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What It Means To Be Transgender In Sri Lanka

In August this year, the Human Rights Watch released a 63-page report on the challenges faced by the LGBTI community living in Sri Lanka today, which has been severely underreported in mainstream local media. The report, titled All Five Fingers Are Not the Same: Discrimination on Grounds of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Sri Lanka, is based on interviews conducted by the HRW, in four cities between October 2015 and January 2016.

The researchers involved were able to interview 61 LGBTI persons as well as nongovernmental organisations and activists involved in LGBTI rights, and government officials. The report focuses mostly on transgender and gender nonconforming persons in Sri Lanka today, highlighting their experiences with  arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination when accessing health care, employment, and housing.

All Five Fingers Are Not the Same is difficult to read because of the testimonies of several transgender persons interviewed, who give frank and detailed accounts of their experiences ‒ in particular, with the Sri Lanka Police. For most of them, trouble begins at a very early age, when they become aware they are ‘different’ and are forced to conform to the conservative values of their families, schools, and communities. It doesn’t get easier as they grow into adults, as evident in this report. Embarrassment, abuse, and violence are common experiences for many of them, and there has been little support towards creating a safe, inclusive space for transgender persons by the government or the private sector.

Many of those who do not belong to this community in Sri Lanka are often confused by the concept of transgenderism. This report defines ‘transgender’ as the “identity of people whose assigned gender they were declared to have upon birth does not conform to their lived gender (the gender that they are most comfortable with expressing or would express given a choice). A transgender person usually adopts, or would prefer to adopt, a gender expression in consonance with their preferred gender, but may or may not desire to permanently alter their bodily characteristics to conform to their preferred gender”.

Legal Change Of Gender

Sashini, a transgender person living in Colombo – one of 6 LGBTI persons interviewed for the HRW report. Image credit: HRW/Samantha

The current process to legally change one’s gender in Sri Lanka is a blurry one, the report states. The standard practice for any person who wishes to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS), is to first consult a psychiatrist, who deems if the patient should go ahead with the surgery process. Following the issuing of an official letter, the patient is then able to receive hormone therapy before moving on to the next stages of the surgery.

Sanju* first consulted a psychiatrist at the age of 31, in 2008. “At first the psychiatrist tried to convince me to remain a female, telling me we must remain the physical form we were born in,” he recalls, in a meeting with Roar. A couple of years later, he was able to receive hormone therapy and get a mastectomy.

And this is where most transgender persons in Sri Lanka face a huge obstacle; there is no hospital, state- or privately-owned, that has the expertise to complete the third and final stage of an SRS ‒ the genital reconstruction. Often, to complete this stage, patients have to travel to other countries in the region, which usually costs more than many of them can afford. In some cases, surgeries have gone terribly wrong because of the lack of qualified surgeons in the country. Sanju says he needs four million rupees to complete his SRS, which he does not have with him. “It’s my dream,” he says. “To be able to fully transition physically to a male.”

On a slightly more positive note, it is possible to change one’s gender, legally, in Sri Lanka. However, this process is often arduous for those who wish to do so and is only open to those who have a letter of approval and other documentation to prove that they have surgically changed their gender. This proves extremely unfair to those who may not want to physically transform themselves. Those applying for new legal documents face unnecessary interrogation and delays, because there is no clear procedure. However, Sanju says he was able to obtain a new National Identification Card (NIC) and passport with little to no hassle, but this was not the case for several of those interviewed for the HRW report.

The Birth Certificate Problem

But new documents do not always mean a new life for transgender persons in Sri Lanka, as is the case for those who have their genders changed on their birth certificates. The current process is one in which no new certificates are handed out; instead, the applicant is given a copy of their certificate with their gender change noted down under the section ‘History’ and an alteration in the original place where ‘sex’ has to be noted. This has put several persons in the transgender community in uncomfortable situations, where they have been subject to the inquisitiveness of anyone who reads the certificate, for educational or employment purposes. Others face similar situations when their appearance does not match the photo on their documents, even when they have documents to prove their transition.

“In Sri Lanka, more often than not, when someone reads your birth certificate and realises you are transgender, they ask you very personal questions that can make you feel awkward,” says Sanju. “We don’t want to be discussing our history with such persons.” He went on to talk about an incident that took place a couple of days before the interview, in which he and his friend, also transgender, were asked a series of questions from an officer at a government organisation. Questions like, “So do you have a penis?” and “Can you satisfy a woman?” were only some of them.

Police Brutality and Hate Crimes

Transgender persons in Sri Lanka are known to experience discrimination and abuse even at the hands of law enforcement. Image credit: Edel Rodriguez/Al Jazeera America

Perhaps the most disturbing issue raised in the report is the brutality faced by transgender, or gender nonconforming, persons by the police. The report indicates that nearly two dozens of those interviewed had suffered verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by the Sri Lanka Police, with many of them stating they were detained for no cause. “This is quite common for male-to-female transgender persons, and/or males who do not conform to typically male behaviour or attire,” says LGBTIQ activist Rosanna Flamer-Caldera to Roar. The more harrowing details of this report come from interviewees who have been severely physically abused or raped, or both, by the police ‒ in many cases, more than once.

