Throughout South Asia, homosexuality has been a taboo subject. But there are signs in some areas that gay people are now becoming more open in their behaviour. In the second of a series of articles from the region, the BBC's Chloe Arnold looks at gay life in Sri Lanka.
Newsletter of the Companions on a Journey gay society
When Sujeewa told his older brother he was gay, he beat him up and chased him out of the house.
That was eight years ago, since when Sujeewa has started helping out at Companions on a Journey, Sri Lanka's only society for gay men and women.
"It was very difficult for my friends and family to accept I was gay," says Sujeewa, who doesn't want to give his last name.
"It's a bit easier today, but people are still suspicious of me. I have to be very careful where I go."
We are sitting in a neat white room with comfortable sofas and a large television in the corner.
Companions on a Journey is a drop-in centre in Colombo that's become a lifeline for Sri Lanka's gay community.
Once a week it shows films with gay themes - Priscilla - Queen of the Desert, Maurice, The Crying Game and Boys Don't Cry.
On the other side of the room, half a dozen book shelves are stacked with gay literature, from novels to magazines to advice on how to cope with the HIV/Aids.
Sujeewa, who is 28, wears leopard-print corduroys, a tight T-shirt and gold earrings, and his long hair is tied in a sleek ponytail.
"I get a lot of nasty looks because of the way I dress," he says. "But it's something I've just had to get used to."
Since he first discovered Companions on a Journey, Sujeewa's life has turned around. He feels more confident with his sexuality, he has started working as a hairdresser and now has a steady boyfriend.
"Before, we had to be so secretive about where we met," he remembers.
"Now at least being gay is less of a taboo."
Sherman de Rose, the founder of Companions on a Journey, agrees.
When he started the group last year, he used to receive death threats.
It got so bad, he says, he had to leave the country for a while until religious groups, political leaders, and some sections of the media, the most vehement opponents to his organisation, calmed down.
"But attitudes have begun to change," he says.
"At the beginning, people wouldn't even discuss the topic of homosexuality. They refused to recognise it existed.
"Now we can hold demonstrations to demand better rights and we won't get chased off the streets."
'Afraid to be themselves'
One of the most difficult things for gay men and women in Sri Lanka is simply coming to terms with their homosexuality. Given the social intolerance, it is very difficult, Sherman says.
The society can relax with a drag queen competition
"So many gay men marry and have children because it is easier than coming out," he says.
When he first opened his doors, people used to turn up and say they weren't gay themselves, they were coming for a friend.
"Even here, they were afraid to be themselves," he says.
Others just came and sat there for an hour or two, not speaking, not doing anything.
"They saw us as a safe haven, a place where they could go through a sort of healing process," he says.
"It takes an enormous amount of courage for people to come here. They suffer from very low-self esteem because of the rejection."
He still receives dozens of letters from around the country from people who don't give their names or addresses, but who just write to thank him for being there.
"They simply say that they are glad they aren't alone," he says.
Companions now have two more drop-in centres in Sri Lanka, one in Kandy and one in Anuradhapura. They put out a monthly newsletter and every full moon they organise a big party.
"It's a chance for people to let their hair down, really be themselves," Sherman says.
"And we always have a competition to find the most beautiful drag queen."
But there is a more serious side to the organisation.
Working with a network of lawyers, they are trying to persuade lawmakers to change Sri Lanka's criminal code, which outlaws homosexuality.
"There is still a lot of opposition," he says, "and we still aren't even close to Europe or the United States when it comes to gay rights.
"But we've come a long way in eight years. We aren't expecting miracles, but I think we're getting there, bit by bit."
The following comments reflect the balance of views received:
This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.
Having lived all my 17 years in the multi-cultured, multi-faith and multi-gendered city of London, I have never had a problem with the idea or sight of gay, lesbian and bisexual couples. People who live in a society such as I do have little experience of extremists who cannot accept ideas other than their own beliefs. I think that if, globally, people were made more aware of those that do and do not agree with this taboo, we all might begin to understand each other. While I understand that, to some people, religion is life and they will dedicate themselves to the stated guidelines and sanctions, nowhere does it say,(correct me if I am wrong) that gayness is a sin. People are, as someone before me quite rightly said, hiding behind their religion in an attempt to be the kind of person that others want them to be rather than the way their 'God' and creation intended.
In Nigeria, issues of homosexuality are not discussed; nobody is a homosexual, you simply cannot afford to be. It is so painful when you talk to people who are gay but try to cover it up so that they can fit in. I hope that someday people will be able to speak out without fear, like is currently happening in Sri Lanka. Perhaps then, "normal people" like me, can accept their sexuality and live with it.
