Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana In June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed an independent expert to eliminate discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE). The appointee, Vitit Muntarbhorn, is a professor of law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. Despite the expert being from a Southeast Asian country, many governments in the global South [...]

Sunday Times 2

LGBTQI: Myopic All-Out petition pushes Lanka against the wall


Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana
In June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed an independent expert to eliminate discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE). The appointee, Vitit Muntarbhorn, is a professor of law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. Despite the expert being from a Southeast Asian country, many governments in the global South opposed his appointment, especially citing the argument that SOGIE was an effort by Western governments to impose their (Western) values on non-Western countries.

At the December 2016 hearing of a second attempt to block the Special Expert’s mandate, Ambassador Samantha Power, the United States’s then Permanent Representative to the UN, commented, “this is not an issue of the north trying to impose its values on the south, it is an issue of respecting the human rights and dignity of all people, everywhere – that is what we mean when we say that LGBTI [sic] rights are universal human rights”. Despite this statement, Ambassador Power’s own government has a past of deploying LGBTQI rights to advance pinkwashing and coercive influencing and regime change-related agendas. Advances that are viewed as ‘coercive, interventionist and Western’ are seen negatively across the global South, and constitute an issue that requires increased attention from SOGIE advocates at all levels.
A locally-grounded strategy for liberation from multiple oppressions?
Across the Commonwealth, many social conservatisms are direct inheritances of British rule, when sexualities and gender were regulated through forcibly imposing criminal laws, making Victorian cis-hetero-normativities ‘the norm’. Challenging them requires an in-depth knowledge of local histories, folklore, faith traditions and a commitment to citizens’ fundamental rights. It is only a discourse of ‘Queer Liberation’, founded and ‘grounded’ locally and articulated in local languages, that can lead to a mass distancing from gender and sexuality-related conservatisms. Indeed, ‘LGBTQI rights’ are part and parcel of gender and social justice. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the struggle for SOGIE-related equality and justice cannot be separated from struggles against misogyny, toxic masculinity, patriarchal oppressions, ethno-religions-majoritarian politics, and faith-based (and most often highly ‘gendered’) discrimination.
Local activism in Lanka: Exemplary February 13, 2017 media conference
In the face of the Sirisena administration’s refusal to repeal colonial legislation that criminalises non-heterosexual sexualities, Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community is taking the lead in reinforcing a strategy for liberation from multiple forms of legal, sociocultural and political oppression and exclusion. A key step in this process was a media conference in Colombo on February 13, 2017. It included a cross-section of cis and trans people and specialists in their respective disciplines. Watching the entire footage of the news conference is highly recommended, as it is an excellent example of how an incisive, locally-grounded and home-grown ‘Queer Liberation strategy’ ought to be developed. It was a breath of fresh air in a country where a great deal of misinformation, misconceptions and misunderstandings surround non-hetero-normative sexualities and non-cisnormative gender identities.
The LGBT-NGO-Industrial complex: an obstacle?
One of the greatest obstacles for the Sri Lankan LGBTQI community to develop a strategy of this nature has been the dominant position of non-governmental organisations, often run by individuals who neither travel with a Sri Lankan passport nor speak and write the local languages. Just as in the broader NGO-sphere, this has led to an ‘LGBTQI-NGO-industrial complex’, in which people in control of such organisations have emerged as the influential ‘public faces’ of Sri Lankan LGBTQI activism, especially in Colombo’s elite circles and in international LGBTQI rights advocacy. This trend has considerably hindered efforts of Sri Lankan citizens capable of launching locally-grounded queer liberation initiatives.
The All-Out petition: Jeopardising true Sri Lankan LGBTQI activism?

As the local LGBTQI community launched the collective effort for intersectional and critical engagement, the elite leadership of NGO-industrial LGBTQI activism deployed its international contacts to push the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka against the wall. All Out, an international LGBTQI advocacy and campaigning organisation, recently started a campaign – in partnership, as All Out informed this writer on Twitter, with an infamous Sri Lankan organisation – calling upon the European institutions to not to approve a GSP+ trade deal for Sri Lanka until Colombo scraps its ‘anti-gay law’. Most intriguingly the petition carries the by-line ‘no deal for homophobes’. It is the government of Sri Lanka, which voted at the UN in favour of the SOGIE Expert (and the only South Asian government to do so) that this apparently ‘Sri Lankan’ organisation is encouraging the world to view the country as ‘homophobic’.

All Out Strengthening anti-LGBTQI lobbies?
Conflating LGBTQI rights issues with Colombo’s international trade deals is an ill-conceived and politically myopic step that strengthens the hands of anti-LGBTQI, if not anti-human rights lobbies, giving them added reason to reiterate the often-repeated claim that LGBTQI rights are a Western import of no relevance to Sri Lanka. This petition’s greatest beneficiaries, if any, are those reciting the ‘batahira kumanthrana’ mantra whenever a fundamental rights issue is raised. This petition risks jeopardising local LGBTQI activists who have been working hard to develop an initiative that connects discrimination on the basis of gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation with the broader spectrum gender-based oppressions, thereby developing a locally conceived and much needed dialogue on Queer Liberation.

The path forward?
A responsible LGBTQI organisation, if it cares for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI citizens, and focuses on repealing Article 365 of the Penal Code and ensuring constitutional provisions on SOGIE-related equality, has an obligation to distance itself from such ill-advised measures. The path forward for gender and social justice, including the consolidation of citizens’ fundamental rights and equality irrespective of their gender identity/sexual orientation, lies in working with, and being constructively critical of, our government, but not working against it, or discrediting it on the world stage.

By no means does this involve a condemnation of international partnerships and collaborations. In an interdependent world, they are crucial and most welcome. They should, however, strengthen local LGBTQI activists working hard for Queer Liberation and not, as this petition has done, weaken them and strengthen NGO industrialists who ‘use’ Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community to advance their self-centred careerist agendas.

(Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and board member of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies network.)

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