Perhaps solidarity is not the status quo

  • Flexible solidarity makes way for much-needed intersectionality in activism

From a young age, we are all taught that if we could just work together and come together in total solidarity, then there is simply nothing we cannot do. Society functions under this ideology – that all we need is enough support, for enough people to come together under one banner, and for the most part, this is true.

However, in this solidarity are individuals; each of us unique, with our own stories and experiences, and we have now come to realise that it is a disservice to try and stuff diversity under one single banner, for the sake of solidarity. Perhaps, what we might need is something slightly more flexible? 

Observing the importance of what we call “flexible solidarity”, we take a look at the civil society movements in Sri Lanka, particularly the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) movement. Speaking to numerous leaders in the movement – some veterans and others stepping into the arena – they shared their thoughts on the patterns experienced by the LGBTQ movement in Sri Lanka and what they’ve come to learn in their experience.

With decades of activism since Companions on a Journey (COJ) was widely accepted as the first LGBT organisation in Sri Lanka, which was established in 1995, LGBT activists have come a long way, but is it satisfactory? Is there a lot to show for all the years of activism or is there infighting? Is there a general lack of solidarity between these origins and, of course, does everyone still agree on one common ground?

To start things off, Brunch spoke to EQUAL GROUND Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, who is part one of the primary LGBTQ organisations in the country. Sharing her thoughts on solidarity, she said that no movement is successful without the whole of its parts, taking for example the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which brought together not only Black Africans, but also everyone in South Africa. “The struggle is not efficient unless all allies align with our goals; we have to have the support of much more than just the community to join in our journey to keep moving forward,” she said, adding that EQUAL GROUND has always been an organisation that recognised the importance of allies.

She also said that she would certainly beg to differ about the opinion that “there hasn’t been much progress”, saying: “Success is not measured in just the reforms in law; it is the changes in attitude, it is the growing support of allies every year, taking part in pride celebrations, etc.” 

Flamer-Caldera shared that until there is solidarity and until we realise it takes a village, there’s not much progress to be had. “All that we see now, the young people raising their voices on social media, is all because of the groundwork, and now more than ever, in the face of a common enemy, the pandemic, we must all unite and come together.”

Flamer-Caldera’s thoughts on the importance of allies and the significance of many parts of a whole coming together brings us to the discussion of intersectionality in civil society organisations. 

Black feminist and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality”, said that there is a need for the development of “political intersectionality”; her example being that when you take women of colour, to recognise that they are members of at least two subordinated groups – women and people of colour – and, thus, are parts of both antiracist and antisexist agendas for social movements. Philosopher Patricia Hill Collins then introduced the concept of “flexible solidarity” – the type of solidarity where it forges alliances conditional on shared commitments. 

LGBT+ and People Living with HIV (PLHIV) activist Sriyal Nilanka drew attention to this matter of intersectionality, noting: “When we speak about LGBT persons we tend to group all queer persons as a separate group that exists in their own domain devoid of other social barriers; however, it’s important to understand that queer folk are also from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, are of different gender identities, or live with health or physical impairment – they are a part of diverse labour or industrial communities which also contributes to their day-to-day struggles,” he said, adding: “When we advocate for queer rights, we must work unified with advocates working for rights for women, rights for persons with disabilities or PLHIV, rights for farming or fishing communities, migrant workers, or advocates for better labour conditions. Forming alliances and building awareness among various civil society groups fighting side by side is how we can build better spaces for ourselves.”

Similarly, Chathra and Jaffna Sangam Co-Founder Thiyagaraja Waradas also shared that within the sphere of LGBTQ activism, there is a need for greater sensitivity about intersectionality. “I think the necessity of solidarity is a politically insensitive argument that completely throws all of the diversity under one banner. It says all LGBT should be together just because we are a minority.” 

He said that this isn’t the case in many parts of the world, noting that you see the Black trans movement emerge because the White gay men and women were not giving due space to Black queer trans issues. If you look at the West in terms of these two issues, you see that they are at each other’s throats, and so Waradas stated that while solidarity has worked, this “division” also works because it brings forth those “othered” issues. 

“Now if a Tamil person tries to talk about minority rights they get shut down saying: ‘The war is over, you are just trying to create a divide and creating unnecessary problems’,” Waradas said, explaining that the same logic comes into play with a blanket application of solidarity. “We must note that it is not just queer identities that exist in the movement; it is the class, caste, language, ethnicity, and area and of course political affiliation; all of these are significant actors.”

Waradas questioned: “Yes, we fight, because we have differences; doesn’t the straight community fight?” He added: “To say the movement lacks solidarity is a massive misstatement.” Waradas also explained that despite differences, the movement has come together on significant occasions; one primary example being the Butterflies for Democracy movement. “My point is solidarity is not the status quo. The status quo is diversity and tensions because we are the LGBTIQ communities; it is plural, not a single community.”

