By Rex Wockner
The latest information from the Sri Lankan gay organization Companions on a Journey is that 36 of its members were killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami, another nine remain unaccounted for, and 131 others were made homeless by the disaster.
The deaths occurred in the southern parts of the country while the homelessness problem is greatest in Dehiwala, Koralawella, Moratuwa and Mt. Lavinia, which are coastal suburbs of the capital, Colombo.
"Lots of gays discarded by their families due to their sexuality are living [in these suburbs] in clusters in slums," said Companions Executive Director Sherman de Rose. "Most of these people are illiterate, underemployed and earn their living through sex work and other odd jobs."
Companions is providing aid at its drop-in center in the form of dry rations and clothing. In addition, the organization has given money for temporary lodging, repairs, and cooking and cleaning supplies to 17 of its members.
The group also is involved in general relief work in Matara and Wadduwa, distributing clothes, clean drinking water, sanitation supplies, cooked food and dry rations.
"Many of us have lost family members, lovers, friends, neighbors and colleagues – not to mention the loss of possessions, homes, shelters, livelihood and other social spaces," said de Rose.
Some Companions members living in temporary camps have reported homophobic harassment, mostly cat calls and name-calling.
The good news is that "most of the gay people who are in temporary camps set up by local authorities for the victims of the tsunami are starting to rebuild their lives again," de Rose said. "Some have already moved out from these camps. But some others couldn't do that because they simply don't have anything or anybody to return to. The waves have destroyed everything that they have ever possessed."
The tsunami also destroyed many of Sri Lanka's gay-friendly venues, which tend to be in tourist areas frequented by Western Europeans. The nation has no out and open gay venues, de Rose said.
"Fortunately for the gay community, the tsunami didn't make its appearance in the evening; otherwise lots of gays cruising along the beaches would have perished," he said.
Members of the Sri Lankan LGBTIQ organization Equal Ground also are helping with disaster relief.
"The magnitude of the catastrophe that affected Sri Lanka on Boxing Day is something that is hardly describable," said Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera. "Members of Equal Ground have not only given of their time and energy to volunteer for relief efforts, but also have spent their own monies buying essentials like medicine and food, and donating it to the larger organizations sending the trucks to the north, east and south."
Flamer-Caldera said "many of the gay 'spaces' in the south and also in Negombo to the north of Colombo were damaged or wiped out by the tsunami. … This horrible, horrible disaster has knocked Sri Lanka so bad that it will take years and years to rebuild."
In Indonesia, gay groups have been unable to get any information from the most-affected areas.
"We don't know about the effect of the tsunami on gay people in Aceh and North Sumatra," said D¬éd¬é Oetomo, head of GAYa NUSANTARA. "We never had any organized contact in Aceh or the island of Nias in North Sumatra, which have been hardest-hit.
"Medan, the major city on the eastern coast with a sizeable gay population, was spared due to its distance from the epicenter," Oetomo said. "The good news is that gay organizations are involved in fundraising and collecting donations together with other community groups."
In Thailand, the gay resort of Phuket was hard hit. It has many gay guest houses, restaurants, bars, shops and coffeehouses. But, according to Ulf Mikaelsson and B¬örje Carlsson, two Swedes who run the Connect Guest House and Coffee Bar, most of the gay businesses are "far enough from the beach to be untouched by the tragedy."
"The day of the tsunami disaster, the Connect, with its satellite television connection, was one of the only sources of news coverage of the tragedy as it unfolded," the couple wrote in an e-mail. "Scores of native and foreign gays gathered around the mounted television and ate, drank and bonded with each other as news came in as to the losses being sustained.
"Right now, the Phuket gay community is busy raising funds for those Thais and foreigners who suffered injury and loss due to the tidal wave," the couple said. "It will take some months to clean up and rebuild the beach area, but everything else on the island, 500 yards or more from the beach, is exactly as it was — untouched by the tsunami. … If you want to help us in Patong, do not cancel your tour to Patong Beach. Now more than ever we need your support."
Carlsson described his own experience of the tsunami.
"It was a clear blue sky and we were having our morning coffee at Connect when we heard people screaming that the beach had disappeared," he said. "When I got close to the beach I heard more screaming and suddenly I saw this huge wave, taller than the palm trees, coming to crash down on us. … We rushed into a hotel as the huge wave rolled into Patong Beach. The giant wave flooded the lobby within seconds and dragged furniture onto the street. I had to wrap myself around a pillar to avoid being swept away. As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the lobby and overturned because the current was so strong. The water was up to my chest and I was holding on to my boyfriend's hand because he can't swim."
"It's a strange feeling to walk from one side of Rath-U-Thit road to the other," Carlsson said. "On one side it looks like a war zone and on the other side nothing had changed."
GAYa NUSANTARA, Jalan Mojo Kidul I No. 11-A, Surabaya 60285, Indonesia. Telephone/fax: 011-62-31-591-4668. Cell phone: 011-62-811-311-743. E-mail: [email protected].
Companions on a Journey, 46/50 Robert Drive, Robert Gunawardhane Mawatha, Colombo-06, Sri Lanka. Telephone: 011-94-11-251-4680. Fax: 011-94-11-555-7660. E-mail: [email protected]. Web: http://www.companions-lanka.org.
Equal Ground. Telephone: 011-94-11-268-2278. E-mail: [email protected] and [email protected]. Web: http://www.equal-ground.org.