The LGBTQI community suffered two blows within a span of five days, once again bringing to the fore the constant marginalisation this community faces.
Recently, long-time and well-known LGBTQI activist Bhoomi Harendran was refused entry to The Love Bar of Flamingo House located down Horton Place.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday (22), it was reported that the Fort Magistrate’s Court is to pass judgement on two youths who pleaded guilty to homosexuality; the verdict is to be heard on 23 October.
Both incidents caused major reactions on social media amongst activists, LGBTQI rights organisations, and the general public – and rightly so.
The Love Bar incident
Bhoomi was denied entry to The Love Bar by the bouncer based on her “appearance”. The issue escalated and The Love Bar promptly apologised, stating that they terminated the bouncer’s employment. They went on to say his behaviour was unacceptable, The Love Bar and Flamingo House celebrate diversity and Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community, are partly owned and managed by members of the same community, and will be conducting sensitivity training for all their staff.
Later that morning, Equal Ground, the local LGBTQI rights organisation led by Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, released a statement condemning the actions of the bouncer and “the blatant discrimination of any individual at any establishment based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression”, while going on to say they accept the apology issued and condone the establishment’s initiative to train their staff.
Bhoomi, who was directly affected by this, also accepted the apology and appreciated that the establishment pledged to ensure this does not occur again in the future.
In fact, she had gone so far as to speak to the owner of The Love Bar and appeal to them to refrain from firing the bouncer involved in the incident.
Speaking to the Colombo Gazette, she said: “I told them that firing the employee will not solve any problems; that they should implement a strong policy or instructions and train/sensitise their staff instead of firing. My biggest concern at the time was that I know that in this environment due to the impact of Covid-19, it’s very difficult for someone to find a job.”
Subsequently, The Love Bar decided to retract the termination of the employment of the bouncer and decided to conduct sensitisation training for him instead. This too received positive feedback from the LGBTQI community.
More to the issue?
Whilst the manner in which The Love Bar handled the issue can be commended, it seems the issue may not have been of gender identity alone.
Upon further analysis of the video of the incident, in which three distinct voices can be heard – that of Bhoomi, the bouncer, and Bhoomi’s male friend who was recording the video – we felt the need to delve into the matter further.
The male friend repeatedly questions the bouncer on why he isn’t letting a transgender person into the premises and then asks to speak to the manager. The bouncer then asks him to call on the hotline if he wishes to speak to the manager as there was no way of speaking to him there.
Upon the male friend continuing to repeatedly question the bouncer, the latter responded that they have a rule. The male friend then questioned: “What is it? That only male and female people are let in?”
The bouncer then attempted to explain that they were told to let patrons in based on their appearance.
At this point, we can hear Bhoomi asking: “Why did you say you can’t put me in?” to which her male friend responds: “No, because you’re transgender. That’s the reason.”
Bhoomi, speaking to the bouncer, then stated: “I will show you my ID, it doesn’t say transgender anywhere there,” to which the bouncer responded: “No I didn’t say it was because of that; I said it was because of your appearance (roope).”
This continued, and at one point the bouncer responded: “Yes, here we look at the appearance and then only allow people in. Here, we do look at that. I’m not talking about you specifically.”
Gender and class
Speaking to University of Colombo senior lecturer and LGBTQI activist Thiyagarajah Waradas, he shared that this was more of a gender and class issue, not only a gender issue.
He pointed out that while the bouncer did refuse entry to Bhoomi, on previous occasions, another transgender person by the name of Sathya was allowed into the premises, according to Bhoomi’s male friend in the video recording.
In addition, the professor said he received information from his sources about the bouncer involved in the incident, sharing: “According to my sources, the bouncer in question is generally queer-friendly.”
Prof. Waradas then pointed out that in the video, it is clearly Bhoomi’s male friend who stated it was because of her gender that she wasn’t allowed in; whereas the bouncer repeatedly kept referring to her “appearance” (roope in Sinhalese).
