Phoenix Rising – Sri Lanka’s Queer Community Anticipates Penal Code Change

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and in the wake of political and economic turbulence that saw the ouster and subsequent fleeing of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Queer community might have a reason to celebrate. Incumbent Sri Lankan President, Ranil Wickremasinghe, in a meeting with US Agency of International Development Administrator, Samantha Power, stated that he would not oppose the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations in the country. 

Then prime minister and current President of Sri Lanka​ ​​at Hyderabad House in New Delhi (April 26, 2017)

Sri Lanka’s criminalization of consensual same-sex acts, like many former British colonies, goes back to Article 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal code, introduced by the country’s British masters when it was still known as British Ceylon. The bill criminalized sexual acts considered to be “against the order of nature” which almost exclusively applied to just males, but was later amended in 1995, replacing the explicit word “male” with “persons” to act as a catch-all law prohibiting all consensual same-sex acts. In the past, the Sri Lankan government claimed that sexual minorities who had no legal protections would be protected under the existing “generic” anti-discrimination laws already present in the Sri Lankan constitution. 

“The criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity has meant that the discrimination, violence and harassment on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community in Sri Lanka will continue with impunity,”

Hiroko Akizuki, UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee member

However, key figures in the fight for equality in the country, have, in the past, been the target of harassment and persecution. Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, founder of Equal Ground, an organization advocating for LGBTQIA rights in Sri Lanka one of the most prominent examples of harassment and intimidation employed by the police in Sri Lanka to silence activists. A ruling issued by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in March this year found that Sri Lanka had breached Flamer-Caldera’s rights through being “subjected to discrimination, harassment, stigmatization, and threats of violence by State officials and members of the public, including the press and social media.”

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Flamer-Caldera had also been accused, by the Women and Children’s Bureau of the Sri Lanka Police, of contributing to the rise in child abuse through the “spreading” of homosexuality. The Bureau even went so far as to use Caldera’s picture and her position in her organization to bolster its claims. “Ms. Flamer-Caldera has been frequently threatened and harassed by the police, the media, and the public, but she has been unable to report these abuses out of fear of being arrested,” said Committee member Hiroko Akizuki, who further reiterated that the criminalization of same-sex activity meant that the discrimination, violence, and harassment faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in Sri Lanka would continue “with Impunity.”

Despite as much as two-thirds of the men in Sri Lanka having been found to have engaged in homosexual contact during their lifetime, negative attitudes toward homosexuality still persist, thanks in part to negative portrayals in Sri Lankan and Indian media which is also widely consumed in the country. Homophobia in Sri Lanka, according to a Letter to the Editor submitted to the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, may contribute to the country’s high age-standardized suicide rate of 34.6 for every 100,000 in the population.  

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, founder of Equal Ground

Should a bill tabled in August by Parliamentarian Premnath Dolawatte to amend Sri Lanka’s Penal Code to decriminalize homosexuality pass, then Sri Lanka will join neighbor India as the latest East Asian country and former British colony to officially abolish anti-LGBTQIA+ laws. With the bill’s passing reliant upon individual MP support and reassurance from President Wickremesinghe that his government will not oppose the bill activists like Flamer-Caldera remain cautiously optimistic, as she told the Washington Blade, “Let’s see how it goes.”   

Photos: Wikimedia commons, Flickr      

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