As a lesbian activist in Sri Lanka, it is nice to see such an article in the international news. I have personal and organisational experience of the sort of problems that the gay community faces. I am sorry to say that sometimes the problems came from within the gay community as well. However we have now overcome these problems. Congratulations COJ on the decade-long journey! It could be said that the COJ and the personal commitment of Sherman de Rose led the way for others to work on the same issues. The fact that there are two more organisations on LGBT issues in Sri Lanka at present shows how much Sri Lanka has changed! But there is a lot more for all of us to do.
Upeksha, Sri Lanka
There is factual error in Charith Buddhika's comment. He says "In every religion, homosexuality is described as a sin" I do not know about other religions, but as far as Buddhism is concerned homosexuality per se is not sin, (unless you sleep with a person who is already in an accepted relationship with someone) Buddha never looked down upon homosexuality. So we can assume he treated it in the same way as any heterosexual relationship. Homosexuality was common in Sri Lankan society even in the past but it has been taken as normal and was never made a big issue, till the colonial masters introduce a law against it. Overall, our society is much less homophobic than any Western one.
Wijeratne, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a somewhat mixed-up attitude to being gay. Society is conservative so boys and girls cannot mix at an early age. Therefore lots of young people have same sex activities at a young age. One survey found that as much as 60% of males stating that they had had at least one same sex experience in the process of growing up. It is quite common practice in schools. However, this does not mean they are gay in their eyes. Once they become adults and start working, marriage is more or less forced upon them as Channa says. The majority then settle down to humdrum daily lives of wives, children, work etc. Sadly, 99% of the genuine gays too are forced to marry due to social and family pressure. Most of them continue to have gay activities on the sly. Sometime their close family know of it and tacitly accept it. Sometimes even the wives do so. As long as one does not talk about it, and are very discreet, it may be tolerated. It is only in some of the more elite levels of Colombo society that being openly gay, and living with a gay partner, is accepted. Let us hope that over the next generation more gay people will be able to come out.
Indi, Sri Lanka
No decent society will openly permit the practice of homosexuality. If homosexuals can go about their business quietly, without forcefully bringing it to our attention, that will be all well and good. If they continue with their present pattern of trying to force society to bow down to their whims and caprices, then they are setting the stage for a future confrontation that they will not be able to endure.
Greg Allen, USA.
I am Sri Lankan-born gay living in the UK at the moment and I think it's absolutely fantastic that you have written an article and done research into this field because it is such a sensitive issue. When my family were aware of the fact that I was gay I was socially outcast and feel that I cannot return to my roots without feeling abnormal. But now being in the UK I have met a lot of understanding gay people especially at university and I want to say there is hope for Sri Lankan gay people so keep strong!
Janakan Ratnarjan, UK
It is a good thing that these issues are being discussed and hopefully in the long term this will lead to more gay people in Asia feeling able to be open about their sexual orientation and being able to lead their own lives. It frustrates me to see the current situation in the US where politicians are exploiting deep seated homosexual prejudices to further their political ambitions. Hopefully in the future the scientific community will continue its research and prove that homosexuality has a genetic or hormonal cause. Then the religious right will have to manufacture a whole new bandwagon on which to parade its prejudiced beliefs!
Holly Manktelow, UK
Having many gay friends in Sri Lanka I am happy to see the extent of change taking place. At least in Colombo the awareness far exceeded my expectations. There is a long way to go but it is certainly going with a positive momentum. The only sad thing is when people use Buddhism (the majority religion there) as a smokescreen for their own prejudices. Yes one must take into account people's sensibilities in any society but as far as Buddhism is concerned homosexuals are not sinners! Saying that to those who interpret things religiously will be more difficult however.
Miles Vollner, Switzerland
Social condemnation of any group of society can never be classed as fair. If countries boast about democracy and human rights, then all parties whether political, religious or other need to examine their purpose in life. If two consenting adults decide to be together and that they cause no harm to anyone else, then basically it is nobody else's business but theirs and the choices they make. I am pleased to hear of the progress achieved in Sri Lanka and hope that at the end of the day a fairness and social acceptance wins the day!
I have a strong hunch that sexual orientation is the fruit of gene arrangement, and would be glad to see that possibility investigated. If it ever became established truth, I think the world's attitude towards homosexuality would be turned topsy-turvy over night.
Fr. Dick Zeimet, Republic of China
I am gay and European and I have my "boyfriend" in Indonesia, because of the strong love we feel for each other I am moving to Indonesia to be together. My gayness is certainly not genetic, it is based on two souls which love each other beyond sex, money and age. Once you recognize that souls have no sex, gay marriage is only natural. Good Luck Sri Lanka, every long journey starts with a first step.
