Introduction: A Gamble on Love in the Shadows
We find ourselves immersed in the flickering glow of candlelight, accompanied by the enchanting symphony of cicadas and the resonating calls of peacocks in the distance. Taranga, our host, never bothered explaining the rules of the card game we’re playing. Unsurprisingly, he’s the reigning champion.
“The lights will return soon,” he assures us while shuffling the deck for another round of… who knows? “This happens every night.”
As I steal a glance at the shadowy figure beside me, my partner, I struggle to discern his expression. A sense of lightheartedness dissipates into the obscurity surrounding us.
This moment marks the first time in my life where physical contact with my partner is forbidden. Why? Because any display of affection could lead to arrest or institutionalization.
The Perils of Love: Navigating Sri Lanka’s Legal Landscape
Sri Lanka, still bound by the archaic 1883 Penal Code, criminalizes homosexuality, subjecting both men and women to a potential 10-year prison sentence.
These remnants of imperial law are often dismissed as mere vestiges of Britain’s colonial era. However, last year, a gay couple was arrested based on their sexual orientation and confined to a psychiatric facility for evaluation.
Panic churns in my stomach, dampening my joy at winning yet another round of cards. At 6pm, the power is finally restored. Air conditioning units hum back to life, pool lights twinkle, and the warm glow of fireflies fades into the heavy, humid air.
As the candle flickers out, I resist the urge to turn to my partner and share my thoughts. Instead, I muster an unconvincing smile towards Taranga and retreat to our room.
Choosing Safety: Our Precautions as a Same-Sex Couple
Prior to embarking on our journey to Sri Lanka, we were well aware of the prevailing anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Hence, we agreed on three essential precautions: always booking twin beds, refraining from public displays of affection, and avoiding any actions that might attract attention.
Our well-being and ability to blend in seamlessly were inextricably intertwined. Any behavior that might draw attention was strictly off-limits. We even concocted a fabricated backstory of being cousins, though we lacked the courage to employ it. Instead, we nodded along when mistaken for friends or breathed a sigh of relief when no questions arose.
A week into our trip, I realized I had packed a vest adorned with a pride-themed quote on the back. Ironically, it remained nestled in my suitcase throughout our stay, serving as a subtle metaphor for our hidden identities.
Over time, adhering to these rules became second nature, enabling us to savor our journey. We gradually adapted to the climate, power outages, and the inability to hold hands. Strangely enough, Sri Lanka became the backdrop for our love story, even if it could never reciprocate.
Tourism’s Struggles: Sri Lanka’s Unsteady Path
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has endured a turbulent period due to political instability, economic downturns, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, the country has faced significant setbacks, including protests, inflation, and a nationwide fuel shortage.
Many businesses have suffered, with some hanging by a thread. Consequently, our arrival in November 2022 was met with genuine gratitude and appreciation. Restaurant managers approached us, personally thanking us for our visit and tipping.
“Please spread the word that it’s safe to travel here,” one bar owner implored.
The scene was both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. Despite my initial reservations, I found myself rooting for Sri Lanka’s recovery.
However, the dearth of tourists also made it difficult for us to remain inconspicuous. Booking a hotel only to discover that we were the sole occupants became a commonplace occurrence.
Perceptions: Real Threats or Paranoia?
At times, simply existing in Sri Lanka overwhelmed me with anxiety. It felt as though we were under constant surveillance, regarded with suspicion and caution.
But was it genuine surveillance or my mind playing tricks on me?
Self-policing one’s natural instincts carries consequences. Constantly reminding ourselves of the three rules eventually took a toll on my mental well-being. I had locked myself back in the closet, metaphorically swallowing the key. Although this journey was meant to be enjoyable, we found it challenging to relax.
Late-night whispers between my partner and me, sitting on separate beds across the room, were a poignant reminder of the warmth we longed to share.
“If you ever feel unsafe, we can leave,” my partner often reassured me.
Nevertheless, we persisted, and three weeks later, as we arrived at the airport, conflicting emotions rushed over me. I felt sadness, yet relief. Happiness was tinged with a subdued tone.
Apart from a few stares and an ignorant comment from a tour guide equating homosexuality with sin, we departed Sri Lanka unharmed and secure.
Had I blown things out of proportion, or were the microaggressions I experienced valid?
Privilege and Protection: Navigating Sri Lanka as Westerners
Undeniably, our experience in Sri Lanka was cushioned by the safety net of white privilege and the economic symbolism associated with being Westerners.
We were never confronted, explicitly questioned about our sexuality, or physically threatened. It seemed as though an unspoken agreement had been forged. Sri Lanka, yearning for tourists, turned a blind eye to our presence. Likewise, we yearned for the veil of invisibility, and our desires were respected.
However, it is essential to acknowledge that gay Sri Lankans lack the same level of privilege. My anxiety paled in comparison to the countless challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals worldwide.
According to a 2021 report by the UK’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy, 69% of Sri Lankans believe that the police discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals. Additionally, over half (51.4%) view being LGBTQ+ as contradictory to their religious beliefs.
In a nation lacking safeguarded protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the consequences extend far beyond the concerns of apprehensive tourists. Rental housing and educational opportunities become battlegrounds where LGBTQ+ Sri Lankans face discrimination.
A Hopeful Horizon: Empowering Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ+ Community
I hold a dual hope for Sri Lanka. Firstly, I hope for a vibrant and flourishing tourism industry. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience the country’s breathtaking wildlife, distinctive cuisine, and unparalleled hospitality at least once in their lifetime.
Secondly, I yearn for an authentic future for LGBTQ+ Sri Lankans: a future where they can embrace their true selves without fear of judgment or compromised safety.
A glimmer of hope emerges on the horizon. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, recently expressed his government’s non-opposition to a bill aiming to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. In May, the Supreme Court ruled that the bill was not unconstitutional, and it now awaits parliamentary review.
Last year witnessed the country’s first-ever Pride rally, as courageous citizens flooded the streets adorned in rainbows. During this year’s Pride Month, hundreds once again paraded through the capital, Colombo, demanding an end to discrimination.
If the Prime Minister remains true to his word, Sri Lanka’s future will undoubtedly shine brighter than ever.