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The Normalcy of Being Queer

Indu Bandara

2010-07-09 14:31:01

A Fight for Equality & the Freedom of Living in One’s Own Skin

An Interview with Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director of Equal Ground

As Gay Pride is celebrated all over the world during the months of June and July 2010, Colombo Spirit sat down with the organizers of Colombo Pride and spoke in depth about the work that Equal Ground does and what it means for Sri Lankans, both gay and straight.

What’s all this fuss about Pride anyway? Aren’t we all proud citizens already? The answer is no. Equal Ground’s Executive Director, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera sheds light on the subject and the struggle for equality for all, and providing a space – an “equal ground” – for everyone to have equal rights, regardless of their sexual orientation.

What has been the response to Colombo Pride 2010 so far? And how has Pride month been accepted in the years that it’s been celebrated in Sri Lanka?
It’s been pretty amazing. We’ve had a lot of very positive feedback and a lot of great newspaper publicity. And the exuberance of the gay community itself – they’re happy, they’re enthusiastic, they’re hopeful. One news item said that the Prime Minister of this country has said that he’s willing to talk to the gay community about what rights we’re actually looking at.

This is the first month that we’re celebrating – in the past it’s been one week. Last year it was very low key because we had threats from Muslim fundamentalists. But this year we decided we’re going to have a good time and show that we’re out and proud. We went for publicity in a big way, as well, including newspapers and ETV, and places like Colombo Spirit, www.anything.lk and many others. We have also been supported by the Norwegian and Dutch Embassies. The response has been great.

Are there any specific goals that you are aiming to achieve through the Pride celebrations?
Pride celebrations have always been about two things: 1) giving the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning (LGBTIQ) a voice and giving them a stage to be out and proud; and 2) to mainstream LGBTIQ issues by bringing them into the public forum and discussing them. This is done by showing them in films, art and photos – the creativity, the issues, the everyday lives, the discrimination, the joys, and the sorrows of the gay community. The Pride celebrations have come a long way since we first started in 2005 with a little party. It has now grown into a month-long celebration and we’re also enjoying sponsorship and support, not only from commercial organization but also from Embassies and others. We’re very happy with the way things have been going so far. And I hope we never forget why we started doing the Pride celebrations in Sri Lanka; I hope it never gets to the point that it becomes so commercialized. If it does get to that point, please remind us.

Tell us about Equal Ground and what it aims to accomplish.
Equal Ground is the only mixed LGBTIQ organization – we’re the only organization that also has straight (heterosexual) members. We always feel that we need to lead by example, so in everything that we do, we’re very conscious of gender balance, ethnic balance, religious balance, sexual orientation. We don’t treat anyone like third class citizens – people who walk into our office are treated on an equal basis, whoever they are, whatever they are.

Our goals are mainly to try and get homosexuality decriminalized in Sri Lanka, and to educate not only the general public, but also the LGBTIQ community itself. There is a lot of internalized homophobia within the community and a lot of ignorance and misconceptions within the community at large. The law can change today, but people won’t change their minds and their conceptions that easily. That needs a lot of education. People have been conditioned from a very young age that homosexuality is bad and therefore it must be avoided. And that it’s a sin and we’re criminals. You can’t change that mindset overnight – it has to be done over a period of time. It has to be done through education and awareness raising. More than anything else, as I said earlier, leading by example, showing people that Equal Ground is above any of the acquisitions that people make of us. We’re extremely careful of what we do, we’re very professional in our outlook and our approach and certainly all of our staff and trustees are held accountable for all their actions. It’s a big responsibility working in this organization.

What made you start the organization? Why is Equal Ground necessary for Sri Lanka?
When Equal Ground was formed, there was no mixed organization. There were segregated organizations and I don’t believe in segregation; I believe in inclusion rather than exclusion. That’s one of the reason why we’re a mixed organization and that we also have heterosexual members, because we want to include everybody. Our struggle cannot go forward without the help of the heterosexual community. They need to believe as much as we believe. They need to know that rights are for everybody and not just a select few. It’s very important that we get together and push together.

Why is it important to be in Sri Lanka? Because I don’t think that effectively, the struggle is being pushed forward in a manner that is professional and it isn’t being pushed properly. In the six years that we have been around, we’ve done more for gay rights in Sri Lanka than in the last 15 years. The Prime Minister’s statement and the positive press we have received is a good indicator that we’re doing something right. The other good indicator that we’re doing something right is all the people who are wanting to kill us, and sending all kinds of nasty emails and making nasty comments on the blog. That means we’re disturbing a few people. People hate change, especially in this country. So if you’re pushing for change, they will fight you tooth and nail, so this is good. They’re paying attention.