I am gay, I knew it from the very young age. I was totally satisfied with my gay life. However, my family and the society were not ready to accept my choice of freedom. I am from an extremely conservative Kandyan family and the question of not marrying even did not arise. I also work in a senior position in a leading bank and there is no way that I can reveal my sexual orientation to my office people. That would have surely ruined my career prospects. So there was no option left other than getting married. I know even my office people want me to have a wife by my side when attending office parties. Bringing a male companion to an office party was simply unthinkable. I don't want to discuss my married life, but all I can say is I would have been a happy man if I could lead a lifestyle that would have gone hand in hand with my orientation. I envy my gay friends who had the guts to come out of the closet and decide the way they could lead their life. I never had that courage. I wish I had.
Channa, Sri Lanka
Interesting story, these certainly are issues that are being dealt with here in America. I am encouraged that an openness is beginning to be tolerated in South East Asia. As with many issues, there are underlying moral questions or religious questions and this is true with homosexuality and transgenderism. As a Christian my desire is that all would experience the love of God through Jesus.
Tim Harstad, US
I am a Sri Lankan person living in US. I cannot believe this difference in Sri Lanka. Now they are talking about homosexuality openly. This means we have to expect lot of changes in the future.
It's encouraging to see this happening cause it makes me feel like our country has hope too. It is a taboo here, but secretly some people think its cool and will go to great lengths to prove that someone is gay. You have to be guarded and expect a lot of animosity. However it's still undercover, and though people will try to make you reveal yourself so that you become a spectacle for them to laugh at, no-one will ever accuse you in your face without some concrete evidence. Good luck Sri Lanka and kudos to companions on a journey.
South Asia has largely conservative societies where being gay or lesbian is a big social taboo. Personally, I don't see any trouble having gay and lesbian people around. It should be left with individual to select their sexual orientations. But we also need to look at the future repercussions on the healthy functioning of societies as well because there is high probability of adverse effects on family as an institution. Given the current trend of fast erosion of familial values, supporting an open gay culture can speed up the process of the erosion of familial values which would not be a desirable thing. I believe that unless these taboos are not broken, and such societal issues not discussed, the chance of having healthy societies in future is a far off possibility.
Gulab Khan, Pakistan
This is truly an encouraging trend in Sri Lanka. I fear, however, that the US is moving backwards in its acceptance and tolerance for peoples of variant sexual orientations, particularly under the oppression of the current administration. It is truly a tragedy to see people needlessly maligned and mistreated for something that is so clearly of a genetic nature. I only wish that the "religious right" of all nations can wake up to see the majesty of the human spirit in all of God's creation - white, black, brown, gay, straight, male and female.
Christopher Bennett, US
Overcoming the whole "family first" excessively traditional mentality of South Asians is really the problem at hand. People are not seen as individuals in South Asia, but rather, constituents and representatives of their families. Thus, people feel that they owe it to their family to hide or abandon something that may be taboo or even non-traditional, whether it is a career path or a choice in lifestyle. Sadly, this is also why so many South Asian youth today are having more mental breakdowns than any other country One should never have to forsake a life true to himself or herself. I applaud Sujeewa and Sherman de Rose for taking difficult steps and leading the way.
Sanhita Choudhury, Fishkill, NY, USA
Poverty and the freedom for gay rights can't go together in South Asian countries. The reason for raising gay rights in Western countries is because of economical solvency. People and governments in South Asian countries have so many other fundamental things to work for - food, accommodation, education etc, rather than spend time worrying about gay people. In addition, religious and political faith won't allow gay to accelerate there rights soon.
Syed Uddin, USA
Articles about gays that seem to concentrate on the 'feminine' attributes that some gay men possess, and illustrate their text with photos of drag queens, do little to advance the cause of homosexual emancipation.
Harry Barrowclough, The Netherlands
We feel extremely sorry for these people. Whatever they say or try to achieve doesn't seem to be real. In every religion, homosexuality is described as a sin, so wherever they are they will always feel the cultural taboo. That is the reason these people are looked down as outcasts. If the world becomes a place void of religion these people might get the due recognition. Until such time they will be treated as the same way they are being treated right now.
Charith Buddika, Sri Lanka
I never realized that gay issues were so extreme in some parts of the world. Growing up gay in the US is not an easy thing for most people as well, but because of the deeply rooted cultural taboo of homosexuality and without the civil liberties afforded by a liberal constitution, I can see how in a country like Sri Lanka being gay could be very difficult. Furthermore, deeply rooted ignorance and hatred does not simply go away with the change of laws, it will undoubtedly be a long and arduous struggle for the gay rights movement in Sri Lanka. I hope that their struggle will afford changes as soon as possible!
Josh Borden, USA