Home » Searching for Pride: Learning to Unlearn

Searching for Pride: Learning to Unlearn


Photo by Ama Koralage

June is the #Pride month where we commemorate, celebrate and recognize Two-Spirit (North American specific term to recognize two-spirit Indigenous folks), Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Asexual and additional sexual orientations and gender identities (2SLGBTIQQA+) activism, culture and their impact on history locally, nationally and internationally. As cis women having born and raised in Sri Lanka and now living in Canada, we decided to share our experiences and learnings on #Pride as we celebrate the #Pride month.

Commonly, the 2SLGBTIQQA+ community continues to face challenges in their daily personal lives as well as social, political, cultural and economic lives around the world. Even in a country such as Canada where we believe to be inclusive and championing equality, we experienced a well-coordinated protest against 2SLGBTIQQA+ inclusive education and sex ed policies in schools last year which they named “1 Million March 4 Children”. These experiences pushed us to be better allies to the 2SLGBTIQQA+ community, support them and be allies in the efforts of achieving dignity and equality for every human being.

In Sri Lanka, #Pride has always been a subject of secrecy and stigma. Although we see progress and development of #Pride activism and inclusion at the same time we see high political push back and constant public humiliation. The 2023 bill to decriminalize homosexuality is a progressive step and we are hopeful that the societal norms and cultural practices will change over time. As difficult as it can be, the first steps are often simple. A big part of our journey as cis-heterosexual-women to be allies of 2SLGBTIQQA+ community is about sharing our experiences to create awareness, and this is another attempt at that.

History of LGBTQ in Sri Lanka

The Stonewall riots happened as community reaction organized by a group of queer representatives to police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969. The following year, the first #Pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to commemorate the Stonewall riots. Eventually, #Pride became part of a global movement celebrating the 2SLGBTIQQA+ community worldwide despite stigmatization. Sri Lanka has been having #Pride events in Colombo for almost 20 years although popular pride parades with the participation of general public started in 2022.

Many people in Sri Lanka think that the 2SLGBTIQQA+ movement is a modern, westernized, post-colonial and white-based movement that supports a community who are abnormal or deviant psychological behavior. These common perceptions are popular in many countries around the world where societies are still highly misogynist and homophobic. However, the historical evidence demonstrates that ‘queerness’ is not something new and it has existed over centuries in our Asian societies and cultures.

In Buddhist culture, the statue of Avalokiteśvara can be seen in some Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and many Buddhists have seemed to respect this idea. Avalokiteśvara is a part of Tibetan Buddhism and manifest in many forms – both male and female – to help someone in need. Historians tell us that Avalokiteśvara is also associated with the multiform female bodhisattva Tara. Beyond this religious history, some ancient historical records such as paintings in the Sigiriya rock fortress and the wood carving in the Embekka temple in Kandy also depict the open nature of human sexuality. They demonstrate the diversity and complexity of human sexuality.

Another example of the varied society can be seen in a letter of the Governor of Goa written in 1547AD about King Bhuvenaka Bahu VII who was the King of Ceylon referring to presumably same sex relationships maintained by him. The explorer Robert Knox who wrote An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in 1681 also made similar observations about the king of Kandy. Besides these historical revelations, during the post-colonization Sri Lankans wanted to live up to the “standards” the Europeans had left behind, so our communities let go of parts of our historical legacies and cultures. European colonizers introduced legal provisions to criminalize homosexuality and other deep rooted traditional human behaviors to support their own cultural and religious beliefs in colonies. As a result of these legal and cultural additions being forcefully enforced, today many public and virtual spaces are not safe or so welcoming to 2SLGBTIQQA+ individuals.

Gender and sex

Our initial learning on the concepts of sex and gender from several different workshops on women empowerment and/or gender equality identified sex as a natural biological phenomenon and gender as a social or cultural construct.

One’s biological sex is one of the most important characteristics or even the most important characteristic as it can unfold different life experiences as gender roles are often assigned depending on your biological sex. The decision of our biological sexis taken at a very early stage of our lives, often before birth and the decision is beyond our control. At this stage a medical practitioner makes the call to identify us as either male or female conforming to the popular male-female binary. There are instances when a medical practitioner cannot make a clear decision and they decide to perform a gender assignment that makes the best surgical sense. This best surgical sense often times is not the best for individuals as they begin to understand their gender identities, which are contradictory with their sex assigned at birth. We problematize the need for assigning a sex at birth asking who benefits from that practice. Personal testimonies reveal that it is not the individuals who benefit from these practices; rather the institutional and systemic oppressions are more benefited from such practices to perpetuate the existing social, cultural, legal and even economic structures. Determination of sex is not strictly a biological or medical phenomenon; however, it goes beyond to satisfy the societal expectation of maintaining a sex binary equalizing its purpose with the concept of gender.

If the biology we believed to be is hoax, what the real biology of sex looks like? Anne Fausto-Sterling, an American sexologist, as early as 2000, discusses her research findings on fluidity of sexuality. We love seeing things in binaries and male and female is one our favorite binaries. However in the natural world we have a spectrum for sexes. Fausto-Sterling identifies five sexes in this spectrum that is further developed with recent research findings. This knowledge is not static as science is evolving with research, we will learn more about it.

