelled at everybody who was there, because I went there to have a decent meal, sit, sleep and come back in the morning without having to confront these calls and stones.
Next Sunday too, I was there. Then I received a call from a woman. She had found out my number from the media as I had been bold enough to give the media my number and my contact details. If I knew the kind of repercussions that would have happened, I would not have done it. This woman was a gentle giant. A one in a million. Not one to mince her words as I later came to know, when faced with injustice, “Are you insane?” she asked me. “My name is xxxx, I really admire your guts. But I heard all kinds of other stories. You cannot live in this country. It can be dangerous. I am coming to meet you right now. Pack your bags.” I did not know where I was going. I just packed my bags. Over the telephone she sounded so concerned. She came and asked, “Where are your others?” They were not there and I was trying to build a conversation with her. She said, “You are coming with me”. I went along with her. She stopped her car at three points. Once at Galle Road Grinding Mill where she got into a van. She took me further to Kollupitiya and then got into a three wheeler.
I tried to ask her why she was doing this. She said nothing and took me to Galle Face Hotel. She asked me, “What would you like ?” and I said, “I’ll have a nice cup of coffee.” She ordered coffee and said, “These negative articles by Lanka Women is terrible. You are getting threatening calls. I would give you a piece of advice. If I were you, I would get out of this country immediately. I would come back when I feel comfortable, because you cannot go through this nonsense. We need to protect courageous young people like you”
Then I started crying. That was when I realized that here was a concerned person and I was going through s… , and the huge danger I faced. She said, “You cannot apply for visa now because they will get to know your whereabouts . They are looking for your whereabouts. I have brought you a ticket to Singapore which does not require a visa. You need to find some money. Who is giving you the money to do the work?” I replied, “…….” Our funding agency. She spoke to them and explained that I was under threats. The people there asked me not to come their premises but they collected Rs.30,000 for my expenses and said, “If you need any further money, please directly contact us.” I was taken directly from Galle Face Hotel to the airport and I boarded a flight to Singapore. The lady was and is still the Executive Director of an organization which reminds me of a warm, welcoming, secure home of birds.
I found a place in Singapore for about $ 20. I was thinking and was angry with myself. I thought no matter what it was, I needed to come back and survive. We have enough martyrs as it is, enough lives destroyed, so why should I die for no reason? No matter how much they hate me for openly saying who I am, or that I said there are people like us in our country and we are going to get organized to win our rights – they can never extinguish our spirit as GLBT persons, not by intimidation, not by name calling, or even not by death. I came back after two weeks and reopened my office and Drop-in centre. Then a few good calls came from Dr. Saravanamuttu, Mano Anandappa, Rohan Edirisinghe and Sunila Abeysekera. People knew that I was back in town. They called and encouraged me, saying, “There are clauses such as freedom of expression and freedom of association and you have not done any thing criminal.
To be continued next week