2021 Jun 27
As we celebrate the month of pride, Pulse invited two maestros in the creative sphere to showcase perhaps one of the most potent creative endeavours of our time. Titled ‘Living Proof’, it is an ongoing visual-storytelling project that seeks to document the lives of LGBTIQ+ communities in Sri Lanka.
Living Proof was initiated in early 2019, by artist and theatre practitioner Jake Oorloff, who presently serves as the co-director of the theatre and performance collective, Floating Space Theatre Co., in collaboration with artist and photographer Jonathan Wijayaratne, who is the director of Jonathan’s 1924 photo studio and the co-founder of Colombo based visual arts house, You’re My Favorite.
In its first iteration, the artists attempted to photograph and write about Sri Lankan LGBTIQ+ people as they live alongside all of their other intersecting identities, realities and interests, presenting them as members of a distinct community as well as critical contributors to the country’s social fabric and history. Photographed in their homes or neighborhoods, in a space of their own choosing, the backdrops were as important to the works as their stories.
‘For me, it has been interesting both on a personal level and in terms of artistic investigation to try and understand the way in which LGBTIQ+ people from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country, negotiate not only everyday struggles, but also the more complex struggles of identity, desire and the self in a context that is deeply oppressive. I believe, this project, as it evolves, will bear witness to a community of people who have been consistently denied a voice but have chosen to speak up and be counted. ’ – jake Oorloff
Even within a context of draconian laws that criminalise and serve to render a community vulnerable in society, the Sri Lankan LGBTIQ+ community has remained defiant, challenging hegemonic gender and sexual norms and living their own realities and truths. Offering proof and serving as witness to this continued defiance are the individuals and lives (re)presented in the following photographs…
“Every day I get closer to the person I want to be. I don’t think I can mention one specific day as the day I started to transition. I was always transitioning… from the day I was born I was transitioning into the woman I knew I was… into the woman I wanted to be.”
Sakuni posed for the photograph in her dark living space. The single room structure with its corrugated iron roof was located between a railway track and a newly constructed flyover. The thunderstorm that afternoon had caused the electricity to go off.
“I’m comfortable here. I have had no trouble from the people in this area,” she said as she showed us around the small garden she has cultivated. “I don’t need much to survive, I just want what everyone else wants; to be able to be myself.”
Sakuni Mayadunne identifies as a transgender woman*, and is an activist working on issues affecting Sri Lanka’s LGBTIQ community.
*Transgender woman/Trans woman (male-to-female/MtF): refers to a person who identifies as female or feminine, but was assigned the male sex at birth and may or may not have been raised as a boy.
“I started wearing dresses when I was 15. I knew I was a woman. I faced what I had to face and I’m still here. I’m 35 now.”
Sashini was photographed at the office of the National Transgender Network – a collective committed to serving the Trans community of Sri Lanka.
“When I was 18, I heard about Sherman De Rose and ‘Companions on a Journey’. I went in search of other people like me. Companions on a Journey was an organisation set up for people like us. We helped and supported each other through this organisation. This is where I first heard the word ‘Transsexual’. Before that I didn’t have a word to describe what I was feeling or experiencing.”
Sashini Arumanayagam lives in her family home in Bloemendhal, Colombo 15. Sashini is committed to helping her Trans sisters and engages in sex work to support herself.
“They tried to take away my smile. They haven’t won.”
Navinda, or ‘Wathsala’ as he likes to be called when he cross-dresses*, posed for the photo close to where he had been physically attacked less than two months ago.
“I believe that whatever has to come my way can’t be avoided. I have to accept what happened that day like I have to accept the positive things that have come my way. Maybe I could have gone to the police station and made an entry… tried to get justice, but where do I live after that? It was the young men in my neighbourhood that attacked me. This is our life.”
Navinda is Gay and enjoys cross-dressing. He is also a sex worker. The day he was attacked, they used a motorcycle helmet to bash his face. He lost five teeth from that attack. He continues to live and work in the same neighbourhood.
*Cross dresser/cross-dressing: refers to the person or act of wearing items of clothing and other trimmings associated with the opposite sex within a particular society. Cross-dressing is not specific to any one sexual orientation.
Roy was photographed at his local grocery shop. “The Akka is my friend,” he said.
“I visit my family once in a way, but I live alone. The people in the area are friendly with me. I haven’t had many issues. I help them whenever they need help and they will always help me if I needed anything. That is how we live.”
Roy Nisanka identifies as Nachchi* and is presently single.
*Nachchi: refers to a distinctly Sri Lankan gendered self-identity. The Nachchi is a feminine homosexual identity and is distinct from the Western conception of gay and bisexual.
“My dream is to be able to someday build my own house and live there with my partner. I need a place to lay my head… everyone needs a place of their own, especially as they get older.”
“Don’t put my real age up there, my friends will poke fun at me,” she said as she posed for her photo. “When I used to live in Katunayaka, we had many issues with the police. They entered our house on several occasions and even took us into custody. They just kept finding excuses to harass us. I was once fined five thousand rupees after they found a pornographic DVD that belonged to my friend who was staying with us for a few days. They searched and searched and managed to find something to use against me. I decided to move to this place when I had had enough.”
In response to her present work situation, Ayesha told us she had no specific job but had worked at several factories. “I used to work for an HIV prevention project, but that has ended now. I heard it may start again, so I am waiting for that job.”
Ayesha Ekanayaka is a Trans woman and now lives with her partner in a house they rent in Kelaniya.
The first public exhibition of the artists’ work opened in February, 2019, at the Independence Square, Colombo, as part of One Billion Rising – a global campaign to end violence against women (cisgender, transgender, and those who hold fluid identities that are subject to gender-based violence).
The artists invite LGBTIQ+ individuals from any part of the island to be part of the project.
All photos and accompanying text courtesy of the Living Proof Project. All rights reserved.