How are you involved in the LGBTIQ community outside Sri Lanka? How do you use that to help Equal Ground and the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka?
It has hugely enhanced the work that we’re doing at Equal Ground. I got involved in 2001 when I attended the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Conference. I was actually a last minute inclusion and when I went there, I was immediately propelled into the Chairing pool and then suddenly I was nominated as the ILGA Asia Representative to the ILGA Board. And two years later, I was Co-Secretary General of ILGA, which is a huge thing, because it’s the first time a Sri Lankan and only the second time that a Secretary General has been appointed from Asia, especially South Asia. I was the first woman from South Asia to be there and I held that position for five years. Within those five years, we were able to lobby the UN, we were a very vocal organization worldwide and that opened a lot of doors for me and for Equal Ground, as well. We still do a lot of international work; right now we’re concentrating on regional work in the Asian region. We’re part of two networks that work in South Asia and so we are acting as a capacity building organization for up and coming fledgling organizations in South Asia, which is an amazing thing for a six-year old organization to be doing.

think we have been very fortunate to have been given these kinds of opportunities and we’ve made the most of it. More than anything else, more than all the glamour of the position, the travel, etc, one has to realize that none of this is possible without hard, hard work. It’s a 24/7 job. There’s a lot that all of us sacrifice in doing this work. I have made a lot of sacrifices as far as family life and personal life to do this and to be in a situation where it could run the way it is. And I don’t regret any one of the sacrifices I’ve made.

There is lot of struggle and a lot of criticisms aimed at us from the community; not just the community at large, but from the gay community itself. Now I believe that they are beginning to realize that we are putting our money where our mouth is, and that we’re not just a fly-by-night organization just doing stuff.

How have the activities of Equal Ground been accepted in mainstream Sri Lanka? Have you seen any changes towards the LGBTIQ community since Equal Ground was started?
There has been a very subtle shift in the way people look at us. Equal Ground has now established itself very firmly I believe, in Sri Lanka, as a bona fide NGO working for equality and LGBTIQ rights. We’re also very well known internationally and we’re a very well thought of organization. When you talk about Equal Ground, people have great admiration for the organization. The people that we do work with in the rural areas, when they’re given an informed choice and decision to make, realize that the message that we are putting out there is nothing but talking about equality. We’re not talking about special rights. We’re telling people that human rights are for everybody and that includes the gay community, as well.

It’s a tragedy in Sri Lanka – that we’re in the 21st century, we’re a Buddhist country, and we talk about equal rights in our Constitution, but we don’t practice any of these things. And it’s another tragedy that over 10% of the population which is LGBTIQ, are treated in the manner that they are treated; as criminals, as something shameful; they’re marginalized; they’re treated like the dirt on people’s shoes. And this shouldn’t be happening. We’re not talking about upper class or moneyed individuals who can live their lives without having any issues. But they’re issues are not issues that they care to discuss. But they do have issues. At the end of the day, they’re not accepted. Even if they have all the money in the world, they are still inferior. That’s how they’re treated behind their backs, even in society, in big major Colombo 7 society. So we can’t be fooling ourselves that just because we have money or we’re famous for doing fashion shows, that we’re accepted in society. People are laughing at you behind your back, calling you names. You never have the same kind of standing in society that a heterosexual person has.

Is Sri Lanka ready for equal rights for the LGBTIQ community? What do you think is the main factor in gaining acceptance, both legally and socially?
Sri Lanka has always has been ready. Remember, we’re a democracy.

As I said earlier, we do need to lead by example. We need to show people that we’re normal human beings, capable of doing good jobs, capable of holding good jobs, capable of being very creative, capable of being great thinkers and politicians, and professional people. We need to know, or society needs to know, or this country needs to know that we are everywhere, across all strata of society. We’re professionals, we’re creative people, we’re poor, we’re rich, we’re old, we’re young. You may be sitting next to a gay person and you wouldn’t even know it, because they’re just as normal as you are. It’s only when someone realizes ‘oh that person is gay,’ suddenly that person becomes abnormal or vicious. And that shouldn’t be the case. Never judge a book by its cover, no matter how flamboyant the cover is.

What have been some of Equal Ground’s greatest achievements so far? What have been some of the challenges? What kind of opposition have you faced?
There have been a lot of achievements; some of them small, some of them big. Pride is one of our biggest achievements and it has progressed so amazingly over the years. We’ve done an enormous amount of work in the grassroots areas, sensitizing workshops with just rural folks. One of our achievements I believe is the fact that our message is heard and that people accept what we’re saying, and they want us to come back, they want us to conduct more workshops and more programs in their area. And that is a testimony to how they perceive us – that’s definitely an achievement. Another achievement has been the global outreach where we have been international players for the last six years, and are thought of very highly in the international LGBTIQ community.

Also, our ability to withstand whatever comes our way [is an achievement], because we had some horrendous threats last year from Muslim extremists. We continue to get threats, we continue to get nasty emails, but that only makes us more determined to carry on what we’re doing. If we were not doing a good job, nobody would give a darn about us. But because we’re doing a good job, people want to try and bring us down.

