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
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
But de Rose, 28, argues that its mere existence is enough for
the police and anti-gay groups to brand them as "perverts" and
"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
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
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
They give away condoms provided by a government agency and
arrange counselling as well as free clinics for sexually
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
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
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