Arrogance of the Unenlightened: Homophobia and performing arts

This essay (first published in The Island on 1st January, 2003) was sent to socioscope by Prof. Sasanka Perera in response to our previous entry titled ‘සමලිංගිකත්වය සහ ශ්‍රී ලාංකික නීතිය ’, a Sinhala language essay which deals with the topic of homosexuality and Sri Lankan law.

Prof. Sasanka Perera

Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s Sinhala language play Katu Yahana (Bed of Nettles) was shown to a private audience in Colombo on December 27th 2002. The one and half hour unpretentious play combined some reasonably good acting by a caste of three actors, very contemporary music and a contemporary theme. The theme that Chandrasekaram attempted to deal with was the reality and the complexities of homosexual relationships in our society. As far as I know, this is the first time that a Sinhala language theatre production has attempted to deal with this subject even though a film called Malata Noena Bambaru (Bees not attracted to flowers) attempted to deal with the same subject without much cinematic success in the early 1980s.

At this point, I am not interested in discussing the theatrical and production oriented successes or limitations of Chandrasekaram’s play, as the time has not come to engage in such a technical discussion. That time has not come because the public performance of his play has been banned by the state’s cultural and moral police unit known as the Public Performance Control Board. That is why the public performances scheduled by the producers had to be cancelled consequent to the Board’s ban. However, the Board itself works in mysterious ways, perhaps believing that they are performing the duties of God herself. That is, this shadowy group of hopefully grown up men and women decide what we should see in terms of theatre or film, what is good for us and what is not, what is moral and what is immoral and so on. Mind you, this is quite a task. But if the state elects a group of unenlightened men and women to be its moral and cultural police force, the repercussions could be dangerous. It is in this context that I would like to discuss the politics that led to the banning of the play rather than its theatrical merits. Theatrical merits of the play can only be discussed at a time when the public would be able to see and assess it.

For the moment, the producers of the play have only been informed verbally by a clerical employee of the Board that the play has been banned for public performance and that even an edited version of the play will not get permission to perform publicly. What is unclear is who made the decision and what in the script is offensive to the public. Is it the music, the songs, the actors themselves, what they wore, the dialog, the theme that bothered the board? Or is it all of the above? In fact, the employee who delivered the verbal message to the producers also said that the board does not divulge who makes decisions on banning plays and will also not give the reasons for the ban. Besides, nothing was also given in writing. In a supposedly democratic society, when the theatre production of a serious playwright with an established track record is deemed unsuitable for public viewing the society at large should know what is so offensive about the play. They should also know on what moral, philosophical or personal basis that judgment was made. This is particularly important because all these decisions are made on our behalf so that we the public can be kept from being morally corrupt as ‘moral corruption’ is defined within the intellectual limits of the members of the Public Performances Control Board.

Historically, the controlling of public performances came to us as a puritanical colonial legacy. Initially, it emerged as Ordinances no. 7 of 1912 and 1919. Then in another incarnation it re-emerged as Act no. 23 of 1951 incorporating much of the earlier Ordinances along with new additions and was amended in 1961 (no. 40), 1964 (no. 26) and 1969 (no. 11). Section 6 (2) of the present Act allows the Minister in charge to appoint a body as the certifying authority for the whole country or any part of it. This is the legal and political context for the establishment of the Public Performance Control Board. In effect, this means that like most appointments under such conditions, appointees to this body tend to be political appointees with linkages to regimes in power rather than individuals competent in the performing arts.

What is repugnant is the manner in which the Board works in churning out its own kind of justice. In this particular instance, no written communication was given explaining its decision for banning the play. Yet, Section 6 (3) of the Act says that the “certifying authority shall have the discretion to grant or refuse a certificate to the effect that any proposed public performance is suitable for public exhibition.” Surely, a certificate in granting or refusing permission for the public performance of a play cannot be a mere verbal communication delivered through secondary sources. It should be a written formal document with an explanation. In addition to violating the producers’ right to freedom of expression and the people’s right to see a particular play, it also violates the rights of the producers to even challenge the decision, as there is no documented evidence with regard to the ban. This also violates Section 6 (4) of the Act, which allows aggrieved parties to appeal to the Minister whose decision would be final. As in the case of banning Katu Yahana, how can someone make a formal appeal in a situation where the original ban has not been documented or formally delivered? This also shows that despite the moral high ground from which it pontificates, the Board does not have any confidence in the legality or the morality of its own decisions. Hence the secrecy and the evasiveness.