“This was a problem of a blend of gender and class appearance. The bouncer even said, ‘we have a rule here that we look at the appearance and let people enter’ – basically, they look at whether the patrons fit the particular class of people The Love Bar caters to,” Waradas said.
He went on to explain that the issue Bhoomi faced was very prevalent in society, especially in Colombo. He drew parallels with the issue where establishments along the southern coast had a “foreigners only” policy, which was in the limelight some months ago.
However, speaking to the Colombo Gazette on the matter, Equal Ground Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera disagreed, stating: “You can’t bring class into this. Because both Bhoomi and Sathya are two persons who have been coming up in the same way – they are both from underprivileged backgrounds. It is not a class issue.”
When asked what she felt the issue was, Bhoomi stated: “Honestly, it’s difficult to say exactly what the real reason was. I’m confused between whether it was that person’s attitude/lack of knowledge or poor management. It could either have been his outlook or a management issue, because what I see is both parties are passing the ball to each other.
“The sad thing is, people have taken this opportunity to create so many stories; some people took a jab at Sathya because her name was mentioned in the video, some attacked the management of The Love Bar, and some said it was a class issue.”
It would seem the issues facing the LGBTQI community are manifold and complicated. As such, even while it is important to raise our voices against injustice, because deeper issues are at play here, we must evaluate situations more closely to determine the root cause and thereby the correct solution.
Waradas shared: “What they (The Love Bar) have proposed – just to train the staff – will not resolve the issue. It looks very good in the public eye, because it is easy for them to call it an LGBTQI discrimination issue and say sorry, but there is much more to it.”
When asked how the experience left her Bhoomi said: “It was an emotionally traumatic experience. Just put yourself in my position and think about how you would feel if someone tells you to your face that because of the way you look, they can’t let you into the premises. I was just shocked.”
“I felt really down. Yes, I am a strong person, but it was traumatic for me.”
The LGBTQI commoner ignored
It is in this backdrop that on Tuesday it was reported that the Fort Magistrate Court is to have a hearing on 23 October pertaining to a case involving two gay men who pled guilty to homosexuality – this is one of many cases local LGBTQI people are facing. Needless to say, the LGBTQI commoner seems to be facing dire consequences for just being themselves.
Speaking on the same, Flamer-Cladera said: “The case is a bit dodgy. The two young men involved – and we have not been given their names, so we cannot even give them legal assistance – weren’t caught in the act of having sexual intercourse against the order of nature. They were forced into a confession.
“This leads me to believe that the Police have got some kind of instructions to go after LGBT persons now; this not the first case in the last two or three months, there have been others too.”
The Police made 800 arrests in 2019 citing “unnatural sex”. And some of these arrests were made under unjust circumstances where the Police infringed on LGBTQI persons’ privacy, in their own homes.
In this backdrop, whilst the Government doesn’t seem to have taken an official stance on the LGBTQI community, their silence is louder than words.
Flamer-Caldera shared: “It is rather short-sighted for the Government to go after LGBTQI persons and also to continue to criminalize it. From an economic standpoint, it is ridiculous. Whilst LGBTQI persons comprise 20% of the population, once we lift travel restrictions and are looking for more tourists to come into the country as well, the LGBTQI tourists can be a boon to Sri Lanka if we lift the laws that criminalize their brothers and sisters living in this country. So it’s a win-win.
“However, after the Government decided to uphold social correctness, as they put it, and decided to start by waging a war on drugs, it was just a matter of time before they are now coming after the LGBTQI community,” she added.
When asked if there was any hope within the community to get into talks with the Government to fight for the rights of LGBTQI folk, Waradas said: “In order for there to be a discussion, there needs to be an environment that gives us the confidence to do so – and with this Government, we do not have that.”
Speaking of what LGBTQI activists should fight for, Waradas shared: “Liberal institutionalization has led to us forgetting the feelings of the commoner; the common LGBTQI folk should the priority of the movement.”