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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Sri Lankan Artist Natalie Soysa Is Striving To ‘Bend’ Gender Norms Through Her Edgy Projects

  • IWB Post
  •  June 19, 2019

Did you know that more than half of the 70 countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality were under some kind of British influence or control in the past? Thus the “modern” sodomy laws as we know them have actually been handed down to us by our colonial masters who clearly still continue to rule our values and sensibilities.

A vast chunk of South Asian countries, more than any other region in the world, continues to abide by these archaic ideas of morality that were not even theirs to begin with. A legacy of the 1553 Buggery Act conceptualized and introduced by the Britishers, these punitive laws keep dragging us down through their varying premises, which by the way are all obsolete.

“Thus, through its colonial administration, the British managed to impose and institutionalise a set of laws in its colonies that criminalized homosexual conduct,” Enze Han and Joseph O’Mahoney write in their book titled British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality.

By scrapping the regressive Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Indian certainly has taken a positive leap in the direction. That, however, is just the beginning. With our hazy ideas of gender, identity, and equality, we certainly have a long path to tread.

Owing to the expansive geopolitical, religious, and socio-cultural diversity in the region, addressing matters of sexuality and gender inequality in South Asia is no cakewalk and certainly needs more persuasion than just protests and activism to make a point and raise our concerns. This is where art comes into the picture.

Sri Lankan artist and photojournalist Natalie Soysa has been exploring the potential of art as a medium of expression and change through her work on gender and queer population in the country.

In a recent interaction with IWB, Natalie talked about the dismal condition of LGBTQ rights in Sri Lanka and how she has been working against the regressive ideas pertaining to gender both in her professional as well as personal life.

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During the conversation, she shared, “Sri Lanka is still a little old school in our understanding of non-binary genders and sexualities. This becomes a complex issue for all non-conforming individuals in general because we automatically see non-conformists as “the other” and tend to separate ourselves from them.”

Natalie feels that India has set a great example by doing away with Section 377 of IPC and other countries need to follow its lead. She gives the example of Section 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code to through light on the crisis of LGBTQ rights in the country.

She shares, “The law is fraught with many complexities here. The Sri Lankan Penal Code retains an archaic British colonial era ‘anti-sodomy law’, Section 365, which criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Unlike section 377 in India, this is very much in practice in Sri Lanka.”

However, it is the presence of a weird confusion that irks Natalie the most. While the queer community has suffered through a history of violence and intolerance, a couple of years ago the Human Rights of Sri Lanka established a special subcommittee for queer people in the country where they pressurized the government to release circular banning discrimination of LGBTQ community. Having said that, the 365 law still stays intact and this exactly is the point of crisis.

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Like Natalie explains, “While there is banning of discrimination yet there is a criminalized kind of penal code point.” Thus, while a few individuals in the country might take pride in the fact that they have come so far, the truth is that the queer identity in the country remains suspended in mid-air and on the mercy of some archaic British ideologies that have been deep imprinted on psyche of all the erstwhile British colonies in ink so dark that they are facing a hard time in washing it off.

A queer woman herself, Natalie shares it’s actually the ostracisation that one feels at the hands of their families and immediate societies that is more psychologically and mentally jarring than the stringent laws.

While she jokingly shares that her own family came to know about her sexual orientation through a Twitter chat she recently had with IWB, that sadly is not the case with the other queer individuals in the country. Amidst an array of penalizing laws and lack of community support (both LGBTQ and otherwise) the queer people often find themselves in emotionally draining and lonely situations.

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Natali shares, “I don’t work in an LGBTG organization anymore but I can say from my past work that it has been quite bad for the community. Laws are not the only struggle. The real pain comes from the immediate community as well as families ostracizing people. When you combine these two atrocities, it has certainly not been pleasant.”

During her past work as a journalist, Natalie has worked with a number of countries and queer organisation across them and feels that the core aims of all these communities and activism come down to the same goal i.e. acceptance and understanding.

A single mother herself, Natalie is thus doing the best that she can in the direction by initiating the change at her home first. Mother to an 8-year-old son, Natalie has ensured to keep him away from the entire idea of heteronormativity. Like she says, “He has no concept of the gender binary or heteronormativity and no matter how many outside forces are going to tell him otherwise, I am going to stand by my ideas.”

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Natalie’s latest project on gender called “Bender” is dedicated to the same end. Under the project, she has been raising important concerns pertaining to gender identity, discrimination, and the idea of victimhood. She has been developing the project to educate people about different ideas and terms pertaining to gender.

An initiative to raise awareness about the dynamic nature of gender in opposition to society’s limited ideas of the same, Natalie believes that it is only through awareness and sensitisation that a change can be brought in the way the queer community is viewed and treated around the world.

Like she says, Bender is “a space for dialogue on archaic, irrelevant and stereotypical norms that define gender. Because we believe these norms have been unfair to all of us.”

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Picture and artwork courtesy: Natalie Souza

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