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Rights of sexual minorities still locked in the closet

world Updated: Jun 23, 2010 01:18 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Closets are for clothes.

That was the thinking behind the “Rainbow Runway’’ fashion show where members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities — along with heterosexual models — participated in a fashion parade on Sunday in Colombo, a rare event of its kind.

The situation of gays and lesbians in Sri Lanka is similar to those in India. Same gender sex is illegal — Delhi High Court of course read down and decriminalised homosexuality on July 2, 2009 — but there’s hardly been a case where charges have been brought against them; the law is more often used to harass and extort.

The British bequeathed the Lankan Penal Code in 1883 and Section 365 in it outlawed homosexuality.

What “unnatural sex’’ is under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, “gross indecency’’ is under the code here, punishable with a maximum imprisonment of 12 years and a fine.

In 1995, an amendment made 365A gender neutral — sex between women was made punishable. Apparently, the government had moved to decriminalise homosexuality but after groans of disapproval from the powerful Buddhist clergy, women were roped in as well.

“ Until 1995 this law applied to men alone. But when the penal code was reformed in 1995, ostensibly under the guise of making the law less discriminatory towards men… women were added to the list of those criminally liable under the provision,’’ a website dealing with women’s issues pointed out.

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera from Equal Ground, an NGO which organised the show, said it’s not been easy to work in an atmosphere of prejudice.

“We have had to change office, two trustees resigned following threats from a religious community and we get phone and email threats,’’ she said.

In 2000, Lanka’s Press Council, according to AFP, even held lesbianism as an “act of sadism” and that a newspaper article calling convicted rapists to be unleashed on lesbians was in the larger interest of the community

A Constitutional amendment is required here to change provisions of the criminal code. There’s little chance of that happening any time soon.

But more than the law, it’s how the society responds to sexual minorities that needs to be altered.

Till then, many gays and lesbians will remain in closets.