“He forgot wishes and expectations of Sinhala, Tamil, Malay, Muslim, Burgher people. He forgot the country’s problems. He entered a butterfly life.”
Above is a statement made by country’s first person President Maithreepala Sirisena about Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe who acted as the Prime Minister, addressing a public rally held in Colombo last Monday (05).
The President’s above statement was highly denounced by the Sri Lankan gay community and among some parts of the civil society.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Co-Spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe, attending to Cabinet Decisions Press Conference held on Wednesday (Nov 07), in response to a question raised by a journalist, said that the President’s statement was “not made on the basis of targeting a group of people with diverse sexualities.”
“Butterfly is an innocent creature. That butterfly is being used for a wrong purpose,” said by Cabinet Co-Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.
Sometimes ‘butterfly’ (samanalaya) is being interpreted by people to define somebody who is not heterosexual.
Sri Lankan activists who stand up for gay rights exclude the definition made by these Cabinet Co-Spokesmen, confronting that the President had used the word ‘butterfly’ at the rally for the purpose of identifying a person who is not heterosexual.
Gay rights activist lecturer at Colombo University Thyagaraja Wardas said that the President’s stance can be defined as an act of making a “hateful comment” against the gay community.
“The word butterfly can be interpreted in several ways. But the President has implied the word for the purpose of identifying a group of people who are not heterosexual. This can simply be categorised as a hateful comment”, he added by sharing his views with the BBC Sinhala.
He reinforces his point by elaborating that the President’s comment loosens the space to allow hateful comments such as “hit them, stab them, kill them” to enter the spectrum of hatred.
It is Thyagaraja Wardas’s opinion that although President’s comment would have been presumed to be a stance for pointing out an “enclosure of VIPs” that possesses power, no damage is being brought into that “enclosure” whatsoever.
“The damage is being brought into gay communities from rural villages. Because the end result of such hateful comments will be put onto their shoulders. Compared to these rural communities, the daily routines of those of Colombo 7 are not being affected at all.”
Lecturer Thyagaraja Wardas says that the President’s statement well emphasizes of how gay communities among rural middle class people in Sri Lanka are being vilified.
He questions, “If Sri Lanka had a society that accepts gay rights, the President could have used ‘VIP caucus’ instead of butterfly”.
“He uses that word instead to obviously confirm his stand to socialize the ideology that this community is completely low and descending, else, are not there any other words he could have used?”
He points out that this is not the first time the President has shown his ‘backwardness’ towards gay rights.
Thyagaraja Wardas, who pointed out that President Sirisena took measures to decline the Cabinet recommendation included in the National Human Rights Action Plan 2016 to remove discriminative treaties settled upon the LGBTIQ communities, said, “He then talked with pride that he protected the culture of Sri Lanka.”
“The Sri Lankan President therefore obviously suffers from homophobia.”
He views that if not, the President should come forward in the media and apologize for what he has said.
Some countries in the world have changed their laws towards the homosexual community and some Western countries even have legalized gay marriage.
Even the Indian Supreme Court announcing a historic decision repealing existed laws stated that homosexuality is not a criminal offence on September 06.
Also, the highest court in Taiwan announced in 2017 that laws should be implemented allowing path to legalize gay marriage.
Sri Lankan laws flouting homosexuality
LGBTIQ rights activist Attorney Radika Gunaratne demonstrates that the Sri Lankan Penal code, introduced nearly 130 years ago by the British during the colonial era, designates homosexuality; through Sectors 365 and 365 (A)to be criminal offence, discriminating Sri Lankan gay communities.
“Neither of the above sectors interprets terms like ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’. It denotes ‘any act of carnal intercourse against the order nature’ instead”, she told the BBC Sinhala.
She points out that later in 1995, through legal amendments took place within the code, women were also included into the stance of ‘acts of carnal intercourse against the order of nature between men’ as well.
“The act therefore according to the Sri Lankan law is a criminal offence. These communities are being vilified into which their Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation cannot be expressed. They cannot come before the society because this is a recognized criminal offence. They are unable of coming out to their families for the least, because this is illegal.”
According to her viewpoint, the worst case scenario upon which these communities are being vilified into is that a situation where a sexually abused or violated homosexual person seeks justice through legal aid itself will turn them over to be criminals per legal definitions.