Équité Co-Founder and former EQUAL GROUND Project Officer Thushara Manoj also expressed similar thoughts on the matter, sharing that both solidarity and the consideration of intersectionality are of equal importance. He said: “Our ultimate goal is to put an end to discrimination against LGBTIQ persons.” He added that, “however, each individual organisation has their own diverse objectives”. 

He shared that because his organisation works towards the betterment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, they work with numerous organisations who align with that particular objective but do not associate themselves with the LGBTQ movement, which we can see as an example of “flexible solidarity”.

Manoj also shared that if at all there is this idea that LGBTQ organisations are always fighting and do not know how to come together, it is a misunderstanding and that, what many may see as arguments are dialogues that simply further conversation, creating awareness and keeping the finger on the pulse.

Much like Waradas, Manoj also spoke of Butterflies for Democracy as a prime example of how the community is entirely capable of coming together when the moment demands it. He said that there are numerous organisations working towards a common goal, and he personally does not subscribe to the belief that there is “infighting” and added that all discourse is with a purpose. 

Similar to Manoj’s example of working with diverse activist groups to achieve a shared goal, despite not entirely aligning with their mandate, Jaffna Sangam Co-Founder Kasro Turai also shared that they as an organisation try to work alongside progressive ideologies not only focusing on LGBTIQ issues but also on minority politics, caste-based organisations, etc., and he said that there have been some organisations they worked with from the South who have gone on to express racist policies in their activities and they have then distanced themselves from those activities.

Civil Activist Alliance (සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරීන්ගේ සාමූහිකය) Representative Kaushal Ranasinghe expressed similar thoughts on the importance of attention to intersectionality. “Civil society organisations need to pay even more attention to the concept of intersectionality. Civil society organisations focus only on the area in which they operate and therefore prevent us from reaching the concept of solidarity,” he said. 

However, he also made note that historically there are examples where social activists have been assassinated and civil society organisations have been destroyed by various opposition parties. And within this context, there is a need for a system of protection when dealing with rights. He said: “The need for a whistleblowing system, especially for civil society organisations, has arisen in the current political context. And in such an environment, the concept of solidarity is essential for the protection of these civil society organisations.” 

The current context 

It would appear that sensitivity to intersectionality plays a critical role in rallying activists and putting said activists to work. However, as things stand today, a number of activists expressed concern with regards to the existing movement and its priorities. 

There once was a common goal for LGBTQ organisations. However, according to these activists, in the current climate, the mistaken interpretation of solidarity has elicited numerous practices that have distracted organisations from their primary mission. 

Ranasinghe shared that while solidarity among civil society organisations plays a vital role to ensure the co-operative civil movement, at the same time, there is a growing need for a civil struggle for activism on behalf of marginalised communities. He said that there is still a delay in Sri Lanka winning LGBT rights, and the main reason for this is a shortcoming in this concept of solidarity.

Ranasinghe shared that instead of activism, especially for civil society organisations, they now act with a project mentality and implement their political ideas on personal agendas. “My personal experience is that some people just form an organisation and go after projects. Therefore, when a single activist or other organisation engages in advocacy or activism, they do not support it and some people try to disrupt it. Because of this, our goal for almost 30 years has been decriminalisation. If these personal agendas do not stop biting each other, it will be the theme for another 30 years.”

We also spoke to Manju Hemal of Heart to Heart who expressed similar concerns with the nature of activism right now, drawing attention to this “project first” mentality. He shared that often organisations would get entirely sidetracked, in the pursuit of project completion. “Nowadays, organisations are hyper-focused on their project completion; to satisfy their donors, they would often forget their primary goals of helping the community and blindly work towards project completion, which does not always have the community’s best interest in mind.” 

He also said that a commonly known but lesser discussed point of activism is the class divide. He shared that often there are grassroots organisations or individual activists who are excluded by gatekeepers who represent a “different class”. “Those who identify themselves to be from a higher class, with more education, better language skills, etc.,” he said, often are gatekeepers and do not include the grassroots individual who may have real-life experiences and key insights that are valuable to the cause. 

Hemal also shared that often, because they lack the knowledge, they are then unable to gain access to funding, which then prevents them from engaging in community activism that can make real change happen. He said that what he has noticed is, those organisations or persons with greater capacity do not lend a hand in order to assist these persons gain access to funding despite having the resources to facilitate that. 

Therefore, while solidarity is an admirable thought, there is much to be desired in its practical application. And while Sri Lanka is so fortunate to have numerous LGBTQ organisations come up around the island, all with an individual goal, there remains space for growth.