Amal Jayasinghe

Colombo - Asia's gay men have a common bond - they are criminals in the eyes of the law. But now they are uniting to battle the archaic colonial regulations and force the government to shed Victorian views on homosexuality.

Laws introduced under Queen Victoria more than 135 years ago are still enforced in the former British colonies, although Britain has shed its hard-line stand against gay men and women and decriminalised homosexuality.

A Sri Lankan gay rights activist is leading a campaign to bring together gays and lesbians in Asia and launch a collective drive for the repeal of their penal codes.

"The repeal of section 365 of the Sri Lankan penal code is our main objective, while there are identical problems faced by those in India, Malaysia and several other countries in the region," said gay activist Sherman de Rose.

De Rose, 28, a former Roman Catholic monk, said they were setting up in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo the Asia Secretariat of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).

"We will co-ordinate the work from here. Decriminalising homosexuality is going to be the main focus at the moment," de Rose, a member of the ILGA's 12-member executive board said. "the problems we face are similar in this part of the world."

He expects about 150 Asian gay men and women to take part in a meeting here before a world session of the ILGA in the Vatican City in August.

Sri Lanka's penal code outlaws sex between men - but technically lesbianism is not an offence because the Victorian law does not assume it is possible for women to have sex with each other.

Four years ago, the government here attempted to repeal the law but in the face of public criticism, rolled back the plan.

De Rose, as well a lesbian support group within his Companions on a Journey gay rights movement, fear that the 1995 attempt to decriminalise gay behaviour may have unwittingly led to slapping lesbians with the same law.

In an amendment to the law the government proposed to use the gender neutral word "people" instead of "men" making both gay men and women guilty of an offence for having same-sex relations.

"We are completely baffled at what has happened in the process of trying to win respectability for our cause," said de Rose.

He is working closely with an Indian gay movement, Hamsafar Group and the Pink Triangle in Malaysia. De Rose also has support from gay groups in Nepal, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh to legalise homosexual behaviour.

Opponents of decriminalisation have argued that scrapping the law would lead to erosion of Asian values and open the flood gates to western gay culture and even encourage homosexual behaviour.

Sri Lanka's Justice Minister, GL Peiris, who initially showed a liberal approach to the homosexual issue, later backtracked - saying that the government had more pressing work than to repeal laws that were not being enforced.

Police in Sri Lanka maintain that no one has been prosecuted under the anti-sodomy laws here, unlike in Malaysia where the former deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, is facing a sodomy charge.

De Rose agrees that in Sri Lanka and in many other former British colonies, not many gays have been prosecuted but, he says, the law leaves them open to police harassment. - Sapa-AFP