It’s all about the power of visibility this Pride.
Two of this year’s parade marshals, Sahran Abeysundara and Gilbert Baker, have both made unique contributions to the grace and self-assuredness of queer politics. (Lesbian author and pioneer Jane Rule is also being honoured posthumously this year.)
Abeysundara and Baker are both activists and dynamic speakers.
Abeysundara organized Sri Lanka’s first Pride three years ago. It was a party held at a local nightclub. Despite the fact that homosexuality is still a crime in Sri Lanka, he is optimistic about the direction his community is taking.
Anyone not familiar with Baker’s name will, at the very least, know his work. He designed our rainbow flag.
Baker knows his way around a sewing machine. As a former drag queen, sewing was a fabulous skill to have.
“I’m a craftsperson,” he explains.
“I always have been and I wanted to put my skills to use serving my community.”
As he became more involved with politics and the gay liberation movement, Baker started making protest banners. As he explains it, the flag itself came out of that moment in history.
It was 1978. Harvey Milk had just been elected to City Hall in San Francisco. “We were in a moment of empowerment. We were at the zenith of changing the world.”
Prior to the rainbow flag, the pink triangle was the symbol of queerness. As Baker explains, though, “that was a Nazi symbol, used against queers the way the Star of David was used against Jews.”
While the pink triangle has endured and has, in fact, been reclaimed by queers, “it still represents homosexuals as victims of murder and hatred.”
Our symbols say so much about us and Baker knew that in order for us to persevere as a movement, we needed something of our own, something untainted by violence and negativity and disgrace.
The rainbow flag was immediately embraced as the new symbol for gayness. It fit the vision. It was vibrant. It demanded justice. It was the opposite of shame.
As Baker ruminates, “a true flag is not about design; it’s torn from the soul of the people. We all own the rainbow flag.”
While most flags are about land ownership or nationalism, the rainbow flag is what Baker refers to as an ‘anti-flag’ in that it crosses borders. “We needed something to express who we were as a sexual liberation movement. We are every gender. We are every race. We are every class.”
Baker stresses the importance of visibility tools. “Flags represent ideas,” he says, “and rainbows have been used cross-culturally and historically as symbols of hope. They are magical.”
Visibility is “the thread of our strength as a community,” Baker says of the current community debate over the importance of rainbow banners on Davie St. “Those who think it doesn’t matter are speaking from a place of privilege. Perhaps they’ve never had to fight or sacrifice for their rights.”
In a characteristic moment of contemplation, Baker muses that “flags are not a solution in and of themselves and they are not as important as being truthful to ourselves.” But if we think losing them on our streets wouldn’t have an impact, we’d be fooling ourselves, he says.
Vancouver is a gay-friendly city but even here, Baker argues, we should worry about the possibility of losing our visibility. He sees queers as a global tribe and the rainbow flag as an international solidarity tool.
Abeysundara points out that Sri Lanka was “historically a very tolerant nation and was once so liberal in its acceptance of humankind immaterial of race, creed or sexuality.”
Today many traditional Sri Lankans see homosexuality as a western import or even a western aberration, but sexual diversity has a long history on the island, he says.
“It was only after the British moved into Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] in 1814, that a more rigid system of sexual licensing was introduced and homosexuality was criminalized.”
Recent attempts to repeal the law criminalizing homosexual behavior backfired, he notes. When challenged, the government took a closer look and realized that —in only criminalizing gay male sex — the law was gender-biased. So they added lesbians.
“They proceeded to amend this law to include women as well! Sri Lanka is probably the only country that has done so. Most other Asian countries that were at one point colonies of the British Empire, still uphold these outdated sodomy laws, but none have amended the law to include women.”
Determined to do his part to help fellow Sri Lankans reclaim pre-colonial tolerance, Abeysundara took to activism. “In 2004, I helped set up Equal Ground, a nonprofit organization seeking political rights for the LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka. We want to encourage everyone to stand up with pride and be counted, and to pass on all the information we have to create a community educated in gay issues who know what their rights are as human beings.”
When Abeysundara refers to being counted, he’s getting at the very essence of the Sri Lankan queer community’s challenge. Since homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, few Sri Lankans can afford themselves the luxury of publicly coming out and taking part in their community.
“Being a gay man is difficult enough without the added burden of being openly out in a country that has a 10-year jail sentence attached to it,” says Abeysundara.
Still, he is convinced that solidarity is crucial, and that there is safety in numbers. He estimates that at least 10 percent of the population is queer and hopes to one day see his community thrive.
While the law criminalizing gay and now lesbian sex is not uniformly enforced by the authorities —particularly in the capital city of Colombo —its mere existence is enough for anti-gay groups to brand members of the community as perverts and lawbreakers, thus creating an environment of impunity for perpetrators and making queer persons legitimate targets for abuse under an antiquated penal code.
Organizing Sri Lanka’s first-ever Pride “just stemmed from our work with the community. We needed to create safe spaces for the queer community to come out to, to celebrate who they are and for at least one day be free to express themselves as gay men and women. We planned a party at a popular nightclub in town and organized adequate security just in case we had trouble. We anticipated that only a handful of people would turn up but we had over three hundred.”
Abeysundara was astonished by the turnout.
That first Pride party was the start of something amazing, he says. “Every year since then, the numbers have grown. Pride for us here in Sri Lanka is now a week-long celebration of who we are.”
Colombo’s Pride week includes queer movie nights, parties and art exhibitions. This year they had a drag show that drew 750 people. The community’s visibility is growing.
“We have still not been able to get on to the streets and march — most of the queer population lives in fear — but one day soon we will,” he says.
One of the festivities that Gilbert Baker would undoubtedly enjoy attending is Colombo’s Rainbow Kite Festival. Abeysundara explains the festival as “a day on the beach in Colombo where we gather and fly our rainbow kites over the city and make our statement —that the queer community is no longer hiding or lurking in the dark; we are out and proud of who we are and we demand our rights as human beings.”
“It’s easy — it’s even fun — to be gay in New York or Vancouver but try being gay in a place with a criminal sentence attached,” says Baker. He is pleased that his artistry has contributed to visibility internationally.
“Our fight for equality and freedom is not over until every queer person around the world is free to live and love who they want to.”
Pride, for our marshals, is more than a celebration. Abeysundara is concerned “that people have forgotten why we celebrate Pride, why we get on the streets for Pride, why we shout to be heard and what Pride is all about.”
Baker, too, wants us to be mindful of the word itself and its connotations. He ruminates on the Biblical notion of having pride before the fall. He wants to remind us that the human rights we’ve won are not givens. They can be taken away.
Abeysundara adds to that the sobering reminder that queer human rights are geographically specific. “Most of the western world is enjoying the benefits of civil partnership laws and marriage. They might not feel the need to campaign, to protest, to demand from our governments what is rightfully ours.”
This Pride, as we wave our rainbow flags and enjoy the parade and the parties that follow, Abeysundara would like us to keep solidarity in mind. “Most queer communities in the world are still fighting for the decriminalization of homosexuality. People around the world are still being tortured and stoned and killed for being queer.
Our fight is not over.”