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22nd August 1999

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Woman and woman

Is Lanka ready for the lesbian movement? Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Wathsala Mendis report

  • Is it in your genes?
  • Everybody's not the same
  • All the religions deny it...
  • People's views…
  • "Let us be ourselves and live with dignity. Live and let live," is Kumari's plea from the heart to Sri Lankan society, as I sit across from her and try to fathom what lesbianism is all about.

    What did I expect when I requested a meeting to discuss the newly-emerging lesbian movement in Sri Lanka? On my way to the meeting with Kumari of the Women's Support Group, there was a subconscious antagonism and hostility towards lesbians, with arguments raging in my mind about what is happening to Sri Lankan society. What will be our children's future? Weren't women cut out for motherhood?

    Surangana Yahanaya GiniganiOf course, girls did hero-worship bigger girls and treated them as role-models. But that was in school and led to emulation of a senior athlete, a good debator or an all-rounder. It was just a phase in the process of growing up. A phase most of us have gone through. Gradually in the teen years, the focus shifted and the attraction for the opposite sex became evident. So I had many questions for Kumari.

    "Why didn't you, such a pretty woman, marry and have children?" I ask soft-spoken and gentle Kumari, in her simple but spacious and comfortable office. And her reply forces me to think.

    "See the stereotype. A girl is expected to grow up, may- be do a job, but most importantly get married, have children and fit into the traditional role set by society. Society is just not ready to accept that some of us are born different. That we prefer women's company to that of a male. Is it a crime to be what you are, follow an inherent trait without living a lie?"

    Yes, then I begin to see reason. Don't they have rights too, just like us, just like homosexuals, just like the disabled. Or is it our right, the right of the heterosexuals or whom we consider "normal people" to lay down the rules and standards? A majority of us may be averse to that lifestyle, but is it our right to stand on our pedestals and shout insults at those whom we feel are "a disgrace to society", to humiliate and queer and unnatural, those who are different to us.

    At that moment I felt that Kumari's voice should be heard, though we may not agree with what she says. In fact, that she has a right to be heard. So this is Kumari's side of the story.

    A very active member of the Women's Support Group, Kumari says she realised she was "different" from the time she was quite young, but quickly adds, that she doesn't want to dwell on her personal life. If people got to know that certain girls had lesbian tendencies, they were marginalised and ostracised. Families would die of shame, rather than admit that they had a lesbian daughter.

    Prompted by the recent suicide of a lesbian couple, who jumped into the Kalu Ganga, and also the discrimination against lesbians, Kumari and a core group of about 22 women decided to form the Women's Support Group to assist such women overcome the many obstacles they face in life.

    "People harp on the so-called sexual activities of lesbians, but not on the real problems faced by them..... the trauma, the frustration, the humane aspect of it," she says.

    Stressing that women are either born as lesbians or forced into lesbianism due to circumstances beyond their control such as a cruel father, a domineering husband or a nasty boss, Kumari says, "all these factors including your childhood play a part in what you are today."

    According to her it is difficult to give a figure as to how many lesbians there are in Sri Lanka, but the National Conference they are planning for December will help them to do a head-count and also discuss the specific problems faced by this community.

    "We want to encourage lesbians to come out and contact us, so that we can help them. There are some women who don't like or want to get married, but put up a pretence to keep within social norms. Most families would like to keep an issue like lesbianism invisible. If a woman tries to assert herself, it's a threat to the social norm."

    "By coming here, talking to us and getting involved in our activities, it will give them not only a sense of acceptance, identity and security, but also a political sense of a woman's human and civic rights and a future direction," Kumari says.

    Isn't it another method of getting funding? I ask her. Sometime ago one could attract aid by joining the 'environment' bandwagon, then 'women and children' and now the 'gay and lesbian movement'.

    "No," she says without rancour, "we are not here for the money. We have sacrificed much for this cause. We just want to be a support and service group for any lesbian who needs us. We are part of Sherman de Rose's 'Companions on a Journey', but an independent group exclusively dealing with lesbian issues. This is a journey we must go on side by side. Our individual goals may differ, but we have a common identity as gays and lesbians. We share a common focus and objectives."

    "Since our group started, many lesbians have come out of their 'isolation'. These women are from various backgrounds, from Colombo, from the suburbs and also from the rural areas," Kumari says. "It's just to find somebody like-minded. Most people think that lesbians only focus on the sexual aspects, but that's not true. Unlike men, for women there is a great need for emotional support.

    "Women are also very sensitive. Our group has lots of creative women, artists, poetesses, dramatists and intellectuals. There are some married women too who have realised that their natural inclination is to be with another woman."

    She mildly criticises the stereotyping of lesbians as chain-smoking, aggressive, masculine, Colombo 7 types. "That is not right. There are women from different parts of the country and from different strata of society." While thanking the producer of "Surangana Yahanaya Ginigani" for bringing the lesbian issue to the attention of the public, she says the image created that a lesbian "wore shorts, smoked, drank and was against having children" was wrong.

