“This is a story about love, but it is also a story about democracy.”
-- Visakesa Chandrasekaram
Yesterday we went to the Galle Literary Festival, a celebration of writers, filmmakers and intellectuals from Sri Lanka and around the world. We watched the first ever Sri Lankan gay romance movie: Frangipani, a story about a love triangle between two gay men and a woman in a rural village. It was a harsh tale of the desperation when the desire to be loved and the desire to fit in becomes incompatible. Beautiful and sad, it managed to present a tragic story without vilifying or valorizing any of the characters: deeply flawed and deeply human.
The context of the film is perhaps as interesting as the film itself. In Sri Lanka, anti-sodomy laws are still on the books. However, this is rarely enforced because conviction requires three witnesses, and it would have to be some unusual sodomy indeed to have been directly observed by so many. What this does mean however, is that police have a scare tactic to use against any suspected homosexual who crosses their path. People are frequently arrested on Friday nights, leaving them to wait in jail over the weekend until judges comes in on Monday to throw out the case. It is a delicate topic. Colombo has a yearly pride festival in June which I can't wait to take part in. The intellectual westernized elite has begun to accept homosexuality as it is understood in the West, as demonstrated by accepting a gay film into the largest festival in the country. The quote which begins this blog is how the director introduces the film to a Sri Lankan audience, appealing to both emotions and to the desire to be a Western and egalitarian society.
However, it may be this westernized understanding which makes life impossible for people like the protagonists in the film, who come from rural and deeply religious backgrounds. My friend Kenneth is researching LGBTQ Health in Sri Lanka for his Fulbright, and this is what he has been able to find out so far. Like everywhere else, homosexuality has existed in Sri Lanka for a long time. Up until a movement towards westernization in 70s, many gay men had the male equivalent of mistress alongside their wife, something not quite talked about, but not quite reviled. Not until the import of the idea of 'Gay' as a fixed and constant identity arrived from the West was homosexuality officially scorned. Now as westernization infiltrates more fully into the culture, perhaps it will become more acceptable. Perhaps not. I think it will depend largely on the poor majority's relationship to the upper class, and to the Western power which it represents.
This is a relationship I am not sure the Galle Literary festival bodes well for. A day ticket cost 3500 Sri Lanka Rupees (around $25), more than a month of poverty-level wages. While all the events I attended yesterday were free, they were clearly by and for the elite and international crowd – and designed to be comfortable. A talk on the Muslim minority included no mention of the oppression they have received at the hands of both the Tamil and the Singhalese. The festival was attended by the Colombo elite, just shifted South a couple hundred kilometers. I ran into people from my work, from Fulbright, from the art community, even the Prime Minister was there. A part of me is delighted to see the vast intellectual power and creativity in Sri Lanka celebrated on an internationally known platform. Truly, the intellect in this country floors me. I feel dwarfed by my co-workers at CEPA, most of whom have PHDs, and are all experts in their fields. I am also awed by the diversity of talent here – the man who directed Frangipani is also an internationally recognized human rights lawyer who fights torture in Sri Lanka's prisons. The woman who runs Fulbright is also an award winning poet and journalist. It is wonderful to see such talent recognized. And yet, the festival did nothing to assuage the sense of foreboding I have that this recognition, rather than uplifting Sri Lanka as a whole, may further divide it.