Rosanna Flamer-Caldera is an international LGBTIQ rights activist in Sri Lanka. She is the executive director of EQUAL GROUND, an organisation fighting for human and political rights for the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka, for thirteen years. In this interview with Women Talk, she talks about the challenging work they do to sensitise the mainstream on LGBTIQ rights, what it means to be LGBTIQ within the cultural and legal contexts of Sri Lanka, and the significance of creating a safe space for LGBTIQ persons.
You have over a decade of experience working on LGBTIQ rights. You have been involved in Sri Lanka as well as internationally in the LGBTIQ rights movement. How did this journey begin for you?
I know what it felt like being a lesbian in a country where it was completely taboo. When I was growing up there was no EQUAL GROUND to advise me or hold my hand. But I had the privilege of living in San Francisco for about 15 years. There I was able to come out and be myself and then come out to my parents who have been an incredible support throughout my entire life’s journey. When I got back to Sri Lanka I was very involved in environmental conservation. I didn’t think about being involved in LGBTIQ rights or anything like that. In San Francisco, of course, I was engaged on a peripheral level with protest marches and candlelight vigils. But I never actually worked there because I was leaving that to people who knew more than I did about the subject. Once I got here, I didn’t even think about LGBTIQ rights until I started reading in the newspapers about a person who was trying to push for rights.
In the meantime, a group of lesbians got together to form an organisation to help lesbians, bi-sexual women, and trans men. They asked me if I would be interested and I said I’d love to be. That kind of started my journey in this area. We started the Women’s Support Group in 1999. I subsequently went to Oakland, California for a conference of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). There I had the opportunity to be involved in the Asian region of ILGA. I was elected the female representative to the board of ILGA. In 2003, I was asked to nominate myself for the female co-secretary general’s position. Then, I became the co-secretary general of ILGA and that lasted for two terms from 2003 to 2008. That actually really helped to inform and also define my activism. In 2004, the Women’s Support Group (WSG) was sort of in a situation where they were not out and open although I was out and open. They were afraid that my out and openness might be a little bit awkward for all of them because they were all in the closet at the time.
When you set up the Women’s Support Group in 1999, what was the environment in Sri Lanka regarding LGBTIQ rights and has it changed since then?
In 1999, we were very naive and we put out a press statement saying that we wanted to have a national lesbian conference to talk about lesbian issues. There was a barrage of really bad reception in the form of letters to the editor. One particular letter stated that convicted rapists should be let loose within this lesbian conference in order to show them what they are missing.
At that time, we even got pushed back from the women’s movement. I still remember the first International Women’s Day celebrations at Vihara Maha Devi Park where the Women’s Support Group joined the Women’s Movement and the Feminist Movement. A lot of the women were upset that the Women’s Support Group was there with all the lesbians and they wanted us to leave. It was Sunila Abeysekera that actually talked on behalf of us.
Now of course it is much different because we have had 13 years of activism under EQUAL GROUND and for four years with the Women’s Support Group. There are more mainstream women’s organisations and human rights organisations that are very much working in collaboration with us and other individuals from the LGBTIQ community. But of course, with change comes push back always. And you always have some creep who is willing to sit behind the anonymity of a computer and just spew out all kinds of hate. It happens everywhere. They are cowards. I don’t care about what they have to say from behind a computer. If you want to say something, come and speak to us. Say it to our faces.
How was EQUAL GROUND formed as an organisation advocating for human and political rights for the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka as well as a safe space for them?
There was really no advocacy being done around LGBTIQ rights in a way that included the full spectrum of the queer community in Sri Lanka. So, I decided to form EQUAL GROUND, along with some friends and particularly, with some women who were with me at the WSG. We never looked back after that. We started EQUAL GROUND in June 2004. In December, we had that awful tsunami. We spent the whole of 2005 collecting funds from LGBTIQ persons all over the world through ILGA and a few other organisations to help out with the tsunami relief efforts.
This money was coming in and we swore that we were not going to spend one penny of it on admin. The trustees put their hands in their pockets and paid for the trucks that delivered aid. Sometimes we got the trucks for free. We travelled up ourselves. We used to do the distributing ourselves. Through that we met incredible people who were really interested in joining us and doing work for the LGBTIQ community across the island.
In the meantime, EQUAL GROUND did our first publication Human, Right? in 2009. We had our first PRIDE celebration in 2005. And then it just started growing from there. I was able to apply for funding and get funding. The Global Fund for Women was the first to give us actual funding and through that we started gaining credibility. We are where we are today because we have always been extremely professional, transparent, and ethical.
Has your work at EQUAL GROUND or you yourself personally been hatefully targeted for your work on LGBTIQ rights?