It is important to note that no laws specifically criminalize transgender or intersex persons in Sri Lanka, the report highlights. However, the police frequently use existing criminal offences and regulations to target this community, such as with the “law against ‘cheat[ing] by personation,’ and the Vagrants’ Ordinance that prohibits soliciting or committing acts of ‘gross indecency,’ or being ‘incorrigible rogues’ procuring ‘illicit or unnatural intercourse’.”

The report adds:

Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code prohibit “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” and “gross indecency,” commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults, including in private spaces. These laws, together with above mentioned criminal offenses and regulations, enable a range of abuses against LGBTI people by state officials and the general public.

However, sadly, the report also alleged that in most cases the police targeted those they deemed vulnerable due to their economic background or social status, because they are aware that they have neither the money nor the connections to take legal action. Two interviewees who come from wealthier backgrounds claimed that in their experience with the police, they were let off easily because the police could read into their social status. The report also acknowledges a few incidents in which individual police officers were reported to have stepped in to protect people from private citizens or other police officers, but they are heavily outweighed by the accounts of those who have more traumatic experiences. As the report suggests, the treatment of the LGBTI community by the police has caused them to distrust the authorities, leading to many hate crimes that involve homo- or transphobic violence going under- or unreported.

Discrimination In Employment And Housing

Still from the accompanying video to the Human Rights Watch which features several transgender persons and LGBTI activists in Sri Lanka

When talking about his life up to now, Sanju told us of a time he worked as a data entry officer in a private firm. He earned very well and enjoyed the company of his coworkers until he had to produce his birth certificate to the human resources department when registering for his EPF and ETF. Word somehow got out, and it was not long before he sensed the difference in the way his boss and coworkers now acted around him. Worse, he realised that his password to the system was changed, which led to many errors in his work for no explainable reason. Sensing the sudden tension, he decided to resign from the job.

There are other interviewees who felt the same pressure to resign from their jobs following the discovery of their gender or sexual orientation. Many others said they often felt humiliated and discriminated against when being interviewed for jobs, especially when those interviewing asked them very personal questions and, in some, cases ‘laughed at them’. Even if they were qualified for the job, many of them did not hear back from the jobs they applied to. These factors often lead to transgender persons not having a stable income, depriving them of the opportunity to afford the escalating costs of living in Sri Lanka, especially in urban areas. To date, only one private sector organisation has taken a progressive step within their human resources. John Keells Holdings recently made an amendment to their human resources policy, that ensures no prospective employee will be refused on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Finding accommodation, too, is not an easy task for people of this community, with many interviewees claiming they are not welcome by those renting out houses or apartments. In many cases, those who cannot live with their families because of their gender identity or sexual orientation are forced to move out of their homes and fend for themselves. Many reported that they had been judged simply for ‘looking’ gay or lesbian, and some others have been forced to move out by the neighbourhoods because their presence was seen as unhealthy for the community.

These issues are merely highlights of All Five Fingers Are Not the Same: Discrimination on Grounds of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Sri Lanka, undoubtedly the most comprehensive report to ever be published on the LGBTI community in Sri Lanka. However, despite its many recommendations to the Parliament, relevant ministries and governmental bodies, and the Sri Lanka Police, it does not appear likely that there will be immediate action taken to better the standards of living for the LGBTI community. “We are still fighting for the Sri Lankan Government to decriminalise homosexuality,” says Flamer-Caldera, which is often the first step taken in many countries that have taken strides in protecting the rights of their LGBTI communities.

Sanju says that, besides action taken by the Government, it is also important that attitudes towards the LGBTI community by citizens, change. One glaring observation that can be made in this report is the constant humiliation and isolation the LGBTI, and especially transgender persons, feel going about their everyday lives. Sanju, whose family has reluctantly accepted his decision, went to two all-girls schools in his youth. He wears a pained expression when describing the many times he felt he was treated differently by relatives and teachers for not conforming to his assigned sex, a girl. “I was shy, when I was in school, because I did not want to draw attention to who I was,” he recalls. “But there were other students who, like me, were ‘tomboys’ and even attracted to members of the same sex. However, as adults, I know of only one girl in my class who is now openly lesbian and I am the only openly transgender. I can say that the pressure and discrimination many of us felt at the time, from parents and teachers, have scarred us for life. That is why I will never know if any of my other classmates were also like me ‒ ‘different’ but just did not have the courage or the support to openly be themselves.”

The full report, along with a video featuring a few transgender persons who candidly talk about their problems, is available on the HRW website. This article merely highlights only some of the calls for concerns that it has raised. Whilst other countries in the region, like India and Nepal, have taken considerable steps towards creating a more inclusive environment for their respective transgender communities, there has been no formal discussions or debate at parliamentary level to enable this same recognition in Sri Lanka. And while there are ongoing efforts to end discrimination on the basis of race and religion in the country, the most important takeaway from this report is that, it is time Sri Lanka looks at discrimination against all identities as a topmost priority.

*Name changed to protect identity

Featured image courtesy iaml.com

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