The Psychological Impact of Homophobia in Sri Lanka
Posted on April 13th, 2018

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

Homosexuality is defined as the orientation of sexual need, desire, or responsiveness towards other persons of the same gender (Masango, 2002).Although definitions of the term often focus mainly on sexual acts and attractions persons of the same biological sex , homosexuality also refers to patterns of same sex romantic and emotional bonding identifies and communities based on same sex desires and relationships and the shared culture created by those communities (Herek, 1996).

Homosexuality has been present in human civilization from ancient times (Somasundaram & Tejus Murthy, 2016). References to same-sex couples and activity have been noted as far back as 600 B.C. on ancient Japanese and Chinese pottery. Ancient Greek and Roman art is full of depictions of same-sex couples (Steever et al., 2013).  Plato (428- 348  BC)  in his Symposium provides the outline for an archetypally-based image of homosexual love: “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half” (Plato, 1956, p. 355; Walker, 1991).

The ancient Sri Lankans had social tolerance of homosexuality probably due to the Buddhist teachings that did not condemn LGBT people. The Buddhist Jataka stories discuss homosexuality without homophobic prejudice (Jayatunge, 2015).  According to some scholars; early Buddhism appears to have placed no special stigma on homosexual relations (Coleman, 2002). There had been greater acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Sri Lanka.

According to The Mahawansa the great chronicle that relates the history of Sri Lank describes an intimate relationship between the King Kumaradasa and the renowned Sanskrit poet Kalidasa in the 5th century CE. The Upāsakajanalankara, for example, a 14th century Sri Lankan texts for lay people, includes a long and detailed section on sexual misconduct but makes no mention of homosexuality (Saddhatissa, 1965; Bhante Dhammika  , 2018). In 1547 AD the Portuguese soldier Joao de Casto wrote a letter to the Governor of Goa stating that the KingBhuvanaka Bahu III of Kotte  used to engage  in gay activates.

The English sailor Robert Knox (1641 –  1720) who spent 20 years in Sri Lanka as a prisoner wrote ; Most of his Attendants are Boys, and Young Men, that are well favored, and of good Parentage. For the supplying himself with these, he gives order to his Dissava’s or Governors of the countreys to pick and choose out Boys, that are comely and of good Descent, and send them to the Court. These boys go bare-headed with long hair hanging down their backs. Not that he is guilty of Sodomy, nor did I ever hear the Sin so much as mentioned among them (Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, 1681,).

Opposition to homosexuality in Sri Lanka started with the Colonial rule and the Church’s influence. Probably the first mention of homosexuality with strong disapproval came from a Portuguese observer in the early 16th century (Bhante Dhammika  , 2018).Homosexuality has long been sources of contention within the institution after 1505 with the Portuguese influence.  The Church’s declaration on sexual ethics impacted the same-sex sexuality in Sri Lanka.  The non-heterosexual orientation had been described as a violation of norms in the area of sexuality. During this period a large number of LGBT people were subjected to numerous harassment and discrimination. Regrettably religious and cultural basis of homophobia still exists in the Island. Negative attitudes toward LGBT population are common and widespread in the contemporary Sri Lankan society.

In the Western World up until 1973, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness. It brought psychiatric stigma to the LGBT people in Western societies. Official reviews of homosexuality as both an illness and (for men) a crime led to discrimination, inhumane treatments and shame, guilt and fear for gay men and lesbians (King & Bartlett, 1999).  In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1975, the American Psychological Association stated that homosexuality was not a disorder and that homophobia was a form of prejudice based on stereotypes  (Tate & Longo ,2004).Homosexuality is now more commonly regarded as a normal variant of human sexuality  (Drescher ,2008).

Sexual orientation refers to a dispositional sexual attraction towards persons of the opposite sex or same sex (Rahman,  2005).  Some researchers believe that sexual orientation is beyond a person’s control. Most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive, and biological factors (Kórász ,2013).However an  alarming stigmatization and discrimination of homosexual people persists despite the formal depathologization of homosexuality, which occurred through the removal of the diagnosis from the DSM- (1973) and classification from the ICD (1991) (Mahler & Mundle ,2015).

Psychology regards homosexuality as an alternative form of sexuality that is not associated with pathology (Herek, 1996). Sexual identity and sexual orientation are independent components of a person’s sexual identity (Roselli, 2017).  Sigmund Freud (1905) asserted that an exclusive heterosexual orientation does not only result from biological causes, but also is influenced by societal prohibitions on homoerotism and by early experiences with parents (Herek, 1984).

Between 1968 and 1969, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau sparked a controversy surrounding his liberal government’s passage of Bill C-150, which decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in private (Chambers,2010). Significant moments in sexual minority rights lead to change the laws that repressed LGBT people. Many Western countries have decriminalized homosexuality at present.  Although a large number of countries worldwide has legalized homosexual rights homosexuality is still illegal in Sri Lanka and Under Section 365A of the country’s penal code, homosexual acts are punishable by a jail term of up to ten years. These colonial era laws compromise health and human rights of the LGBT people in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan legal system does not protect sexual preferences of gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Sri Lanka. Homosexuality is illegal and considered to be a taboo subject. Those who do advocacy for the LGBT population often face threats and humiliation.  LGBT people living in Sri Lanka constantly face stigma, bullying, LGBT directed outrage, marginalization, sexual victimization and discrimination. Gay men are often called carriers’ of AIDS.  Hate crimes and hate speech against gay and lesbian victims are not rare. They face undeserved treatment and injustice. LGBT population faces derogatory labeling, public humiliation frequently by mainstream media.  Stereotypic and stigmatic attitudes toward gay people often lead them to hide their sexual orientation. Some gay people report high levels of being uncomfortable with their sexuality. Some face family rejection following their sexual orientation. Stigma and discrimination have a negative impact on the lives of LGBT people in Sri Lanka.

