(Commissioned and originally published by GenderIT.org in December 2017.)
How the stories of movements for queer liberation are told is a historically complicated thing. What and who constitute the gay rights movement is a perennial question to which we know now clearly that there is no one answer. There is no homogeneous ‘LGBT’ community in any country, nor is there a global homogeneous ‘LGBT’ movement, with homogeneous sets of values and agendas.
In the West in the 1960s, just as they found with the Left, women in gay liberation movements, found that their issues and voices were ‘subsumed’ by male-driven agendas.1
In the 1980s and 1990s, the dreadful advance of HIV and AIDS became a key issue for gay rights movements, while immediately making them more visible and giving them a somewhat ‘acceptable’ platform on which to campaign for the human rights of gay persons. In Sri Lanka too, HIV/AIDS prevention became a rallying point throughout the 90s and 2000s for advocates and allies of gay rights.
And while the issue is even to date understood and campaigned on broadly as a ‘LGBT rights’ issue, it is concerned primarily with MSM (men who have sex with men).
In Sri Lanka, as in other places, the histories of queer movements are often told through the lens of gay men’s histories – Companions on a Journey (CoJ), formed in 1995, and its founder Sherman de Rose are often cited as being the ‘origin’ points of the LGBT movement in Sri Lanka, or were often the foregrounded representatives for Sri Lankan queer communities.2
The Women’s Support Group (WSG) came to be formed in Sri Lanka in 1999.
WSG was a rights-based non-governmental organization focusing on LBT persons in Sri Lanka. Importantly, it became, for some time, imperfect as it was, a safe space for queer women to gather.
It was through insights gathered within this safe space that WSG attempted to foreground LBT issues as being unique and needing of special analysis.
In 2008/2008, several lesbians who belonged to the WSG collective were featured in a documentary titled ‘Our Stories’ 3 – this is one of the only documentations we have of Sri Lankan lesbians telling their own histories and stories.
Unfortunately, WSG dissolved in 2010. Since, there have been no other queer-women focused rights organizations.
Even though Sri Lanka’s leading LGBT+ rights organization is now led by a lesbian woman, queer organizations are often staffed predominantly by gay men, if not also run by gay men. Many LGBT spaces tend to be male-dominated as well, transwomen being more visible perhaps than lesbians and transmen; in particular, one outspoken transwoman activist has raised the profile of trans-rights and issues faced by transwomen all over Sri Lanka.
Queer civil society spaces and queer social spaces in Colombo, tend to be male-dominated, with the exception of one annual ‘women’-only party, to celebrate ‘lesbian visibility’.
Many queer women who are a part of the movement(s) have stood by campaigns led by gay men; we continue to support AIDS prevention advocacy.
We go to PRIDE parties every year, but often, we stand on the sidelines, because the dancefloor is already full.
The work of looking at LBT issues – the way in which queer women experience violence uniquely, for example, within the larger context of hetero-patriarchal structures of violence against women – has never been taken on by the larger LGBT rights movements in Sri Lanka.
In the time that the WSG existed, it took on this work more or less on its own. Today, some of the activists who made up WSG consult and work with other feminist organizations to keep queer women on the agenda.
Is it very different now?
EROTICS, a network and platform for exploratory research on the intersections between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and sexuality, embarked on doing a South Asia edition, with a three-country study on the internet and sexuality, carried out by local feminist organizations in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lanka EROTICS research is titled ‘Virtually Queer: Human Rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the Online Space’.
Section 1 largely centres on an analysis of existing laws in Sri Lanka which effectively criminalize same-sex sexual relations (Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code, from 1883) in conjunction with looking at telecommunication regulations and regulatory laws which govern our use of the internet, to some extent. It also attempts to look at social stigma around homosexuality and non-binary identities in their intersections with law.
It documents the voices of Sri Lankan queer persons who speak about how and why they use the internet.
However, at first draft, the respondents were by far mostly those identifying as male – mostly gay men, with very few identified transmen. ‘Female’ identifying respondents made up only 21% of the group, while ‘male’ identifying made up 71%. ‘Trans MTF’ made up only 2% of the group.
Women’s voices were missing from this study. This is how and why the second section of the report was authored.
When we started working on this, we found that anxieties about surveillance specifically rose to the surface – these women were concerned not just about state or public surveillance but family surveillance (I use the term ‘family’ loosely here, in a culturally meaningful way, which would mean we also include extended family, relatives and family-friends in our definition).
On the other hand, many of these women were not acting online in constant fear – there were interesting tropes of peer-to-peer learning and strategizing around privacy, and interesting ways of thinking pragmatically about digital safety. They are agentive in their formulations about online safety and the online self/selves.
When analyzing surveillance from a gendered lens – considering that the surveillance of women’s lives is a historic tool of control of the patriarchy – this finding was not surprising. But nonetheless, if we had not looked more closely at the women’s voices, we would not have been able to discern it.
The male-domination of queer spaces and movements is not uncommon nor is it new.
In India, the transition from ‘gay night’ to ‘Lesbian Letters’ speaks to these struggles within their queer movements quite nicely. From the United States, we’ve seen a spate of media which examines the ‘vanishing’ of lesbian cultural and social spaces such as bars and bookshops.
To explain that queer women’s concerns deserves a special or focused analysis seems silly, unjust even.
But we did have to explain – we do have to explain, all the time. In all our work with emphasizing or highlighting the issues or rights of LBT persons, we find ourselves explaining ‘Why LBT’ and ‘Why not LGBT’.
In raising the issue of why there wasn’t a more significant attempt made to draw out women’s voices in the EROTICS Sri Lanka report, we had to explain why we posed this question – why it wasn’t good enough that 21% female respondents were speaking to the issues and concerns of an entire queer community, as against the 71% of male respondents.
The question ‘why’ erases the lived realities, histories and experiences of queer women whose rights and needs have been systematically sidelined in our movements (even our feminist movements), in our communities and in our work.
But it would be reductive and unproductive to view this as some kind of ‘methodological flaw’ in the way we do research. It is more useful to see it for what it is – the entrenched and systemic nature of patriarchy.
What does this mean for our movements for queer liberation, but particularly, what does it mean for our movements for queer liberation as they intersect with our human rights online?
The Feminist Principles of the Internet can be useful here. If we are to imagine a truly feminist internet, the ability of LBT persons to navigate online spaces meaningfully, politically, equally and therefore safely, is critical.
Then, the rigorous inclusion of LBT perspectives in our studies and in our work on digital rights is a must. As we concluded in Section 2 of our report, LBT voices and analyses need to shape the way we approach digital safety and security, privacy, surveillance and identity (online) – rather than LBT persons having to assimilate discourses and practices of navigating digital landscapes which simply do not centre their concerns and are therefore meaningless to them.
Our commitment to LBT voices should be a fundamental and intersecting approach to how we speak about and advocate for digital rights, and it should inform what we are saying. ‘LBT’ should not be an afterthought, not an additional identity category, not an exception, but a politics.
It has to be the very lens through which we are looking. It should not be a last-minute addition – a Section 2.
1. Queers in Court: Gay Rights Law and Public Policy, pg 11 (By Susan Gluck Mezey, 2007)
2. Consider these articles in mainstream English newspapers in Sri Lanka:
Samath, F. (2009). Gay rights activists get hope from across the Palk Strait. Sunday Times. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090712/Plus/sundaytimesplus_09.html ; Arnold, C. (2005). Sri Lanka’s gays share their journey. BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4551903.stm
3. Directed by Anoma Rajakaruna