Throughout my journey, my family has been extremely supportive. A lot of people tell me that I am privileged and therefore am okay to be doing this. But being an out lesbian in Sri Lanka, whether you are privileged or underprivileged, is the hardest thing to do. Because I take it in my stride and don’t show that it is affecting me doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me. I have had death threats. I have had all kinds of dirty things written about me on blog sites and on Facebook. I have had surveillance by state security in the past [during the previous regime]. We have had our phones bugged. We have had people calling us paedophiles; people showing my picture and saying that I am a paedophile. It has been quite a tumultuous journey as well. There had been a lot of ups as well as a lot of downs.
Particularly, I feel that there was a lot of push back from the LGBTIQ community. Because, unfortunately, patriarchy is very much alive within the LGBTIQ community as well. Things like that are counterproductive. We managed to muddle through all of those various threats and insults to be where we are today. As far as I am concerned, all I can tell people is that there is work to be done and there is no time for petty squabbles and stupidity. We all have to join hands and go out together to face our detractors because they are much stronger than us. And as we fight internally, we get weaker and weaker.
What does it really mean culturally and also legally to be LGBTIQ in Sri Lanka?
In Sri Lanka, we still criminalise the LGBTIQ community. In 1995, they amended 365 and 365(a) [sections of the penal code on unnatural offences and gross indecency]. They dropped the word male person with another male person and the text now just says any person. This unfortunately widened the scope to include lesbians, transgender persons, and anybody who doesn’t fit to society’s expectations of “normal”. Although that law had not been used to prosecute anybody since independence, the law is mainly used to intimidate, extort money, blackmail, violate people’s rights, perpetrate violence against them – all with impunity.
As far as the laws are concerned and the governments are concerned, obviously, during the previous government it was a very difficult time for all of us. I remember one day we were told that the CID has raided our Galle partner’s office. So, we piled all of our stuff into garbage bags. I had to take it offsite and store in a safe space for over a year. Because even the most innocent of books, magazines or DVDs would be blown out of proportion, saying that we are peddling pornography. This has happened before. So, we knew how the government worked. The next day we went to Galle and we met with the CID. We told them that we have nothing to hide. If they have something to find out please come to us directly instead of going in and barging into somebody’s office, especially an office full of women. You send like three four CID guys and the intimidation starts. This is just really ridiculous and unfortunate. But the officer in-charge of the investigation was very nice and said that he understood what we were doing. Apparently, a complaint had been filed against us from one of the workshops that we did in Galle. We were accused of spreading homosexuality. When we talked to them they found out that it was not the case and that our work was all bona fide.
In late 2008 and early 2009, we were intimidated and threatened by a Muslim extremist organisation operating in the East coast. We were able to withstand that as well. Last year we were threatened by the Sinha Le crowd. On Facebook, they were planning to storm our PRIDE events and beat us up. None of that happened. We managed to get their Facebook page closed. They had 60,000 followers. It was very difficult but we managed to do it. This year PRIDE went off really well. We had the biggest turn out for PRIDE. The entire LGBTIQ community got together. It was really amazing. It was a real feather in the cap after all this hard work, to have the LGBTIQ community come together and work as one. I am hoping that will continue and be the norm in the future rather than an exception.
If you could elaborate on the significance of having an event like PRIDE in Sri Lanka. What does it offer to the LGBTIQ community in terms of expression, rights, and agency?
Having PRIDE in Sri Lanka is two-fold actually. One is to mainstream LGBTIQ issues so that it is just an everyday thing. People begin to recognise and interact with LGBTIQ persons. Then they realise that there is nothing wrong with them. They are just people like everybody else. We should work with them and give them their rights. The second aspect of it is creating a safe space for LGBTIQ persons to get together, meet each other, and educate themselves on what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Have pride in who they are.
We have a movie festival, art and photo exhibition, corporate round tables and forums to encourage businesses to embrace diversity in the workplace. We have workshops for youth. We have drag shows and fashion shows. We have all kinds of things. It is also to boost the morale of the LGBTIQ community so that once a year they can look forward to having all these different things. So, it is a safe space for the LGBTIQ community, once a year at least. And that’s what we strive to achieve – to have a safe space and make sure there is no hassles or intimidation.
We have also introduced a new yearly event, which is the PRIDE bus parade. We take a double-decker bus with the top off, put a papare band, bring everybody in, put rainbow flags and protest banners. This year it was packed. It is one way we can get to the streets and show our protest at what is happening in Sri Lanka. This way we can also engage with people. PRIDE is very special to us.
With the advent of social media, online hate, targeting difference, has become a part of our everyday lives. Have we become increasingly intolerant of difference?
I don’t think so. I think all these online hate messages and Sinha Le type pages are all orchestrated for political mileage – to give a reason for politicians to say that we are not accepted by our society. It is not up to them to judge whether or not we are accepted by our society. It is up to them to uphold our human rights and universal rights for everyone, regardless of who likes it or not. If you have the constitution that says everyone is born equal and everyone is protected by the constitution under the Article 12 fundamental rights section, then you cannot say other than LGBTIQ persons. Then you change the constitution.
