Sri Lankan activist Rossana Flamer-Caldera says the only way to end the ban on gay sex in the former war-torn country is to appeal to ordinary people who ‘know what it’s like to have their human rights trampled on’.
Activists from around the Commonwealth met in London today (4 July) to discuss how the global community can work towards decriminalizing homosexuality in countries where former British colonial laws which banned being gay are still alive.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell opened the World Pride conference by slamming the Commonwealth as a ‘bastion of homophobia and transphobia’.
He called on leaders of member states to stand up for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, before Sri Lankan activist Rossana Flamer-Caldera joined the panel to talk about her efforts to lift anti-gay laws in the island nation.
The founder of rights organization Equal Ground said LGBT people in Sri Lanka are criminalized under penal codes 365 and 365a, very similar to that of India’s now overturned section 377.
She said: ‘Nobody has actually been convicted or charged under this code. But the fact that this criminal code does exist leads to a lot more homophobia.
‘Our cultures were so different before colonization and before the British brought their laws into our countries.
‘Now homophobia is being embraced as part of Sri Lankan culture rather than as something which was introduced by the West many years ago.’
She added that although the campaigners’ priority is the decriminalization of homosexuality, the greatest obstacle to their cause is the emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism and nationalism which rose following the end of the country’s civil war two years ago.
‘Like an amoeba, nationalism has now built itself into this huge movement which sees anything which is against their sensibilities as something Western and something which has to be stopped and that includes homosexuality,’ Flamer-Caldera explained.
‘Now that the war is over, we are their next targets. The more visible we get, the more they push harder.’
She says the LGBT rights movement in Sri Lanka receives little support from both the government and the state influenced media.
The only way forward in the battle to end the gay ban is not through the courts and police, which she says are corrupt and homophobic, but by reaching out to the country’s ordinary people.
‘In order to make achieve equal rights, we have to make the people in Sri Lanka understand homosexuality and sensitize them to the issues,’ she says.
She added: ‘In Sri Lanka, they understand the whole issue of human rights because they live through this on a daily basis, from war to poverty.
‘They know what it is like to have their human rights trampled on so for us they are the easiest targets to convince that LGBT rights are human rights.’
Campaigners are also appealing to hetereosexual Sri Lankans because although the law is generally applied to gays, it was amended in 1995 to include all women.
However, Flamer-Caldera says activists need to ‘tread carefully’ when challenging the government over anti-gay legislation to avoid a backlash which may lead to more ‘terrible laws’ such as the ‘kill the gays bill’ in Uganda.