It’s a small world. A year ago I had the privilege of being at the second-ever Sri Lankan Pride, organized by Equal Ground, Sri Lanka’s queer rights organization. This year Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, one of Equal Ground’s lead organizers, is Pride Toronto’s international grand marshal and will be heading up the parade on Sun, Jun 24.
“Basically, my message is that we should not let our guard down,” says Flamer-Caldera. “We shouldn’t forget or be complacent about the work that was done by all the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] activists in the past, or about all the things that we fought for 20, 30 years.
“Whether it’s equal marriage or human rights legislation we shouldn’t take it for granted because there are many other countries where we don’t have those freedoms. I think it’s important to always remember it’s really easy to slide back into a situation, because there are people constantly working to undermine our efforts.”
Born in Sri Lanka to a Burgher family (of mixed Sri Lankan and European decent), Flamer-Caldera became an activist after considering suicide as a teenager because of her sexual orientation. After many years living abroad, including 15 years in San Francisco in the late 1970s/early ’80s, she made the choice to return home to be close to her roots and family. Since then she’s been at the centre of the explosion in queer organizing that’s taken place over in the past 15 years.
Flamer-Caldera was one of the founding members of the Women’s Support Group (WSG), the only group for queer women and trans people in Sri Lanka. Founded in 1999 WSG provides a safe house for queer women in Colombo, a resource library, weekly support group meetings and connections to queer-positive jobs and housing for women who are thrown out of their homes for being gay.
In 2004 Flamer-Caldera founded Equal Ground, the only mixed-gender queer organization in Sri Lanka, with the ultimate goal of changing the Sri Lankan constitution and federal laws to no longer criminalize queer people’s lives. Currently federal laws make consensual sex between adults of the same gender illegal.
For the past three years Equal Ground has also organized Pride in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. The weeklong celebrations feature film nights, parties and workshops, culminating in an annual Rainbow Kite Festival on the beach.
In a city and a country where gossip is king and communities are small these are milestone efforts. But the continued criminalization of queers and queer lives in Sri Lanka creates an atmosphere of discrimination and fear.
“The current hard-line Sinhalese Buddhist JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna] government is putting pressure on anyone who’s different, anyone who’s a minority community — including LGBT people,” says Flamer-Caldera.
Equal Ground has also received reports that some of the armed Tamil separatist groups in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka are executing queers.
“I found out about this in 2005 when I was doing tsunami work in the east and talking about Equal Ground and trying to form partnerships with local organizations. I was told, don’t talk about this work here, they’ll put a bullet in your head.”
While disappearances, extrajudicial executions and internally displaced people are issues that affect all Sri Lankans, Flamer-Caldera is concerned that queers are forgotten casualties.
“Human rights organizations feel that they have higher priorities than LGBT issues, but disappearances and killings happen to LGBT people, too, because of their sexuality, but their sexuality is never mentioned.”
In addition to work within Sri Lanka, since 2003 Flamer-Caldera has been the co-secretary general of the International Lesbian And Gay Association (ILGA), a worldwide umbrella organization for queer-rights groups with a focus on the global south.
Working with ILGA has meant having support and inspiration from working with other human rights groups around the world. But it’s also meant frustrations and challenges.
Currently, 85 UN member states still criminalize consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults. For the past several years the UN has blocked the applications of ILGA and many other queer groups to speak at the Economic And Social Council. A resolution on sexuality and human rights, submitted by Brazil in 2003 to the Human Rights Council of the UN and supported by ILGA, is all but dead.
Despite these setbacks Flamer-Caldera is dedicted to her work. “What motivates me is when I see people who are marginalized because of their sexuality or their gender — it hurts me. When I wake up what’s in my mind is to try and change one person’s mind against hating queers. If one person that day makes the choice to love not hate, I’ve done my job.”