The challenges are dealing with extremist groups and religious groups that feel that they need to vilify homosexuality so that they can control who does what. I just feel that religion needs to take a step back and examine their own motives and their own organizations. I highly doubt God is an entity that is going to advocate killing people based on their sexual orientation. I don’t think any religion should preach criminalizing or killing people based on their sexual orientation. I just find that extremists take religion or their holy books and twist it to suit their own purpose to spread fear and control people. So I really wish that people would take a long look.

The Catholic Church has come out saying that they oppose criminalizing homosexuality – that’s a bold statement. I know the Anglican Church is very much in favor of gay rights, so I think others should maybe take a chapter from that. And Buddhism actually doesn’t talk about homosexuality being a sin. The only time it ever refers to it is about ordained monks being celibate; and being celibate, that means no sex at all, heterosexual or homosexual. So I just can’t understand nationalistic Buddhist people saying that homosexuality is a Western influence – the Buddha talks about it, so how can it be a Western influence? It’s been around for thousands of years – it’s recorded in history books, and it’s been in our culture for many hundreds and thousands of years. Unfortunately the British came and outlawed it, so suddenly it’s not our culture to be gay? I don’t think so. It is in our culture to be gay. I think that there have been cross-dressing and transgenderism also happening for years and years. So why should we let a Western law pollute our society? Why are we still clinging on to the British laws? And culturally and religiously, if there are things that subjugate people based on their sexual orientation or their ethnicity or the color of their skin, then those cultures and laws and religions need to be changed to accommodate universal human rights. No religion, no culture should deprive a person of their civic rights, their human rights… It’s wrong.

What are the long-term goals for Equal Ground?
Ideally we want to be living in a society that accepts LGBTIQ people for who they are and what they are. And we will keep on plugging away until this happens. We would like to be able to educate a lot of the country in the next few years. At least reach as many places in Sri Lanka with our message of equality and acceptance of LGBTIQ people. We would like to educate as many people as possible. We’d like to be able to see homosexuality decriminalized. We’d like to see anti-discrimination laws being introduced that would make it illegal to discriminate based on one’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

Even if Sri Lanka grants legal rights to the LGBTIQ community, do you think the social factor of acceptance will change at the same time?
That won’t change overnight. That’s where all the education and awareness-raising comes in.

Apart from legal rights, what else needs to change for the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka?
Within the LGBTIQ community itself, a lot of things need to change. I think people need to be more comfortable living in their own skin to begin with. They need to be empowered and educated as to the normalcy of being queer. They also need to know that they don’t need to rush into heterosexual marriages in order to please parents or to please society. They need to be able to have normal loving relationships and not equate homosexuality just with the sex act. So there are a lot of things that our community itself has to come out from under. That is also one of our long-term goals, as well – to try to educate our own community and empower them to be future leaders and to care more about their rights and the way they live.

We do have a plan for it. Most of it is with educational programs, publications, things like gay pride. You have no idea how many people have come up to me and said in the last couple of weeks how proud they are of the work that we’re doing and that they also belong to the gay community. This is good. I think gay pride has a lot of significance for our community and we want to have more people involved in the work that we do. For example, we have a wonderful group of cross-dressing young LGBT people who are just contributing so much to the overall pride celebrations, as well as the organization and the work it does. They spoke at the Youth Conference that we had for Colombo Pride 2010. And the message that they had resonated with the youth there. These were young, transgender people who were not afraid to say who they were, what they were and why they were like that. And I’m so proud of them and I don’t think they would have had the courage to do that if they hadn’t had the backing from our organization and the opportunities that they have been given.

What makes you passionate about this subject?
I hate injustice of any kind. And so this is a huge injustice, having queer people criminalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So I think that’s the thing that keeps me passionate. I was always brought up by my parents to feel for other people and to treat people exactly as you would treat yourself. I just can’t stand when people are treated badly, through no fault of their own… Innocent people being beaten, raped, harassed, extorted, or blackmailed just because they’re different. That’s not fair. And I’m always for the underdog.

I was very fortunate that I was able to go to San Francisco and I was able to come out. I was able to be comfortable about who I am and what I am. And so I had that opportunity because my parents gave me that opportunity. But a lot of people in Sri Lanka don’t have that opportunity. But now they have that opportunity through us, and every day I meet someone whose lives we have touched, and that’s the one person that gives me the passion and the courage to carry on doing what I do. There are some great activists out there, all over the world, and also here. They’re the people who give me the courage and the passion.

What advice would you give to young people who want to come out and do similar things to what you’re doing?
Be yourself and trust in yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you, so why should you have to hide who you are and what you are…. I’ve always gone with this thought in my head that there’s nothing in this world that I cannot do, including brain surgery. I might kill the patient but I will attempt it. Don’t be afraid to try, whatever it is that you want to try and do. Because if you don’t do it, you’ll never know whether you’ll be a success or not. So don’t be afraid. Don’t let other people dictate how you should live your life. You should live your life the way you want to, as long as you’re not hurting others.

Watch ETV Power Women on Friday at 8 pm, with repeats on Saturday at 4 pm, Wednesday at 10 am, Friday at 6 pm and on Saturday at 10 am, to here what more Rosanna has to say


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