In December of 2004, the same year Rosanna Flamer-Caldera founded the LGBTQ+ nonprofit Equal Ground in her native Sri Lanka, the country was devastated by a tsunami which left over 35,000 missing or dead. For much of its first year, Equal Ground focused its efforts not on LGBTQ+ advocacy but rather on disaster relief, traveling around the country and offering support to those in need.
“It was quite devastating,” Flamer-Caldera told me when we spoke earlier this month. But the efforts had an unintended and unforeseen result. A few years later, she was contacted by a Muslim couple on the east coast of Sri Lanka whom Equal Ground had worked with in its relief days. The couple — along with their friends and contacts out east — wanted to book Equal Ground for LGBTQ+ awareness sensitizing programs in their local communities. Word traveled fast. Soon, other communities around Sri Lanka were booking programs, too.
“And so like that, it just went on and on and on,” Flamer-Caldera tells GO. The organization’s work in 2004 “paved the way for Equal Ground to enter all these places and talk about LGBTQ+ rights.”
Now, seventeen years later, Equal Ground is Sri Lanka’s oldest non profit LGBTQ+ advocacy group, raising awareness of rights and visibility in a country that officially offers no protections for queer and gender non-conforming people. Equal Ground is both a safe space for queer persons and events, but also a platform for educational outreach to queer persons and potential allies around the country. Equal Ground offers social and networking opportunities through community events and Pride celebrations; counseling services for lesbian and bisexual women and trans persons through two separate hotlines and on social media platforms; educational and sensitizing workshops for corporations and media organizations; and training workshops on topics such as gender-based violence, human rights, and sexual and reproductive health in local communities. The organization also produces educational publications on queer rights and awareness in all three of the countries’ languages (Tamil, Sinhalese, and English) and conduct qualitative research on the experiences of, and attitudes toward, Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ+ population.
“Sometimes we work with women’s organizations, feminist organizations, sometimes we work with individuals, sometimes we work with LGBT groups. It just depends on who we’re contacting and who we are working with at that time,” Flamer-Caldera says.
The concept of LGBTQ+ rights is still somewhat new in the southeast Asian country, which until 2009 was embroiled in a 25 year civil war between the Sinhalese-led government and Tamil separatist groups. Same-sex relationships are effectively criminalized under Sri Lanka’s penal code. Although it doesn’t name homosexuality specifically as a crime, the code does prohibit “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” “gross indecency,” and “cheat[ing] by impersonation,” which are understood to relate to same-sex relationships, according to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch. A subsequent report from the organization published last year found that queer and gender non-conforming persons continue to face “arbitrary arrest, police mistreatment, and discrimination in accessing health care, employment, and housing.”
“It’s a horrible thing to say about my country, but we are, unfortunately, in a really bad place still,” Flamer-Caldera tells GO. Although a native of Sri Lanka, Flamer-Caldera didn’t necessarily know how bad things were until after she’d returned home from San Francisco, where she’d lived for 15 years and where she had come out. “When I came back, I suddenly found out that there were laws that criminalize consenting adults, same sex, sexual relations, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Are we living in the terrible dark ages or what?’”
Not one to let shock get the better of her, Flamer-Caldera decided to do something about it. Upon returning from San Francisco, she first started a lesbian and bisexual women’s group, called the Women’s Support Group; she also got herself elected the co-secretary general of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Association (IGLA). After a while, however, she realized “there was nobody, really, doing anything for the entire LGBT community here in Sri Lanka.” She began Equal Ground in 2004 to offer this broader support for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Even if the laws change today, perception doesn’t change tomorrow,” Flamer-Caldera says. However, she has seen perceptions change over the years. Equal Ground ran a three-month campaign called Ally for Equality, which called on people from around the country to post short videos to Facebook professing their allyship. “I thought I would just have to basically twist my friends’ arms to submit videos,” Flamer-Caldera says. Instead, “We had over 100 videos coming from all parts of the island, speaking in all three languages. That was amazing. Five years ago, nobody would have posted a video.”