    There are one or two lesbian couples openly living together in villages, she says, declining to name them. The villagers have accepted them and don't see anything strange about the arrangement. In one instance, one woman goes to the fields and the other looks after the home, while in the other, one partner works in a boutique and the other stays home.

    What about the law, under which homosexuality is an offence in Sri Lanka?

    "We don't think it's correct to prohibit homosexuality," says Kumari. "Your sexual nature is a human right. Nobody can change one's in-born nature. People must accept that. The law should follow trends in society. Forcing people to follow a law that is not only not applicable but also obsolete is not right. We will support Companions on a Journey in their campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in Sri Lanka."

    When taking your 'cause' to the villages, won't you spoil or even tempt women who may not have heard of lesbians to join up? "No," says Kumari. "We are not out to convert anyone, through an aggressive campaign. Ours is a peaceful, diplomatic and democratic struggle to make girls aware that if they feel this way they are not failures. That there's nothing wrong in being oneself. We are just there to help anyone who feels this way. To help them achieve fulfilment in their career and also their lives." As for lesbianism becoming a fad or trend, unless you are truly a lesbian it will not last, she says.

    "To make Sri Lankan society accept lesbianism will take a long time. But we'll try and keep trying. We have only one life to lead. Is it fair to deprive lesbians of what they want in that short life?" she smiles. - (K.H.)

    Is it in your genes?

    No statistics are available about lesbians in Sri Lanka, given the complicated nature of the issue and the lack of facilities to do research, said family planning expert Dr. Sriani Basnayake.

    Referring to the "genetic theory" with regard to lesbianism, Dr. Basnayake, Medical Director of the Family Planning Association, said, "Provided this theory holds water, it does raise the question whether we have the right to condemn a person for something he or she cannot help. Why should they go against what's in their genes, just to conform to social norms? Hard as it is, we have to look at things a bit more objectively."

    "Because of the stigma attached to such sexual orientation, people don't come out with it," she added, stressing that parents should not force their children to get married merely to fit into a societal role and thus make both their lives miserable and unhappy.

    There are two schools of thought on homosexuality, that it could be triggered by biological tendencies or environmental influences. As evidence for the biological theory, pooled data for women show that about 50% of identical twins, 16% of fraternal twins and 13% of sisters of lesbians are lesbians.

    Under the other theory, homosexuality – is described as an outgrowth of environmental circumstances, with a person seeking such an outlet as a result of: * an accidental but pleasurable homosexual incident in childhood, * having been isolated with members of the opposite sex for long periods of time such as in boarding school, military service or a correctional institution *unsatisfactory social relationships with members of the opposite sex, * restrictive attitudes of parents (or teachers) towards sex, * marital unhappiness of parents, * hostility towards the parent of the opposite sex

    The American Psychological Association states, "Homosexuality is neither mental illness nor moral depravity. Nor is homosexuality a matter of individual choice. Research now indicates that homosexual orientation begins very early in life, perhaps before birth." It believes therapy does absolutely no good.

    Once a homosexual predilection has emerged, the question whether treatment should be undertaken rests on the person's motivation. Unless the person wishes to change, not much can be accomplished, it is believed. In the case of youth, parents should approach the issue with great tolerance and understanding and not reject them. Efforts should also be made to help homosexual youth to accept themselves without shame or guilt, and cope with the social consequences.

    An article in the Economist suggests that lesbianism might be the result of a female foetus being exposed to male hormones in the womb. Because of the way that sex is determined in people, such exposure might cause a foetus to develop characteristics more usually associated with men than women, American researchers Dennis McFadden and Edward Pasanen have suggested. It has been known for some time that the "default" body plan in mammals is female. A foetus becomes male if it is exposed to testosterone at critical points in its development. No testosterone on these occasions means that the foetus will be born a girl.

    A surge in a mother's testosterone at a point in the development of the foetus might account for the researchers' discovery, as women routinely produce "male" hormones (just as men produce "female" hormones), albeit at lower levels than men.

    Everybody's not the same

    It's a challenge, says women's rights activist Sunila Abeysekera, when asked about the lesbian movement and their decision to hold a national conference in Colombo, bringing to the fore an issue which has been discussed behind closed doors.

    Women and Media Collective's Co-coordinator, Ms. Abeysekera said, "From the point of view of women's rights, I think it's a very positive response. As an organization concerned about the human rights of marginalized groups, we're waiting to see how they're going to develop. That's a challenge."

    On the impact on society, she says the younger generation is exposed to a lot of information about gays and lesbians in other countries through TV, print media and internet. This is the first time they'll experience it close to home.

    "I think it'll give them the opportunity to accept these people as just another group with their own rights and treat them with dignity and respect."

    Similar sentiments were expressed by the Executive Director of "Women In Need", Savithri Wijesekara. "It has always been there in our society, though lesbians, perhaps, were not as common as gay men. It was not talked about openly because of social and cultural barriers. I think it's a personal choice. If a person can stand up to the stigma and criticism attached to it and if the constitution guarantees an individual's right to do what he or she likes, so be it."

