Gay rights activists get hope from across the Palk Strait

By Feizal Samath

The recent landmark court ruling in India where Delhi's High Court said the law outlawing homosexual acts was discriminatory and a "violation of fundamental rights", has brought new strength and cheer to Sri Lanka’s small gay and lesbian community.
Indian gay activist celebrates in Kolkata, after the landmark judgement on July 2. Reuters

“It was a fantastic judgment. I shouted, ran, screamed in the office (when it happened on July 2) – this was what we have been fighting for,” said Sherman de Rose, Founder of Companions on a Journey (CoJ), Sri Lanka’s first homosexual rights group.

“The ruling marked a historic day for gay and lesbian groups in the region and all over the world,” he said. Sex between people of the same gender has been illegal in India and most of South Asia, including Sri Lanka, under a British colonial era law issued in the 1860s classifying it as "against the order of nature”. According to the law, gay sex in India is punishable by 10 years in prison while in Sri Lanka it is 12 years in jail although no one has been jailed for such an offence.

Mr. de Rose, the first gay person to openly state his sexual preference in a society that frowns on such behaviour, said they are planning a new consultation in coming weeks in Colombo bringing together gay and lesbian persons from across the country in an interaction with stakeholders like judges, parliamentarians, religious leaders and decision-makers.

“We hope to attract the participation of about 200 people from all over the country. Indian experts are also attending,” he said, adding that they plan to re-examine the Sri Lankan issue in the light of the Indian judgment. “I have found Sri Lankan leaders supportive of our rights to live the way we want but that is their individual view. That view is not common on an organized scale,” he said, noting that same-sex persons are always worried about public opinion and want to “run away abroad”.
Sherman de Rose

Under section 365 (A) of the Criminal Procedure Code, homosexual acts are banned and liable to a 12-year jail term if found guilty. “Even in Britain, this law has been off the books. Why then should it exist for citizens of our land, after we got independence from British rule?” Mr. de Rose asked, noting that “We are not criminals and have a right to live in dignity and peace.” CoJ has been in the forefront of the rights for homosexuals activism and in the 1990s along with the Centre for Policy Alternatives prepared a discussion paper on this issue, the first-ever in the region.

Mr. de Rose says there is much more acceptance from society over their rights compared to when he launched the organization in 1995. More homosexuals from South Asia including Afghanistan want to come into the regional grouping of associations while groups in Iran are also keen to join, he said, adding that the regional movement has grown since the 1990s.

Between 8 to 10% of a country’s population in the world is considered to be gay and lesbians, according to Mr. de Rose. The CoJ has three drop-in centres for their community in Kandy, Chilaw and Anuradhapura in addition to the main centre in Colombo.

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