As perceptions change, hopefully laws will, too. At the governmental level, Sri Lanka has seen some progress in recent years, although much is still needed to advance the cause of LGBTQ+ rights, which remain elusive. Following the defeat of strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, the new government issued a Gender Recognition Circular, which allows individuals to change their gender markers on official documentation. In a 2016 ruling, the Supreme Court referred to contemporary thinking “that consensual sex between adults should not be policed by the state nor should it be grounds for criminalisation” but ultimately determined that in Sri Lanka, “the offense remains very much part of our law.” Then, in 2017, the government refused to instate explicit anti-discriminatory protections for sexual orientation and identity in their proposed National Human Rights Action Plan; at the time, the Minister of Health said that “The government is against homosexuality, but we will not prosecute anyone for practising it.” Later that same year, following a review by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the country’s Deputy Minister promised that the country would decriminalize same-sex relations, and add explicit protections against discrimination. However, the government has yet to act on this promise, or the U.N recommendations.
Despite the Minister of Health’s proclamation that the government won’t prosecute people engaged in same-sex relations, rights groups like Equal Ground say that the laws still provide cover for police to harass, abuse, and solicit bribes from queer and gender non-conforming people. Between 2010 and 2012, the Women’s Support Group (WSG — founded by Flamer-Caldera) interviewed 33 queer-identifying women and 51 stakeholders (doctors, lawyers, employers, media representatives, religious leaders) for a qualitative examination of queer women’s experiences. The study found that 13 of the 33 LBT respondents had reported harassment and violence at the hands of police, who would target trans persons and women of masculine appearance.
More recently, Human Rights Watch, in conjunction with Equal Ground, reported that since 2017 — a year after the Minister of Health claimed the government would not prosecute people for engaging in same-sex relations — at least seven people had been forced to undergo anal and vaginal examinations by police, who were looking to uncover evidence of alleged homosexual activities. Just one year earlier, another report by Human Rights Watch found that of the 61 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons interviewed, over half reported that they had been detained by police without cause, while 16 respondents — mostly men and trans persons — said they experienced sexual abuse or assault by police.
Violence and persecution at the hands of state actors are just part of the problem facing queer people in the conservative country where patriarchal values and gender roles are the norm. The WSG study from the early 2010s found that all 33 LBT interviewees had experienced emotional violence due to their sexuality, often from family members; two-thirds experienced physical violence and over half had experienced sexual violence. Four experienced harassment in the workplace, and seven reported being forced into mental hospitals, medical facilities, or religious institutions, often at a parent’s request, to be “cured” of homosexuality.
“We are fighting for our lives here,” Flamer-Caldera says. “There’s a lot of intimidation, sexual violence, rape, beatings, extortion, blackmail.” Despite increased efforts to educate LGBTQ+ persons of their rights through publications like “My Rights, My Responsibility” (produced in all three Sri Lankan languages), many such incidents go unreported, since victims are often too afraid to speak out against state actors like police, or even against family members. Equal Ground might perhaps see only 25 to 30 reports per year, representing only a fraction of violations.
However, although LGBTQ+ people face continued obstacles to acceptance, there’s no denying that Equal Ground has made significant inroads in reshaping Sri Lanka’s cultural reality. “Progress can be measured in different ways,” Flamer-Caldera says: in the growing Pride celebrations, where people cheer on the Rainbow flag, or on social media, where allies show their unwavering support for the LGBTQ+ community. Equal Ground is being welcomed into more parts of the country, too. The organization held training and workshops in 18 of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts, including in Jaffna in the north, long off limits during the turbulent days of civil war. Now, in Jaffna and in other places, LGBTQ+ groups are starting to pop up “like mushrooms,” Flamer-Caldera says. “This is great. This is absolutely wonderful.”
She also believes that they’ve garnered enough support for LGBTQ+ rights culturally that they may be able to start changing laws, too. Equal Ground has recently conducted qualitative research in preparation for a major media campaign, on the scale of marriage equality in the United States, and found that “a lot of people are at the empathetic stage, and easily pushed into the acceptance stage,” she tells me. “We were pleasantly surprised at the answers.”
Equal Ground has come a long way from 2004, when its relief efforts first gave the group unexpected inroads into Sri Lanka’s local communities. The road has sometimes been arduous, but “we’ve come a long way,” Flamer-Caldera tells me. In the seventeen years since she first founded Equal Ground, Pride celebrations are thriving, queer folk have access to identity-affirming resources and space, and attitudes in the conservative country are starting to warm to the LGBTQ+ community. Although LGBTQ+ people still have a long way to go in Sri Lanka, Flamer-Caldera tells me, she is “quite happy” with the progress they’ve already made.