President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office in July, said Sunday that the Sri Lankan government would not oppose the motion to decriminalize consensual sexual relations between same-sex couples in the country.
Speaking to Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Samantha Power, Wickremesinghe said the bill, which would amend sections 365 and 365A of the Sir Lanka Penal Code, will still require support from parliament members.
“We are for it, but you have to get the support of individual members. It’s a matter of their private conscience,” Wickremesinghe expressed to Power in Colombo on Sunday.
Member of Parliament and Attorney-at-law Premnath C. Dolawatte submitted the bill titled “Penal Code (Amendment) (19th Act) bill to amend the Penal Code” to Wickremesinghe on Aug. 24 as a private member’s proposal.
“The society of this country has an extremely backward idea regarding the LGBTQ + community and because of this, not only in daily life activities but even in government and law enforcement agencies, this community has been subjected to various forms of violence, oppression and harassment,” the president’s Media Division said in a statement.
Under sections 365 and 365A in Sri Lanka’s Penal Code, those who are caught having voluntary intercourse with members of same sex can face a prison sentence of not less than 10 years and up to 20 years with fines.
“A law that is over one hundred years old, which directly hinders equal rights for all, no longer serves its populous,” a Change.org petition read. “Such a law must be revoked. Consensual sex between adults should not be policed by the State nor should it be grounds for criminalization.”
Same-sex intercourse was criminalized under British colonial rule when the occupiers created sections 365 and 365A in Sri Lanka’s Penal Code in 1883.
Although the LGBTQ-plus community and their allies welcomed the new bill, the news came amid developments that severely affected the lives of LGBTQ-plus people in the country.
A factory worker found himself without a job after recently coming out as a transgender man last year. The man, identified as Chameera, 26, met his partner Nimalka, a 30-year-old bisexual woman, at United Tobacco Processing (UTP) about three years ago. They initially kept their relationship a secret, but after coming out as a transgender man, Chameera found himself a target of discrimination at their workplace.
“They [managers] told him to stop coming to work looking like this,” Nimalka told Women’s Media Center. “Some managers told him that it’s sinful to be trans. When Chameera last met the managers, they even removed his mask to see if he’d grown a beard.”
Ashila Dandeniya, the founder of Stand Up Movement Lanka and a former garment factory worker in Katunayake, one of the 12 Export Processing Zones in Sri Lanka where UTP also operates, told WMC that “Managers and supervisors humiliate and bully [LGBTQ-plus] people in the factory.”
After learning that the factory terminated Chameera’s contract, Nimalka told WMC, “I’m worried that Chameera will do something to his life.”
In February 2021, a lesbian woman was found dead by suicide after the same factory ridiculed her and refused to allow her to work after she cut her hair short, Dandeniya said. When news of her death immediately spread among other workers, Dandeniya added, “Now they don’t hire anyone with short hair. The moment you cut your hair short, they fire you.”
Featured Image via Jernej Furman (CC BY 2.0)