Meet Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, an activist from Sri Lanka, the South Asian island country that has actually regressed in rights for LGBT people since its 25-year civil war ended four years ago. Flamer-Caldera is the founder of EQUAL GROUND, an organization in Sri Lanka that “fights to achieve civil and political rights for the LGBTI community.” EQUAL GROUND has received yearly support from the American Jewish World Service since 2005 for its efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Sri Lanka.
Sadly, the country has witnessed a recent rise in discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals. According to outdated British laws, still in force, homosexuality in Sri Lanka is illegal and punishable as a criminal offense. EQUAL GROUND offers legal training and works to assist members of parliament in an effort to abolish those laws. They also offer programs designed to destigmatize LGBT people and support the community, such as counseling, hotlines, Pride events and cultural activities like film screenings. Flamer-Caldera recently chatted with GO about the work that remains to be done.
GO: Can you describe the cultural attitudes toward LGBT people in Sri Lanka?
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera: Cultural attitudes towards LGBT people are quite rigid and homosexuality is not accepted by most Sri Lankans. This is a society very oriented toward heterosexual marriage and everything is judged by who you marry and how many children you have. Ironically, these ideas were all planted by the colonizers who brought moralistic, conservative Christian values to this country. Before they came, sexuality and sex were very widely accepted and fluid. Women, too, were in positions of power—and not just in the bedroom! LGBT people coexisted and there was not too much homophobia in that era. In fact, there was a queen who lived many hundreds of years ago in this country who had a harem of women and only had women warriors in her army. She was very powerful but also well loved.
How dangerous is it to be an out LGBT person?
Right now it is getting increasingly dangerous for LGBT people to live freely in this country. Rural LGBTs face more issues than those in urban areas and the rise in religious extremism is a key ingredient in the rise of homophobia and anti-gay violence. The lack of protective measures and police targeting of gays also add to LGBT people in Sri Lanka being very vulnerable to violence, extortion and victimization.
You imply that Sri Lanka has gone backward in accepting homosexuality when other countries have become more tolerant. Why is that?
As I said before, religious extremism is one of the key reasons for this step backward in accepting LGBT persons in this country. I’ll have to leave it at that.
How does your organization work to overcome these attitudes?
We stress the need to sensitize and educate on LGBT rights and issues. We try and mainstream our issues by holding Pride celebrations, for example, and this has gone a long way to do just that. Unlike in the United States, we do not march on the streets, as this is very dangerous. We do hold several events over a period of time which celebrate diversity and gay Pride.
How were you drawn into human rights work?
I believe I have a nature that always fights for the underdog and abhors injustice in any shape or form. So it was a natural progression from eco-conservation to human rights. My parents, too, played a big role in this—they were way ahead of their time! It was the way we were brought up, to accept everyone as equal, to respect and cherish nature and all its beauties and to live our lives in whichever way we saw fit, but in a way that would not hurt others.
What is the single biggest cultural hurdle you’ve encountered in Sri Lanka in spreading your message of LGBT acceptance?
Being a woman and a lesbian! Sri Lanka is a very patriarchal country and even within the LGBT community itself, there is a definite hierarchy. When a woman speaks, she is not as listened to as when a man speaks, and this is clearly a barrier in my work. I also happen to be of an ethnic minority in this country—Burgher [of Dutch descent]—which makes it also very difficult especially since my skin color is bordering on white. People always keep saying that I am spreading some Western concept because I look like a foreigner.
What are the keys to overcoming these obstacles?
Pure determination and an overwhelming desire to change the situation here and everywhere, so that LGBT persons can live as productive and full citizens of this world, free of discrimination and homophobia.
To learn more about EQUAL GROUND’s work, visit equal-ground.org.