Prejudice and discrimination against LGBT individuals is widespread and has been shown to have negative consequences for sexual and gender minority persons’ physical and psychological wellbeing (Morrison et al., 2018).Discrimination causes health inequities for stigmatized groups (Pomeranz, 2018). Stigma operates at several levels to affect health, including internalized (e.g. sexual minorities’ negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours about their own sexuality), interpersonal (e.g. discrimination) and structural (e.g. legislation that enshrines disadvantage in law) (Pachankis et al., 2015). McDermott and group (2008) demonstrate a strong link between homophobia and self-destructive behaviours. Societal and internalized homophobia could increase sexually transmitted infection acquisition (Steever et al., 2014). Research has documented significant relationships between sexual and gender minority stress and higher rates of suicidality (i.e. suicidal ideation and attempts) and substance use problems (Mereish  et al.,2014).  LGBT people have higher prevalence of mental health problems.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender population face numerous psycho social problems. Following anti-gay sentiments they often become victims of violence. There are mental health problems among the members of the LGBT community. Some abuse drugs to ease their emotional pain. Disproportionate levels of substance use can be seen among the sexual minority young people. Due to homophobia they find it difficult to form meaningful, long-term, same-sex relationships.

Homophobia is the irrational fear and hatred of those who love and sexually desire those of the same sex. Homophobia is a socially accepted, culturally based belief, which is heavily influenced by an individual’s or a community’s inherent attitudes, beliefs and values (Richmond & McKenna, 1998). Homophobia not only damages individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, but also limits heterosexuals by locking them into rigid gender-based roles (Tate & Longo, 2004).  However some ome propose homonegativism instead of homophobia. Homonegativism is a multidimensional construct that encompasses the entire domain of anti-gay responses, including attitudes, beliefs, and judgments regarding homosexuality (Bernat et al.,2001).

Homophobia has very complex roots. Homophobic attitudes derive from non-liberal attitudes, fixation to social inequality and religious fundamentalism.  Sandor Ferenczi (1914) suggested that heterosexual men’s feelings of aversion, hostility, and disgust toward male homosexuality really are reaction-formations and symptomatic of defense against affection for the same sex. Ferenczi did not extend his analysis to women’s attitudes or to attitudes toward lesbians, but similar processes might be inferred (Herek, 1984).    West (1977) viwed homophobia as the anxiety about the possibility of being or becoming a homosexual may be a major factor in homophobia According to Cory (1951) negative feelings toward opposite-sex homosexuals result from heterosexuals’ feelings of rejection as potential sexual partners.

 Homophobia has created an unconstructive environment for the LGBT people in Sri Lanka. They are impacted by silence, identity concealment, and repression.   Some live with uncertainty.  They experience sexual and mental health disparities.  Higher rates of mental health concerns are prevailing among them. Many experience depression and adjustment disorders. In addition many sexual minorities’ are impacted by addiction disorders. Following overwhelming social pressure and discrimination a considerable number of same sex couples had committed suicide in the past two decades.

Religious organizations and media constitute a significant source of the homophobia in Sri Lanka. They label LGBT people as sinners and potential threat to the moral foundation of the society. Fear of AIDS and homophobia are often interconnected. According to Meyer (2003)stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment that causes mental health problems among the LGBT population.  Furthermore Chakraborty and team (2011) state that perceived discrimination may act as a social stressor in the genesis of mental health problems in this population. These social, political and cultural pressures may produce powerful and enduring emotional reactions among the LGBT people.

Although lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex movement has no strong voice in Sri Lanka several organizations have taken active measures to eradicate homophobia in the Sri Lanka. These organizations help to improve wellbeing of the LGBT.

Homophobia prevails in personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels. It has to be dealt with constructively.  Kozloski (2010) believe that education has a stronger connection with tolerance. Higher educated people tend to be more accepting of homosexuality than lower educated people (la Roi &, Mandemakers, 2018).

Education can change public perception of same-sex relations in Sri Lanka.  Promotion of liberal values and sexual conservativeness are important with regard to resolving personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural misunderstanding of homosexuality. Political tolerance of homosexuals also an essential feature that ought to be established. Civil society should understand and recognize the LGBT rights. In addition anti-discrimination policies should be introduced to protect the LGBT rights. Social and legal inclusion would help them to integrate in to society.  Legal and social recognition of same sex relationships may reduce discrimination.

Eradicating homophobia and socio-cultural barriers may uplift the wellbeing of the LGBT people in Sri Lanka. Promoting social inclusion would help the LGBT people to earn their status as equal members of society.

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