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Bringing Pride Month to Northern Sri Lanka

Pride month often seems like a joyous celebration in the big cities of the world, but it is also an important time for people everywhere, from the smallest village in Nigeria to a sleepy bar in Mexico to northern Sri Lanka, where Angel Queentus lives and works.

For the first time ever this year, Pride month celebrations came to Jaffna, a Tamil-speaking district in northern Sri Lanka, thanks in part to Angel. She is the Founder and Director of the Jaffna Transgender NetworkA long-time advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in Jaffna, Angel sees Pride month not only as a time for celebration, but also as a chance to think about the day-to-day slights and exclusions LGBTQ+ people face all the time, everywhere.

“The hardships, discrimination and challenges I faced in my life made me start this organization in the hope it would help future generations of transgender persons,” she explains.  Angel works with a transgender community in Jaffna that is, like many such communities all over the globe, disproportionately hurt by a lack of education, lack of access to resources, and attitudes from neighbors that range from hostile to indifferent. Pride month could be an opportunity to change all that, she hopes.

Same sex relationships are criminalized under Sri Lanka's penal code, and rights advocates argue this allows police to target and harass LGBTQ+ people. Another challenge for Angel’s work is that Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-2021 failed to explicitly protect people against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

To help change laws and attitudes, Angel is working with the International Republican Institute as a member of IRI’s Emerging Leaders Academy (ELA). The ELA is an intensive leadership, networking, and skills-building program designed for Sri Lanka’s most promising young democracy advocates. IRI’s ELA brings people together from across the country, from civil society, politics, media, academia, government, and the private sector, to discuss a common vision for making progress in their country.

Angel is also bringing her new ELA knowledge, confidence, and connections to organizing Pride activities.  With the Jaffna Transgender Network, she launched a series of online events to celebrate Pride month, including photography and essay competitions and online discussions.

Angel is also one of five ELA members doing a six-month internship at Nadi.lk, a media organization.  She sees her work there as a chance to promote general awareness of the LBGTQ+ community online. “The ELA training made me self -confident to express my ideas in different platforms and made me to think on how I could work more for the LGBT community,” she says.

She is also a coordinating partner of Colombo PRIDE 2021, which is a nationwide celebration of LGBTQ+ diversity and activism based in Sri Lanka’s capital city. “PRIDE 2021 is about celebrating resilience and re-energizing community spirit. We know our community members have been working tirelessly to combat transphobia, all while being disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” she says.

Although Pride month celebrations are over for this year, Angel’s sense of accomplishment is not. When she joined the ELA, she was worried her fellow members might ostracize her, because of who she is and what she does, but she was surprised when they were eager to learn from her and wanted to know how to engage the LGBTQ+ community.  “My vision for the transgender community in the next ten years,” she says, “is inclusion and acceptance in society without any discrimination.”