In a country where homosexuality is outlawed, the internet provides both an escape and meeting place for LGBTQ Sri Lankans. Experts in Colombo are now studying ways to ensure the safety of LGBTQ Sri Lankans as they log on.
A recent study into internet use amongst LGBTQ Sri Lankans was launched in Colombo earlier this month. “Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankans Online” was produced by Sri Lanka’s Women and Media Collective as part of a project by the EROTICS South Asia Network.
The report outlines how this group uses technology to access information, mobilize, and make friends and lovers. Self-expression and identity building were other key uses and benefits of the internet.
“The internet pierces through powerful assertions of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in Sri Lanka, and provides LGBTQ individuals with vital information about scientific developments in understandings of human sexuality…and social transformations taking place around the world,” the report stated.
Public spaces in Sri Lanka are heavily policed for “decency,” and LGBTQ people face arrest or extortion if they are caught. Private Facebook groups are key sites for safe discussion and organising. Vocal LGBTQ activists reported that they are regularly contacted via social media for information, such as for details of gay friendly health clinics or local meet ups.
The report is divided into two chapters: the first, by Paba Deshapriya and Michael Mendis, looks at how the country’s socio-political context and legal and political frameworks influence internet use. The second, by Shermal Wijiwardene and Subha Wijesiriwardena, examines the specific ways that lesbian women engage online.
The authors highlight a number of unique forms of harassment that LGBTQ individuals face when accessing and using the internet. For example, citizens are required to present a national identity card when setting up an internet connection, which presents problems for trans people if the gender on their identity card does not match their presentation.
Wartime also heightened the harassment faced by the LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka, through increased security and street surveillance. At military checkpoints, police and soldiers examine their phones, threatening their safety.
Unsurprisingly, many of the study’s respondents kept their sexual and gender identities secret in their offline lives, which made their online activity even more vital for survival.
Respondents who came of age before the internet reported that they or people that they knew had grown up completely unaware of homosexuality as a “phenomenon or concept.” Younger LGBTQ Sri Lankans are less likely to grow up in such intense isolation.
Fears around surveillance and a lack of security online were cited as major barriers to further LGBTQ internet use. Reports of phone repair workers extracting content from phones to post on the internet and leaks from within and outside of the LGBTQ community were major risks. Over 40 percent of respondents’ sexual orientation or gender identity had been broadcasted online without their consent.
Many Sri Lankan LGBTQ individuals self-censor. 25 percent of respondents have more than one internet profile for reasons related to sexual orientation or gender identity. “Fake” profiles used to meet lovers online without revealing identifying details were common, as were “fake” profiles with staged heterosexual content for the benefit of colleagues and conservative family members.
Worryingly, Sri Lanka’s state surveillance laws, which allow the government to demand private information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), are unclear and difficult to access. Respondents showed a low level of understanding around internet security and safety, highlighting the need for community education initiatives.
The researchers conclude with a series of recommendations to government, ISPs, and civil society. The report states the need for more linguistically diverse (Sinhala and Tamil) content on LGBTQ issues, and the development of strategies to increase knowledge of cyber safety amongst LGBTQ (and all) Sri Lankan citizens.
Read the full report here.