Intersectionality and social stigma

Undoubtedly, belonging to 2SLGBTIQQA+ community in Sri Lanka is not easy due to the fear of cis-hetero-normative stigmas. This is further exacerbated by the intersectionality of multiple identities and socio-cultural, economic and political factors. In 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena decided to call Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a butterfly obviously in a derogatory way referring to him as a non-cis gay individual. Before that in 2017, Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera was called a ponnaya, another derogatory word used to identify non-binary individuals, during a parliamentary debate. There were social media videos in a setting of training for police officers where homosexuality is taught as a mental illness. This gives a glimpse of the not-so-rainbow-friendly homebase of the 2SLGBTIQQA+ community.

We can see how non-cis, queer or non-binary people are mocked through derogatory language and humiliation. These traditions and cultures of humiliation, discrimination and maltreatment are cancerous starting from top level political and institutional structures to other mid and bottom level social, cultural and economic structures. Queer lived experiences teach us the perpetual daily war they had to go through living their lives even in simple activities such as using a public washroom.

While we see much activism organized for #Pride and 2SLGBTIQQA+ in Sri Lanka, we are skeptical whether all people have the opportunity to be part of the community, to fulfill their rights as human beings and enjoy freedom as non-cis and non-binary individual within their personal lives as well as socio-cultural lives. These chances are better for urban, high or upper-middle class individuals and slim to none for rural or working class individuals. This is the intersectionality we need to acknowledge, recognize and work on.

From our own experiences as feminists we can safely categorize Sri Lanka as a highly misogynistic country. However, we believed the feminist movement – although it is highly divided within – to fundamentally believe in acceptance and equality until we learnt the examples of trans-misogyny. Transwomen are often being ridiculed and singled out for their expression of femaleness and femininity, considering it a shame to give up the maleness. Ironically, feminists discriminate the transwomen for “trying to achieve stereotypical femininity” and are often excluded in many spaces otherwise claiming to be inclusive including queer spaces.

Unlearning as cisgender women

We, as cisgender women since birth and who brought up in patriarchal family backgrounds in urban Sri Lanka, took years to understand the concept of fluid sexuality and non-binary individuals. In school we had lessons on puberty and the reproductive system but nothing was mentioned on different sexual orientations or gender identities. We had not heard about pride although pride events started in 2005 in Colombo. There were a few friends who identified with they/them pronouns but we were ignorant in our own binary world. We were not educated on gender identities until we started working with international non-governmental organizations such as UN agencies and USAID and were trained as development professionals through various gender training programs. Being born to Sinhala-Buddhist families and living three decades in South Asia surrounded by people with cis-heterosexual traditional mind sets, it was not easy for us to unlearn the learnings we had on biological sex and gender roles. Working in war affected areas over half a decade, we witnessed the marginalization and oppression against 2SLGBTIQQA+ communities in both urban and rural settings. The situation got worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the oppression continues in public and virtual spaces.

After we moved to North America as international students during post-covid times, we were exposed to new formal and informal learnings on sex and gender. The Masters in Gender Studies program we took opened a new era of knowledge, international perspectives and activism. It was not just the formal learning we had in class but also the informal discussions we had as friends and colleagues who came from the same socio-cultural contexts and educational backgrounds that helped us on this journey of unlearning. We participated in various advocacy and activism initiatives relating to #Pride in our town in Canada and met friends and activists working on 2SLGBTIQQA+ rights. We interacted, unlearned, accepted and moved on with our new learnings, letting go of our previous learnings about sex and gender. We were open minded and self-critical about something that lies underneath the judgment, underneath the right and the wrong.

Going forward

In the 21st century we live in a transnational world where economic, political and cultural processes extend beyond the boundaries of geographical territories. Increased immigration to developed countries in response to international economic development has resulted in multicultural societies where immigrants are more likely to maintain contact with their culture of origin and less likely to assimilate. During the post-Covid years, there was a significant migration chain from Sri Lanka to Europe, North America and Australasia. Immigrants of Sri Lankan origin are most likely to maintain contact with communities including 2SLGBTIQQA+ communities in alien countries and embrace their identities. Likewise, Sri Lankans who are still living in their country also have possibilities of unlearning sex and gender due to increased global mobility and access to worldwide communication technologies. Recently, many South Asian states started responding to 2SLGBTIQQA+ communities positively as seen by the Supreme Court decision in Nepal legalizing same-sex marriages. We observed some liberal, open-minded developments and mixed public reactions recently in Sri Lanka so we hope that the narratives can be changed and improved positively in future.

Unlearning is the new learning in the modern world and it requires conscious effort to reflect on past learning to create the possibility of new future learning that goes beyond our passively formulated yet operative mental constructs that strengthen how we understand the world, ourselves and the people around us. In most cases, we tend to unlearn and update ourselves if it is imperative to keep up with the employment market. Likewise, if we are to maintain our status as good human beings, social unlearning is also vital. We need a mature mind that recognizes the perennial importance of seeing things rightly and to commit ourselves to respect the dignity and accept the diversity of human beings. This process might take time yet it is not impossible. This also emphasizes that it is important for us to keep in mind that it is not the responsibility of 2SLGBTIQQA+ community to teach us. In order to build an inclusive society that thrives towards equitable development, it is our responsibility to unlearn and/or learn while reflecting on our privileges as cis women and cis men.

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