Where love is illegal: What it's really like travelling Sri Lanka as a gay couple
We're playing cards by candlelight to the sound of humming cicadas and peacock mating calls. Our host Taranga never explained the rules. Naturally, he's winning.
"The lights will come back on soon," he says, shuffling the cards for another game of... well, who knows? "This happens every night."
I glance over to the silhouette that is my partner, struggling to make out his expression, and feel the light-hearted mood drain away into the inky darkness.
It's the first time in my life I have had to hold back from making any physical contact with him. Why? Because doing so could get us arrested or sectioned.
Were we stupid to visit a country where it’s illegal to be gay?
Sri Lanka still criminalises homosexuality under the 1883 Penal Code - threatening both men and women with a 10 year prison sentence.
These post-imperial laws are often naively dismissed, viewed as nothing more than an unpolished relic of Britain's colonial obsession.
But only last year a gay couple were arrested here for their sexuality, and sent off to a psychiatric unit for 'evaluation'.
Panic stirs in my stomach, and I'm no longer laughing along at the fact that I have somehow won the fifth round of cards.
At 6pm the power comes back on. Air con units kick back up, the pool lights flicker on, and the warm glow of lost fireflies dissipates into the thick, humid air.
The candle is extinguished and I resist the urge to turn to my partner and blurt out my thoughts. Instead, I feign an unconvincing smile towards Taranga and excuse myself to our room.
Did we make the wrong decision? Are we stupid for coming to a country that effectively sees us as criminals? Should we just go home?
How we stayed safe while travelling as a gay couple
When we planned to visit Sri Lanka we of course knew that it still has laws against homosexuality.
So before packing our lives into our backpacks we agreed on three precautions: we would always book a twin bed, never engage in public displays of affection, and avoid anything that would attract attention.
Our safety and our ability to remain inconspicuous were intrinsically intertwined, so anything that would make us stand out was strictly off limits.
We even created a little backstory that we were cousins, but never had the courage to deploy it. Instead, we nodded along when people assumed we were friends - or sighed in relief when they chose not to ask.
I realised a week in that I had packed a vest with a quote about pride and love on the back. It stayed in the suitcase the whole time, perhaps a subtle metaphor for our temporarily-hidden identities.
Over time it became easier to stick to the rules while still enjoying our trip.
We slowly acclimatised to the weather, the blackouts, the not holding hands. We strangely fell in love in Sri Lanka, even if it could not reciprocate.
Tourism has taken a hit in Sri Lanka
Tourism has been slow to return to Sri Lanka following the country’s recent political instability and economic collapse. In the last two years it has been hit hard with COVID, then even harder with protests, inflation and a nationwide shortage of fuel.
A lot of businesses didn't make it; some are still on thin ice.
Because of this, our arrival was often greeted with sincere appreciation and gratitude on our visit in November 2022. Restaurant managers came over to us, thanking us personally for tipping, or for simply showing up.
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"Please tell your friends and family that it is safe - that they can travel here now," one bar owner pleaded with us.
It was heartbreakingly heartwarming. We were rooting for Sri Lanka to recover from this despite all of my reservations against even coming in the first place.
But the lack of tourism also meant it was hard to stay invisible. It wasn't rare for us to book a hotel then find we were its only occupiers.
Were we being watched, or was I just paranoid?
At times, being in Sri Lanka overwhelmed me into an anxiety-riddled wreck. It was simply too much. I felt like we were being watched constantly, observed with suspicion and caution.
Or was I just gaslighting myself into an unjustified state of paranoia?
Policing your natural instincts comes with consequences. Constantly checking yourself and reminding each other of the three simple rules eventually took a toll on my mental health.
I had locked myself back into the closet and swallowed the key. I could hardly complain - this was all my own doing. I chose to come here. It was supposed to be fun, but we were struggling to relax.
There were many late-night whispers with my partner, as we sat on separate beds across the room from each other, when all I wanted to do was feel some kind of warmth.
"If you ever feel unsafe - we can leave," he reminded me more than once.
But I continued, and three weeks later I felt strangely conflicted when arriving at the airport.
I was sad, but relieved. Happy, but subdued.
Aside from a few stares, and one ignorant comment about sin from a tour guide (he snubbed homosexuality in the same sentence as touting peace), we had left Sri Lanka safe and sound.
Had I made a fuss out of nothing or were the microaggressions I experienced real?
White privilege cushioned our visit to Sri Lanka
Of course, our time in Sri Lanka was cushioned by the safety net of white privilege, and the economic symbol we represented as westerners.
We were never confronted or explicitly questioned about our sexuality, and never physically threatened or endangered.
It was almost like we had unknowingly entered a trade-off. Sri Lanka was desperate for tourists, and we were here. We were desperate to not be seen, so they turned a blind eye.
But gay Sri Lankans are not afforded the same level of luxury. If the trip taught me anything, it's that my anxiety was unrivalled against what LGBTQ+ individuals have to endure around the world.
According to a 2021 report by UK public body Westminster Foundation for Democracy, 69 per cent of Sri Lankans believe LGBT persons face discrimination by the police because of who they are.
More than half (51.4 per cent) also said being LGBT goes against their religion.
In a country where there are no protections against discrimination for your sexuality, the fallout extends far beyond paranoid tourists.
It’s no surprise that 89 per cent of LGBT Sri Lankans say they face discrimination in finding rental housing and/or in school because of their sexuality.
Is there hope for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ+ community?
My hope for Sri Lanka is twofold. I hope tourism not only recovers, but flourishes.
Everyone should visit the country at least once in their lifetime to experience the amazing wildlife, unique cuisine, and exceptional hospitality.
But I also hope for LGBT Sri Lankans to have an authentic future. For them to be able to live as their true selves without fear of judgement or compromised safety.
There is a glimmer of hope. Just a few months ago, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reportedly said his government will not oppose a bill that aims to decriminalise consensual same-sex sexual relations.
Last year also saw the country’s first-ever Pride rally as citizens bravely took to the streets, emblazoned in rainbows.
If the Prime Minister sticks to his words, the future of Sri Lanka will look brighter than ever.