    Well-known counsellor and journalist Anne Abayasekara stresses that everybody's not the same. "We may not like what some people do, but that doesn't give us the right to pass judgement on people who cannot help being what they are. It's not right to hound or blackmail them just because they're different from us heterosexuals. It takes a lot of courage to come out into the open amidst strong condemnation, hostility, and disapproval, and now they have done it, let them live alongside us. It's useless moralising over such issues. Let us be kind and more tolerant."

    All the religions deny it...

    What do the different religious groups, the Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Muslims and Anglicans think of the lesbian movement going public in Sri Lanka? Here is their view.

    The accepted social norm is for people to have sexual relations with those of the opposite sex. Homosexuality is clearly going against nature. It's a psychological problem and indicates a weak mind, says controversial monk Ven. Gangodavila Soma.

    He considers it the duty of those in power and religious leaders to take the initiative in protecting society as such deviant sexual practices should not be encouraged.

    "I'm not condemning the person here, it's the deed that should be looked down on. If homosexuality were to be legalized in our country, we would have to do the same for prostitution. What about ethics, then? Laws should protect morality, not destroy it. Even during Buddha's time, such people existed, but were found out and punished. It's a condition that can be corrected."

    The General-Secretary of the All-Ceylon Hindu Congress, Kandiah Neelakandan said, "None of our religious norms approves such conduct and it's against the basis of divine creation. We strongly urge that this should not be given any recognition." The Congress is a federation of Hindu religious associations and trusts.

    Vicar-General Fr. Kingsley C. Jayamanne, firstly explained the position of the Catholic Church with regard to heterosexual relationships: "We consider sex to be part of God's plan, particularly for the growth of the human race. Christ has said that God has made man and woman, and what He has joined together no man should put asunder. Marriage is an institution ordained and blessed by God. The conjugal union is morally acceptable only within the context of marriage and naturally between a man and woman.

    "Sexual activity in marriage has two important objectives: to express a couple's love for one another and for human procreation. Therefore, we consider sex outside marriage as immoral. The institution of marriage is under threat today, but the Catholic Church strongly defends marriage because it is the very basis of family, which is the corner-stone of any civilised society. Jesus sanctified family life by being born into a family and performing his first miracle at a wedding party in Cana, Gallilee."

    On homosexuality, Fr. Jayamanne said, "Such relationships can either be gay or lesbian. We consider homosexuality as unnatural sex and intrinsically evil. It is an objective moral disorder and, therefore, totally morally unacceptable in all circumstances. The adoption of children by homosexual couples is also not permitted because a child should have a morally and emotionally sound environment to grow to human maturity."

    "However," he stressed, "we treat homosexuals with great compassion because we feel that they need counselling and help to put order into their relationships."

    A moulavi of the Grand Mosque in Colombo, who declined to be identified, said that under Islamic law lesbianism is not allowed. It is 'haram' — that which is prohibited and deserves punishment. In Islamic countries, severe punishments, such as floggings, would be dealt to such people.

    According to a statement faxed to the Sunday Times office, from Anglican Bishop Kenneth Fernando: "there are among us persons who experience themselves as having homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church and God's transforming power for the living of their lives............We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of their sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ."

    "....while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all, irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex, but ......... cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions....."

    People's views…

    Shock and horror, absolute silence, quick obscenities and just a few sympathetic tut tuts were the reactions of the man and woman on the street when the word 'lesbianism" was mentioned.

    "The situation is going from bad to worse," mother of three, Mrs. Mahen, who is on holiday here from Canada said.

    "We've got used to the idea so much it does not bother me any more. Wherever we go, we see gay couples kissing and hugging and doing all sorts of things. There's absolute freedom because homosexuality is legal in Canada. In Sri Lanka too, there'll be a big hue and cry at the beginning, but the idea will gradually sink in. People will have to accept it whether they like it or not. Personally, I don't think this is a very good trend."

    Sashee, a 30-year-old technical writer, feels that everybody's entitled to his or her preference and the freedom to express it. "People have to change with the times. And this is not something that has suddenly dropped out of the sky. It's been there all along though we did not talk about it. If this is what they want, let them go ahead with it."

    But for Ibrahim, a businessman and father of seven, "it's a bad influence on the younger generation, no two words about it." Shaking his head in horror, he says he fears for his children's future. "I don't know what's happening to our country today."

    "It's better to have it in the open rather than behind closed doors," was the view of Deepthi and Arjuna. "Each person should have the freedom to do what he or she wants. Homosexuality is not uncommon. It's right at our doorstep. Just because you and I don't like it, it won't go away,"

    All this was in the city of Colombo. But what do the rural women and men think of this trend? Most of the people, quickly turned their faces away when asked about it.

    Jayanthi Menike, who was having a bath at a tube well by the roadside in Moragaswewa, looked at her feet, when we broached the issue. "Demapiyange veredda," (It's the parents' fault) she mumbled. In her village they never discussed such things as it was not the normal thing to do.

    The story was more or less the same in most of the villages we passed through on our way to Minneriya.

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