LGBTQ+ rights in Sri Lanka is a deeply nuanced issue. On the one hand, it can be argued that great progress is being made when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, but in reality, the fact remains that being LGBTQ+ in this country lacks any legal protection and comes with a huge amount of social stigma on top of the challenges associated in coming to terms with a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not ‘the norm’.
‘Unheard Voices’ is a production courtesy of Bridge to Equality Sri Lanka – a collective of nonprofit organisations working toward LGBTQ+ rights in Sri Lanka. Held on 17 December 2022 at the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre, Colombo 8 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., ‘Unheard Voices’ was a performance of dramatised monologues reflecting lived realities of individuals in the Lankan LGBTQ+ community.
A stage to address the realities of being LGBTQ+
The collective effort of the three organisations Young Out Here Trust (YOH), National Transgender Network (NTN), and DAST Sri Lanka, Bridge to Equality Sri Lanka’s main aim was to improve the protection of human rights for LGBTQ+ people in the county through the use of international human rights law to enable justice actors (judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals), activists, and human rights defenders to improve justice outcomes for the LGBTQ+ community, with a focus on overcoming challenges imposed by the current legal framework, as well as the overall promotion and protection of human rights of LGBTQ+ people.
The production was rated 18+ for mature audiences as per the Public Performance Board regulations owing to its depiction of distressing topics including sexual assault, self-harm, suicide, transphobia, biphobia, homophobia, and discrimination/bigotry which could be upsetting to some.
The project engages with the grassroots of the community and as one of its major activities, helps the community seek justice for fundamental rights violations. The project assists those experiencing discriminatory actions at the hands of State actors to seek legal support, primarily to file cases at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL).
The series of monologues presented in the production titled ‘Unheard Voices’ are true stories from such cases filed at the HRCSL or submitted for documentation with the project.
The production consisted of 11 monologues presented in both Sinhala and English and was performed by youth members and allies of the Lankan LGBTQ+ community, directed by theatre practitioner, activist, and Floating Space (@floatingspace) Founder Jake Oorloff. All contributions by the actors, director, and others were voluntary.
Attendees were given a brief summary of each monologue, accompanied with the disclaimer for mature audiences and the offering of on-site counselling services for those who may experience mental unease after witnessing potentially triggering content.
The monologues were performed in a dramatised setting where the direction adopted a show and tell approach, with the storyteller recalling their experience as the violation was depicted on stage as part of the performance.
The monologues featured stories of transgender persons, lesbian women, bisexual persons, and gay men of Sri Lanka, who have had their fundamental rights violated at the hands of State authorities like the Police, university lecturers, civil servants, and many others.
Monolgoue 1: A lesbian couple enrolled at a technical college are summoned to a university lecturer’s office where they are made to answer humiliating and invasive questions about the nature of their relationship. The teacher proceeds to question the couple about how they engaged in intimate acts, followed by the teacher hurling insults at them, declaring that they were engaged in an immoral act. The teacher then demands that the two stop their relationship if they wish to continue their education in college.
Monologue 2: A young transgender man married to his highschool sweetheart decides to migrate abroad in search of better job prospects. When he visits the Department of Examinations to acquire his education certificates, he and his wife are subjected to ridicule by the authorities. The officer in charge asks him to unbutton his shirt to show his chest and to reveal details of his sex life. Put in an uncomfortable situation, the young man has to comply out of fear of his request being denied.
Denial of dignity
Monologue 3: A transwoman who engages in sex work is unjustly apprehended by the Police while she is walking out of the Marino Mall following a window shopping spree. While she produces her NIC, the Police refuse to accept that as genuine as she has not yet completed her transition process and her NIC does not precisely reflect her current appearance. She is then detained on the grounds that she has condoms in her bag. When she questions the officers regarding the illegality of having condoms on one’s person, they ignore her. She is then taken to the station where she is put in the men’s detention cell and when she requests to be transferred, a female Police officer takes her to a washroom and asks to inspect her genitals. The transwoman is left humiliated and feeling helpless.
Monologue 4: A gay man working at a bar, having engaged in same-sex sexual activity, wishes to get tested for STIs. However, this is set during the Covid-19 pandemic. Subject to precautions, patients are made to keep a distance from their doctors during the consultation. He is put in an incredibly uncomfortable situation of having to yell out his personal information to questions such as “How do you have sex?” “How many times have you had sex?” “Is it oral or anal?” and “When was your last time?” All details are aired out to everyone in the clinic. The insensitivity expressed by the medical staff causes great mental distress to the young man, who begrudgingly visits the same clinic to receive his STI report, which comes out negative.
Monologue 5: Sri Lankan plastic surgeons are now offering bottom surgery and many young transgender women are choosing to get their bottom surgery performed locally. A young transgender woman who completes their bottom surgery at a Government hospital in Sri Lanka is made to face discrimination at the hands of the nursing staff in her paying ward. There is also speculation about negligent care, as she develops complications following surgery which forces her to walk in crutches.
The complete videos of each monologue and written summary will be made available via Facebook on @BridgetoEquality.
Where do we go from here?
Following the performance, the event organisers opened up the floor for audience members to present their observations and/or questions.
The Executive Directors of the three collaborating organisations including the overall Project Manager of Bridge to Equality responded to all questions posed by the audience.
The organisers shared that the primary objective of presenting these monologues, which represented the lived realities of members of the Lankan LGBTQ+ community, was to raise awareness amongst society regarding the discrimination faced by them on a daily basis. They also noted that owing to the public nature of the performance, they were unable to depict the truly atrocious and harsh realities and instead chose to represent a more palatable version for the sake of the audience.
They further noted that considering those in the audience, which included MP Premnath C. Dolawatte, who had presented a private members’ bill with regard to decriminalising the LGBTQ+ community in Sri Lanka, a representative of DIG Bimshani Jasin Arachchi, and the Police Children and Women Bureau, it was important to show the types of violations faced by the LGBTQ+ community and barriers they faced when it came to gaining access to State services.
It was acknowledged that while ground-level awareness was necessary, especially owing to the misconceptions that existed amongst the general public when it came to the LGBTQ+ community, legal reform was also necessary, with supportive and protective legislation either in the form of secondary legislation by way of circulars or otherwise to be implemented in order to better support the community.
Those in the audience also recognised how privilege played a role in the specific experiences of those in the LGBTQ+ community and how the authorities reacted differently to LGBTQ+ persons of different classes. What was depicted in the monologues was also an unfortunate reality.
However, a primary takeaway from the performances was that awareness of rights and the law can make a world of difference – not only for those of the community to be made aware of their own rights but also for State actors to be made aware of the law of the land and how it can be interpreted to protect rather than to oppress.
If you are an LGBTQ+ individual in Sri Lanka who has faced a fundamental rights violation at the hands of any State authorities, kindly reach out to the Bridge to Equality project.