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GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Infighting in Sri Lanka

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Posted by Kent Klindera, September 25, 2012 

I recently left Colombo, Sri Lanka, after spending three lovely days with colleagues at Diversity and Solidarity Trust (DAST). amfAR is supporting DAST to work with the owners and staff at several male massage centers in Colombo, which at times can act as fronts for male sex work. DAST has proposed to assist the men in receiving formal massage therapy certificates, in order to increase their likelihood of receiving more money for their massage services. During my visit, they also discussed opening an English language class to assist the masseurs in providing services to higher paying clients. 

DAST is already promoting safer sex, HIV testing and counseling, and social support for the men on a regular basis. They are focusing on “test and treat” so that if someone is infected, they can make sure they are on treatment, lowering the probably of spreading HIV to others. I also met with a few masseurs who let me know they were from rural areas, and that their income from massage work assists with their studies, and supports family back home. They told me they “never” practice penetrative sex in their work, but I was not convinced. 

An advertisement for a male massage parlor working with DAST.  

Unfortunately, several massage centers have recently been raided due to various issues, including illegal drug use. In an extreme case, some masseurs and clients were arrested. As a result, some male masseurs have shifted to off-site “house calls” for their effort, making it very challenging for DAST to implement their program.

However, a larger challenge for DAST is the infighting, back stabbing, and sabotage occurring between various Sri Lankan LGBT-identified organizations. There are a several other local organizations, which all seem to serve different populations amongst the LGBT community—LGBT of higher means, LGBT youth, lesbian women, openly identified gay men, transgender individuals, etc. However, to international donors and networks, it seems that at times these groups and individuals sabotage each other. Clearly, there is a history of corruption among some individuals, as well as years of built-up mistrust. It seems very self-defeating to me.

I also had a long and fruitful conversation with colleagues representing various UN agencies and The Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka—all of whom were very supportive of DAST’s and others’ work related to LGBT issues. However, they confirmed the infighting and were not sure what to do about it.

As many of us know, infighting like this is not unique to Sri Lanka. Such infighting exists nearly everywhere and can be destructive.  But as a seasoned activist, I recognize that such infighting is natural, especially when marginalized people are forced to fight over limited resources. However, as a movement, we need to unite our efforts to challenge a homophobic and trans-phobic world, and not allow internal conflicts slow our progress. 

I am honored to work with activists throughout the world and I have noticed that activists in places under extreme threat seem to be more likely to work together. In a way, having a crisis encourages more unity to defeat a common opposition. For example, the LGBT activist movement in Jamaica has had to deal with extreme violence against their community for years—both physical and verbal (especially in the form of popular music). I’m not sure exactly what the secret is, but, from my perspective, the Jamaican LGBT organizations seem to be united. 

Similarly, I look to Uganda, where groups who once struggled through severe infighting have come together to stand united against a religiously based, state-sponsored assault on their livelihoods (even more notable after the death of David Kato—one of their key leaders). 

Back to Sri Lanka—I also spent a lot of time chatting with a charming and peaceful gay activist who is working on “peace-building.” Sri Lanka is emerging from more than 25 years of civil strife. The government of Sri Lanka and global human rights donors have responded to this situation by investing in peace and reconciliation processes—working to build trust between ethnic groups. During our conversations, a huge light bulb went on in both our heads. We recognized that the work he was doing as a peace builder for the nation is sorely needed within the LGBT community in Sri Lanka as well. I left quite encouraged, as this activist seemed to be quite excited about applying his skills to build peace in the LGBT community. Time will tell, but I left with a whole lot of hope for this beautiful country.

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