One has to imagine that these gentlemen and gentlewomen are so morally upright and on par with the divine that whatever they say and do is right. Those decisions and dictates have to be accepted religiously by those lesser mortals who have not acquired adequate merit in their previous lives to be able to serve in such a moral and pure entity as Public Performance Control Board. In this context, the Board looks more like a bunch of hoodlums hiding behind a facade of undemocratic legal frameworks and repressive moral positions, taking potshots at the people than a responsible agency of the government.

In this context of secrecy, lack of transparency and institutionalized unenlightenment, we can only guess what their moral position might have been which led to the banning of Katu Yahana. Quite likely they were disturbed by the theme of the play, which dealt with the issue of homosexuality. Homosexuality is merely a particular sexual orientation that is fairly common in our society as well as in other parts of the world as has been historically documented. But the kind of Victorian moral positions that govern much of our behavior today in terms of the law, defines homosexuality as a crime. This is articulated in Section 365 (A) of the Penal Code. In a recent amendment, the scope of criminality has been extended to include homosexual activities between women as well. Since homosexuality is legally a crime in this country, perhaps the upright members of the Public Performance Control Board thought that it was their duty to ban the play from public viewing. Perhaps they thought that homosexuality is a contagious disease that could be transmitted to unsuspecting people by merely watching a play. But if this is the position, then all other cinematic and theatrical themes that deal with legally defined criminal activity such as rape, robbery and murder should also be rooted out of the performance arts altogether. But that has not happened.

I think the main problem here is the rather regressive and archaic manner in which our society perceives homosexuality which is generally as a mental illness, a deviant act and a crime. Perhaps we can learn a few things from the American Psychiatric Association in this regard. For nearly 25 years the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a form of mental illness in its official diagnostic manual. But in December 1973, the association’s Board of Directors voted to remove this classification. They made the following observation in explaining its decision (unlike Sri Lanka’s Public Performance Control Board): “For a mental condition to be considered a psychiatric disorder, it should either regularly cause emotional distress or regularly be associated with generalized impairment of social functioning: homosexuality does not meet those criteria.”

But then, it is too much to expect that the gentlemen and gentlewomen of the Public Performance Control Board would have access to such knowledge or the intellectual curiosity or the moral obligation to seek such knowledge. It is much easier to enjoy the darkness of the intellectual dark ages ably assisted by Sri Lanka’s restrictive and unenlightened legal positions in this regard. One does not need to promote homosexuality in the same manner it is also not necessary to promote any other kind of sexual orientation such as heterosexuality. But it is as natural as any other common patterns of behavior such as walking or falling in love. If some of us are sexually inclined in different ways, that is simply a reflection of the sexual complexity of our society. It is impossible and nonsensical for us to exclude homosexuals from around the world or within our own country as mentally ill or deviant when recent medical, psychiatric and legal knowledge from enlightened parts of the world has convincingly suggested otherwise. Of course if these individuals engage in rape, child molestation or any other crimes, it is up to the legal system to deal with such specific cases of clear violations like in all other such situations.

One wonders when regressive entities such as the Public Performance Control Board would be dismantled? In countries like ours regimes need entities such as the Public Performance Control Board to employ those intellectual dwarfs who have been uncritical supporters of the regime. This is a political obligation rather than an effort to improve the performing arts. Even then, would it be too much to ask for enlightened people to be appointed to such entities, who will work through democratic and transparent practices, rather than through secrecy and monumental stupidity. In the end, it is not the Public Performance Control Board that should decide on the validity, utility and the artistic merits of a play. The public should decide that. If Katu Yahana is not worth seeing, then the public would surely boycott it, and it will naturally be removed from public performances by virtue of market realities. But the right the public has to make that decision has been forcibly taken away from them by the arrogance of the Public Performance Control Board.

(2003-01-01 Alternate Space, The Island)

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