With regards to constitutional reform, we have asked for sexual orientation and gender identity to be actually spelled out so there is particular protection for us. We have asked for Article 16 to be removed like everybody else because that makes it impossible to challenge the laws here, unfortunately, because they were pre 1978.
This government has been very accommodating in the sense that there is actually some political will to change the laws and extend equality for the LGBTIQ community. The government is actually talking with us, engaging with us, and bringing us to the table. So, we have hope that eventually changes will be made. It is a very simple thing. The government has two thirds majority. All they have to do is repeal those laws.
What are like the major or key projects and work that EQUAL GROUND has done and is involved with in relation to LGBTIQ rights in Sri Lanka?
We have had a three-pronged approach to our work from the beginning. One is to educate and sensitise our own community because there is such a lot of misconceptions about what homosexuality is and who they are themselves. There is also a lot of internalised homophobia based on years and years of being brainwashed to think that there is something wrong with us.
The second is to educate and sensitise the public at large – to tell people that LGBTIQ persons are the same as heterosexual people. They just prefer to love persons of their own sex or identify differently. There is nothing wrong with them. We need to change the mind-sets. For that, we have done sensitising programs with the public, local government authorities, health sector, business sector, police, and media in 12 Districts. The third is going for decriminalisation, putting in policies for non-discrimination of LGBTIQ persons across the board.
We have just launched a scholarship for lesbian and bi-sexual women. We plan to have events very frequently, in particular, for lesbian and bi-sexual women because they are the most marginalised and the most invisible sector of the LGBTIQ community. Mainly because as women they are marginalised to begin with and as lesbian or bi-sexual women they are further marginalised and discriminated due to their sexual orientation.
We want to establish a safe house for them as well because there are many young lesbian and bi-sexual women who are subject to abuse by families and within workspaces. Family issues and forced heterosexual marriages are big problems in Sri Lanka. Gay men, lesbian women, and transgenders are often forced into heterosexual marriages. Lesbians in particular will face a lifetime of sexual abuse, mental and emotional abuse, and other physical abuse.
We have set up the only counselling line for LGBTIQ persons since 2005. It still remains the only LGBTIQ counselling line which has three distinct call lines with one for LB women, one for transgenders, and one for the general LGBTIQ public.
International days like International Women’s Day, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Transgender Remembrance Day, the sixteen days of campaigning against violence against women, International Aids Day, and World Human Rights Day are used for Facebook and media campaigns and events. It is important that we constantly are on the radar of the general public. It is dangerous as well sometimes but it also brings our issues to the forefront.
Through our work with the business community, for example, we were able to get John Keells to actually include in their human resources policies protection for sexual orientation and gender identity. That is a huge achievement. We sensitised over 5000 of their staff as well. Over the past two years we have sensitised several businesses including Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank, MAS holdings, Renuka City Hotel and others.
What was it like to have been in the presence of Harvey Milk the iconic American politician while in San Francisco?
Harvey Milk was leading the first gay PRIDE parade that I attended in San Francisco in 1978. Subsequently, he was assassinated. And of course, I’d heard of Harvey and all the work he’d been doing prior to that. I think I may have seen him once or twice at his camera shop in the Castro. I never actually met him but I did meet one of his second in commands, Cleve Jones, in Toronto, some years back. It was nice to talk about those good old days in San Francisco. Harvey was an inspiration to me for sure. He knew that he was going to be murdered. One of his famous quotes was that “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” He was brave enough to really take on the establishment at a time when gay rights were not the norm in the United States.
Right throughout the 1980s when the whole HIV crisis was at its peak, I saw many of my friends dying of AIDS. It was the lesbian community that came together to help the gay community battle this disease. It was then that the struggle became more intense and more collective. Yes, there was the Stonewall riots in the 1960s and gay PRIDEs that came out of it, but this was actually quite a defining time in the history of the LGBTIQ movement. I was very privileged to have been there while that was happening.
Any final comments that you would like to make?
I think you have to conduct yourself with very high ethical standards as well as high professional standards. That is the only way to combat stigma and discrimination. To younger LBGTIQ persons coming out and forming organisations, I would like to say, the more organisations, the more activism, the better but make sure that you conduct yourself in a professional fashion. Because we are fighting not only stereotyping but we are also fighting really hard for our lives.
I firmly believe that we are doing the right thing and with doing the right thing comes the right responses. No matter what happens, if you are doing the right thing in the right way, you are going to succeed. Over the years we have had little accolades and victories and that means a lot because that is what we can count on until we can count on the big victory. Never give up and always be true to yourself. Don’t hide because other people tell you that you are bad. Come out and face them. That is the only way you can get rid of the bullies and the naysayers.
Date of Interview: 26 September 2017
Interviewer and profile photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage