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FEATURE

Former trainee priest leads Sri Lanka's gay battle to come out


June 28, 1999 by Amal Jayasinghe

SRI LANKA - From a house in a fashionable residential section of Colombo, a former Roman Catholic trainee priest is leading a campaign to change Sri Lanka's attitudes and laws on homosexuality.

Sex between men is punishable by 12 years in jail while the existence of lesbianism is not even acknowledged by the 1883 Penal Code.

Sherman de Rose, speaking at the "Drop-in-Centre" which has become a haven for gays and lesbians struggling to come out, admits that the archaic law has not been strictly enforced in recent years.

But de Rose, 28, argues that its mere existence is enough for the police and anti-gay groups to brand them as "perverts" and lawbreakers.

"Article 365 of the penal code is discriminatory and gives a stigma to those who are gay. It leads to a lot of abuses of gay people in our community," de Rose said.

He said some 900 gay men and women have made contact with his rights group, Companions on a Journey, since it was started years ago. Many members are still afraid to come out openly.

De Rose himself has come a long way since he first dressed in his mother's saris and his sisters' skirts and played with their dolls, shunning the rough and tumble games of his peers.

His introvert and shy behaviour made his parents send him to the church. It was at a seminary that he discovered he was sexually attracted to other men and decided to quit training for the priesthood.

After two stints as a receptionist in deluxe hotels here, de Rose formed the group which held its second "National Gay Conference" at a secluded hotel last week.

"It is remarkable that 60 gay men came out in the open and were willing to discuss openly their problems, fears and concerns," he said. "The consensus was that as an organisation we should be more formalised."

De Rose's Companions has no paid membership but activists "cruise" public places such as shopping malls and beaches asking other gays to join the movement and benefit from various services offered.

They give away condoms provided by a government agency and arrange counselling as well as free clinics for sexually transmitted diseases.

The group also conducts AIDS awareness programs and tries to encourage safe sex among gays and lesbians. It receives funding from a Dutch organisation.

The Companions are male-dominated but there are a few dozen lesbians who work with them. Once a week the "Drop in Centre" is reserved for women and all men are asked to vacate the building.

A lesbian who identified herself only as Marie helps other women to deal with their sexuality. But she herself is afraid openly to declare her sexual orientation for fear that her family will suffer indignity.

"There are lot of women who are actually lesbians but they haven't had sex with other women because of fear and social pressures," said Marie, 41. "What we tell them here is that there is nothing wrong with that."

Both she and de Rose say social attitudes must change along with the law. But any move by the government to repeal relevant sections of the penal code could invite a political backlash from conservatives.

In 1995 the government agreed to consider the gay community's demands. But last year Justice Minister G.L. Peiris made it clear it did not intend to spend time reviewing laws that were not enforced anyway.

For the government, he said, there were more pressing problems like reforming the constitution and battling Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the north and east.

In the meantime, most gays can remain in the closet. - Sapa-AFP

 

      

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