Attorney Radika Gunaratne points out that when acting beyond legal and cultural frameworks settled by the society, a gay man or a lesbian woman is being led to face harassments and discrimination.
She told, “The complainer becomes a criminal at the point. The Police acts in contradiction when they seek them to complain about a harassment they had to face. He or she becomes vulnerable at the point.”
“The law is obviously being enforced to harass the gay community, not to serve justice for them.”
Among LGBTIQ communities in Sri Lanka are social problems, mostly;
· Discrimination within their own families
· Getting bullied and condemned in school
· Difficulties in finding jobs, and expulsion
· Forced marriages
A young lady come of age being questioned by elders or cousins about marriage is very often in our society.
How severe is the pressure set upon a lesbian woman within the framework of culture?
Attorney Radika Gunaratne responded to the question delivering an example.
“This is a true story. A young woman from Nuwara Eliya area was forcibly married to a man by her parents. This is a matter of love. As she has no feelings towards her husband, she refuses to engage in sexual intercourse. So the husband comes at night with his friends fully drunk and rapes her till the next light. She now has a child. But she is not able to go to the Police to complain that she was raped.”
Attorney Radika Gunaratne points out that a lesbian woman is forced to bear pressure “twice-to-thrice” as big as that of a heterosexual woman in traditional Sri Lankan marriage.
“Compared to a man, a woman with such circumstance is not capable of separating from the family right away. Neither is the society ready to accept her sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Therefore, such women become so vulnerable.”
Parents and family members
Denouncing the statement made by the President recently, the civil society and the general public had expressed their views through social networks such as Facebook.
Does it reflect any deviation in the attitudes of current generations of youth on equality and LGBTIQ rights?
“The problem here is that the majority of parents and adults do not access Facebook or other social media. The youth generation has taken the lead in making an attitudinal change. But still they have not been able to change attitudes among adults.”
“What lies here is a matter of respecting each other. If parents are wise, they would understand their daughter’s sexuality, accept and respect them for the grown woman she has become. The gay community has some women who happen to work in high-income jobs and places in the society. But they are being led to work hiding their true identity from the society.”
Attorney Radika Gunaratne also points out that there is a common misconception in Sri Lanka that assuming homosexuality to be a ‘problem’, it exists only within the “VIP community”.
“Think about it, parents from rural villages are not even familiar with the word gay. In a patriarchal social point of view objectifying it to be a distortion, can you imagine how vulnerable women would become?, it even might cause committing suicide.”
“It is necessary for people to understand that this is common for the whole society regardless of the class.”
Protesting against human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and LGBTIQ rights is commonly reported from countries that are being developed through populism and right wings.
Thousands of video footages featuring President Maithreepala Sirisena’s ‘butterfly comment’ have been shared on social media by now.
There are also evidence to witness that people who happened to denounce the President’s statement and commented on social media have been derogatorily backlashed by some narrow viewers, confronting, “So, are you a butterfly too?”.
It is Attorney Radika Gunaratne’s viewpoint that 70-80% of the general Sri Lankan population are suffering from ‘homophobia’.
“The country’s leader pleases the gallery. People would like to hear them. Leaders are born according to how people need them to be. The leader simply projects how the majority of people are. Whether it is city or village is irrelevant.”
Also, Attorney Radika Gunaratne points out that the literacy for LGBTIQ rights among journalists is very low, adding that in most cases journalists are working according to “politicians’ agenda”.
“Journalists tend to catch the subject from very narrow perspectives. We saw when a transgender was murdered in Dambulla area, many newspapers reported the incident detailing it as ‘a man dressed in women’s clothes was murdered’.”
“But coming to investigate the deceased’s life story we found out that she had tried all her life to avoid the fact that she was born as a man.”
She emphasizes that the journalists however with intention of “whipping the taste of garbage” published news highlighting the fact that the deceased wore women’s clothes.
“People’s opinion is being created by media. But many journalists are not aware about it, neither were educated about it. Therefore, under the influence that what they desire is what people desire, they tend to pump up their bigotry into the society.”
“Literacy among journalists regarding these topics is a big issue.”
She further said that an introduction program is being carried out in sensitizing media units about the terminologies need to be addressed in reporting information regarding LGBTIQ rights.
Source: Article by Suneth Perera for BBC
Cover Photo : Getty Images