LGBT community yearns for acceptance by society | Sunday Observer

LGBT community yearns for acceptance by society

24 June, 2018

As the LGBT community of Sri Lanka celebrates the annual Pride month in June, in a daring bid to spread the message of diversity and equality, Sri Lankan society continues to be deeply divided over the ideas of gender and sexuality.

According to activists, while the country’s polarised society has prevented more progressive reforms in securing the rights of those belonging to this marginalised community from taking place, acceptance along with equal treatment and reforms of oppressive laws are the foremost obstacles faced by them today. However, compared to over several decades ago they also accept that many positive changes despite the slow pace have taken place as a quiet revolution continues in the fight for their rights and equality.

Bhoomi Harendran, a transgender woman and activist for the LGBT community, despite the many challenges faced has achieved everything she had set out to. An award winning actress and a leading LGBT activist, she has recently gone on to form the National Transgender Network, in a bid to extend support to transgender persons across the island and uplift their lives.

Initially however, for Bhoomi, it was a life of struggles. Born as Kumudu Darshana Kumara, it was during her teenage years that she understood, unlike her fellow classmates in an all boys school who were falling head over heels for girls, she was interested in boys, instead. Emotionally confused, Bhoomi in a recent television interview recalled the hurt and pain she felt as she was continuously bullied by certain teachers in school for her appearance and her sexuality.

Finally, identifying herself as a transgender woman in her early twenties Bhoomi took the brave decision to embark on a journey of transformation to become the woman she aspired to be. However, she says the challenges she faces remain the same despite her transformation. “The hate speech and emotional abuse continues” she says, adding that at times she has even experienced physical violence.

Despite her brave journey towards becoming a woman and the first transgender woman to win the award as best actress for her role in the film ‘Frangipani’ which portrays the struggles of the LGBT community, she says the recognition she received was far less than what a non transgender individual would have received, putting it down to the discrimination against the LGBT community. “As a well known person if I am treated this way, one can only imagine the treatment others would receive” she says.

However, according to her, things have improved for those in her community. Many are now able to change their gender on official documentation while there is better understanding of the trans community among service providers. “We are more visible than those who identify themselves as gay” she said adding that therefore, people have become more educated about them. Instead she says, homosexuals are more marginalised in society today along with those who identify themselves as transgender but who have not been able to go through the complete transformation process. It is them that are often targeted by archaic laws, specifically, section 365 of the Penal Code along with laws relating to vagrancy.

Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code prohibit “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and acts of “gross indecency,” commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults, both female and male, including in private spaces.

Despite the belief that these laws are not imposed today, Human Rights lawyer Lakshan Dias says, there have been instances where individuals had been arrested and convicted under these laws. “In a recent case, for example, two individuals were arrested by the Police, charged and finally convicted by the Colombo Magistrate’s Court” he said adding that therefore, though not a common occurrence, the Police do enforce these outdated laws if and when needed.

And, as Bhoomi points out this law also indirectly affects those who identify as transgender but have not had the opportunity to complete their transformation as it leaves them in their biological gender.

“Therefore, decriminalisation of homosexuality in Sri Lanka is important” Lakshan says, explaining that to those who are affected and victimised, it is a legitimate concern to ensure the law is repealed, a fact Activist and Director of the acclaimed film, Frangipani Visakesa Chandrasekaram agrees with.

According to Chandrasekaram, while there are many privileged individuals in the country who belong to the LGBT community, the public tends to turn a blind eye on their lifestyles due to their power and status. “It is those who have no such background that continue to be discriminated against” he says.

Since many continue to live secret lives, the decriminalisation of homosexuality would ensure they are able to live life as free individuals, the film director opines. Since 2017, Sri Lanka has introduced anti discrimination laws against individuals belonging to the LGBT community relating to employment, obtaining of goods and services and all other areas, along with the right to change one’s gender legally.

After a long drawn fight today Bhoomi is in possession of Government issued documents stating her gender as ‘female’. She says, while staff at the District Secretariat to which she belongs were helpful, the system in place only made it tougher for her to change her gender on all official documents. “I had to approach the National Human Rights Council in the end which is the only progressive body of government that provides answers to the many problems faced by us” she says.

The Human Rights Commission has gone so far as to recommend that those who identify themselves as transgender, though not going through the transformation process be given the right to choose their gender on official documents.

However, according to Human Rights lawyers the country currently has no laws either directly supporting or negating the rights of the LGBT community other than section 365 of the Penal Code, and is far from introducing more progressive laws in support of their rights.

As a result, many more legal battles remain. But Attorney-at-law Lakshan Dias says, it is far more important to create a dialogue in society about the rights of the LGBT community prior to pushing for legal reforms. “Legal reforms are a long way off and society is not yet ready for it” he says adding that currently politicians are not keen to take up the topic. With many focusing on their vote banks, the widespread criticism and discrimination against the LGBT community will not allow for these issues to be taken up in the near future.

To Harendran while many more reforms may take place eventually, acceptance by society is the key issue faced by them. “If there is acceptance by society then other issues will resolve with time” Harendran believes.

It is acceptance itself that has been tough to come by. “Whenever I move house, for several months I become the topic of conversation and the novelty down the lane” she says.

According to her, many in the community today have been limited to employment in the beauty, fashion and culinary industries, having found acceptance only within their fold.

“Those not talented in such fields, eventually end up in the sex trade” she points out, adding that despite attempting to gain mainstream jobs employers continue to focus on their sexuality and gender change as opposed to the expertise and talents they possess. But Bhoomi wants the public to understand that as any other individual, those in the LGBT community are multi talented and can hold mainstream jobs. “People, and even children must be educated on sexuality and gender for them to be able understand us” she says.

Sociologist, Dr Praneeth Abeysundara, however says societal trends today show major improvements. “Being either gay or trans is becoming a normal occurrence” he says, adding that contributions through the Arts in the form of film and literature have helped to bring about this change. “A dialogue has developed about the subject that once used to be taboo” he says.

According to Bhoomi the LGBT community has been contributing to the development of the country, along with other citizens.

“Therefore, I have equal rights and my gender or sexuality should not be a barrier to enjoy them” she says wanting people to understand that every human life has value, deserving love and respect.