Sri Lanka's gays battle to change penal code
July 05, 2004
COLOMBO — Sex between men is a criminal offence in Sri Lanka and
lesbianism has been officially labelled "sadism," but the island's
gays believe their long fight for equality is picking up pace amid
regional moves to legalise homosexuality.
Sri Lanka's penal code, a legacy from British colonial rulers,
makes sex between consenting men punishable by 12 years in jail,
although the law is rarely enforced.
The main gay rights group here, Companions on a Journey, said
Sri Lanka's turbulent politics has left activists and authorities
groping for a solution to the issue of gay rights.
"We engage the minister of justice in a discussion one evening
and the next morning he is out (of office)," Companions Director
Sherman de Rose said, referring to the sudden sackings of two
governments in the past three years.
The gay community in Sri Lanka is now awaiting the outcome of a
similar campaign in neighbouring India whose courts are reviewing
laws against homosexuality that were also introduced by the British
in the 19th century.
"What happens in India can have an impact on us," said de Rose,
a 32-year-old former Roman Catholic trainee priest.
"We could use the Indian example to strengthen our case. There
is similar action in Bangladesh and Pakistan," he told AFP.
Shifting from individual lobbying, the Companions are inviting
key decision makers for a face-to-face meeting next month to thrash
out differences over the status of homosexuality in the
The Companions are also working with the private Centre for
Policy Alternatives here for legal and legislative advice on
changing the penal code.
De Rose said nearly 7,000 gay men and women have made contact
with his rights group since it was started nearly nine years ago
while some 1,800 have taken full-time membership.
Hundreds gathered at a lake resort here in March for an annual
gay celebration with day-long festivities, including the selection
of a drag queen. The Companions say many more Sri Lankans are
waiting to come out of the closet.
Officials of the attorney general's department argue that they
have not prosecuted anyone under the anti-gay laws in recent
decades, making the campaign to have the penal code repealed
"What we say is why keep in statute books something that you are
not going to use?" de Rose said.
"Article 365 (of the penal code) attaches a stigma to those who
are gay," de Rose said. "It leads to a lot of abuses of gay people
in our community."
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 play of his peers.
His introverted and shy behaviour made his parents send him to
the church. It was at a seminary that he discovered he was
attracted to other men and decided to quit training for the
Since becoming an activist his office has been stoned and police
have raided it, but instead of turning the other cheek, de Rose is
While the penal code introduced in 1883 makes sex between men
illegal, lesbianism is not acknowledged.
However, Sri Lanka's Press Council in a landmark ruling four
years ago held that a letter to the editor published in a newspaper
calling for convicted rapists to be unleashed on lesbians was in
the larger interest of the community.
The council said that de Rose, who filed a public interest
complaint against the offending newspaper, had no standing in the
case as he was male and arguably would have no knowledge of
"Lesbianism itself is an act of sadism and salacious publication
of any opinion against such activities does not amount to a
promotion of sadism or salacity," the council ruled, underscoring
how far Sri Lanka is from accepting homosexuality. – Sapa-AFP
Former trainee priest leads Sri Lanka's gay battle to come out [28/06/1999]