Youth leader on a new civic engagement for young people in Asia-Pacific

It’s International Youth Day on 12 August so UNAIDS sat down with Niluka Perera from Kandy, Sri Lanka. He is working in Bangkok, Thailand, as the project officer for Youth Voices Count, which is the first and only network of young men, who have sex with men and transgender people in Asia and the Pacific.

UNAIDS:You mentioned that you were from a small town called Kandy. Sri Lanka is still a relatively conservative society when it comes to same sex relations, how did you come to terms with your sexuality?

Niluka: I began realising I was different from my friends when they started talking about girls and I didn’t have the same attraction. I felt that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have access to information about homosexuality at that time that could help me understand what I was feeling. But luckily, when I got to university I got access to the internet and that opened a huge door for me. I also watched movies, which showed  gay lifestyles and  how people lived and how normal it actually is and that helped me come to terms with my sexuality.

When I was 17-18 years old I was completely sure about my sexuality and I was comfortable with it. Before that, I thought that it could be a phase that would eventually go away. I thought that  I would get married, have a family and a happy ever after, but when I actually started getting information on homosexuality it really helped me get very comfortable with my sexuality. I started to take pride in the fact that I was different.

UNAIDS: What was it like ‘coming out’ for you?

Niluka: The reaction from my friends was very encouraging, but initially, my parents didn’t accept me. They wanted me to leave the house so I did. They thought that because I’m gay, my life is ruined, that I was not going to finish my degree and I would die in a corner of a hospital from an AIDS-related illness.

Thinking about it later on, I understood why they felt that way. There was no openly gay person in Sri Lanka or anywhere else that they had seen with a successful life. So it was quite challenging for me to change their perception. What I did was try to be very successful in a lot of things. I finished my degree, found a good job back in Sri Lanka and then I found a job here (in Bangkok). That reassured my family and I won acceptance from them. I wanted to be able to be an example for gay kids and their parents, to show them that I am gay and I am successful. I wanted to lead by example.

When I tell people this story, they say “No. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone, they should accept you the way you are” and my argument for this is that – Yeah, I could have sat back, relaxed and said “You guys need to accept me, this is who I am and I don’t have to prove myself to you” but it is because I  proved myself to them that they accepted me. The next time that they see a gay person, they will not assume that he/she is going to ruin their lives. My experience with my family was not so great, but then it took me about 17 years to understand who I am and there was no way that I could expect my family to understand me overnight.

UNAIDS: Could you tell us more about your personal journey and how you became engaged in youth issues?

Niluka: When I went to university, I wanted to start a  ‘gay support group’, where people could come and meet other people, talk about their issues and have a support system. But, I got all sorts of comments saying “ You’re a pervert.” or “It’s okay, but don’t start that in Kandy, it’s a cultural city and you can’t do it here.”

So that’s where I started my community work. I had a willingness to make a change, because I wanted a change for myself and I thought “ Why not go a little bit beyond myself and let others also be part of that change.”

UNAIDS: Everyone says that they don’t have to prove themselves to anyone but you believe that they do. Every society has its norms and is resistant to change. Your thoughts?

Niluka: Take the evolution of human rights, or the evolution of anything else, it has been the same case. Black people stood up for their rights and that’s why they have rights today. The problem is that we call ourselves leaders who want to make change, but we’re not really ready to take on that responsibility to make it happen.

The UN is talking a lot about gay people today because there was someone, somewhere who was brave enough to talk about homosexuality. Somebody has to do it otherwise change is not going to happen.

Something that I believe in is that – we can shout, protest and ask people to accept us but that’s going to get us nowhere. We should be ready to open ourselves to people so that they can  see who we are and what kind of life we live. I’ve tried to open myself up to a lot of people so that by seeing who I am, they can change their perceptions about other gay people.

UNAIDS: This year’s theme is youth civic engagement. How do you think young people can participate in civic engagement?

Niluka: My main advice to the youth is that, the time where we fought and we protested for what we wanted is over. People still protest, bicker and fight but now it’s the time to advocate, lobby and strategize. It’s time, as young people, if we want to get involved in the civil rights movement, to be very strategic in our battle for our rights. In Sri Lanka, there are a lot of university students who protest in front of the ministry of education for their rights, but what they usually get is a good beating from the police. People react to protests and fighting with fighting. It is very important to start thinking with your brains and stop thinking with your heart. What you do right now has a huge impact on what’s going to happen in the future. Be very strategic. Use lobbying and advocacy because those are our tools, billboards and guns are no longer our tools. That age is over.

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