A Sri Lankan pink tale
Aritha Wickramasinghe’s journey from child activist – the advocacy bug bit and didn’t let go
If you live in a world where we have to be brave to be ourselves, then that is not the kind of world I want to live in or the kind of world we should be living in.
One year after the civil war started in Sri Lanka, an activist whose passion today has large international audiences at their feet, Aritha Wickramasinghe, was born.
That war raged on from 1983 for a total of 27 years. It claimed several of Wickramasinghe’s close relatives – a pain he is still coming to terms with. At the time the banking lawyer and co-founder of legal non-profit organisation iProbono had left his fatherland in pursuit of not only peace, but also his heart.
Sharing his life story at the global homosexuality decriminalisation convention – hosted in the small southern African country of Namibia – Wickramasinghe says that like Namibia, Sri Lanka also still has an anti-sodomy law in place, but it appears to be a benign offence in both countries.
His authenticity and honesty is evident when he says: “I knew I was gay when I was around 12. However, I struggled in learning to accept myself between 12 and 15 also because one never sees any positive-light messaging (pertaining to homosexuality). As a keen, avid reader, especially of newspapers, I discovered that it is normal to be gay. My sexuality is an integral part, but not everything (of who I am).”
At 15, he had had enough of life in the uncomfortable closet. He no longer wanted to continue lying to people. In the end, coming out to his family was fairly easy as they had always been loving and supportive.
Like many LGBT+ children Wickramasinghe was no exception when it came to being teased at school: “I did face bullying at school before 15. I was called ” ‘girly boy’, ‘queen’. It was pretty bad.” Then he had a breakthrough: “One day, surrounded by school children, including some friends, I burst out crying. I told them it felt like it had been an attack on myself and my integrity, ” he says.
The line was drawn on that day. Since that display of bravery, Wickramasinghe says he has never faced homophobia again. Instead he experienced a huge sense of relief and freedom, because he no longer had to pretend about who he was. According to him, “Being yourself should be the most effortless thing.”
That was also when Wickramasinghe’s career as an activist kicked off. He started a children’s rights group against abuse. The group was run by children for children. This led to several pressure groups. Although Wickramasinghe had up until that point wanted to become an astronomer, the definitive impact which the children’s rights group made him consider law as a career instead.
In 2002, at 18, he moved to the United Kingdom to pursue legal studies. “After that, I moved to Egypt in 2006 to study international criminal law,” he says. “All this time I wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I moved to Tanzania from Egypt. At the time Sri Lanka’s civil war was becoming very bad. The government killed four of my uncles. They came after my family because we were progressive democrats. All of us had to flee and went to live in different places. I had to leave Tanzania and moved back to London and started (studying towards) a Master’s programme.”
However, Wickramasinghe was adamant that he would never be an asylum seeker. Deep down he had a yearning to eventually return home to Sri Lanka. His law career kicked off in London with the click of a button. “I Googled law firms in London, applied at 25 and 24 rejected me.” This is ironic in that the firm which gave him a chance and invited him for an interview is the world’s number one law firm, Clifford Chance. “I knew I couldn’t screw it up.”
This quest for success reminded him of the words of his accounting teacher when he was 13 years old, after he submitted sloppy homework: The teacher had told him that his attitude would either result in an A or a fail. This stern cautioning inspired him to give the interview his best shot and he got the job. He worked there for five years. “During that time, I started my LGBT advocacy.” Subsequently, Wickramasinghe co-founded a big pro bono practice. “We took on some really groundbreaking work, especially concerning gender identity.”
Soon afterwards, a close friend started iProbono as a means to connect lawyers across the globe who sought to do pro bono work. Wickramasinghe threw his weight behind this initiative and today they are a network of 60 000 lawyers in a total of 39 countries.
Wickramasinghe’s face lights up when he talks of his partner, Dave, who is Irish. According to him, his and Dave’s story is one of success. Although Dave lives in London, he does plan to move to Sri Lanka, Wickramasinghe says. They met in August 2016. “I met him (whilst) on a journey to deal with issues of my past. At the beginning of 2016 I was close to a breakdown – working a lot on big projects, I had anxiety about moving back because I had run away. I started having nightmares.”
Embarking on a journey of self-care Wickramasinghe took some time off work and had to learn to love himself anew with the help of a therapist.
“The LGBT community is particularly susceptible to mental health challenges because of the hostile environments they grow up in,” he says. “It takes a big toll on us. It leads to a lot of loneliness in our community. Therapy helped me build a relationship with my younger self. It helped me to break down the fortress around my heart to protect myself and prevent (me) from being vulnerable. It was a very painful process. And the day before I met Dave, I was at a very low point. I felt extremely vulnerable.”
He adds: “I probably removed the last brick around my heart. Both of us knew from that day we were the guy for each other.”
Source: Key Correspondents