From safe harbours to equality?


From 31 of July to 2 August, I attended the Human Rights conference held right before the World Outgames in Antwerp, Belgium. The conference was part of the “human rights” aspect that GLISA, the international body that organises the games, promotes together with “sport” and “culture”. As LGBTI conferences go, this was just that: an LGBT conference (note how I do have to drop the I for intersex here… none of it there.) The main theme of the conference was “from safe harbours to equality”, a catchy phrase; unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that much. I was there, originally to present on health issues faced by transgender persons in South Africa, and was happy that the organisers thought it an important enough a topic to fly someone halfway across the world; however, before the conference there were rumblings… There are always rumblings of course, every time someone organises an event in any social movement there will be those voices who are unsatisfied, who criticise; rightfully so of course, as a movement, the LGBTI movement should keep itself on its toes; constant criticism is needed, no matter who organises what.

I found the tactic of inviting expats interesting, going about the conference I had the illusion that it was full of representatives from the African continent, until I started talking to them; it turned out that the majority of them lived or grew up in Europe. It created interesting conversations, when I starting in somewhat broken French to enquire as to the existence of transgender persons in Senegal, when the person in question halfway had to tell me that he doesn’t know anyone in Senegal; not what I deducted from his badge that said “Senegal”, in fact he lived in Antwerp, and had no connection to the community in his country of birth. On the other hand, he was a nice guy… though he became a little bit too nice, I think when I had to quickly tell him I’m in a committed relationship (apparently “transgender” didn’t fully register with him, neither did “lesbian”)

But to go back to my participation: I was eventually included in a “couch session”, a sort of “activists Ophrah” during the conference; I spoke about 10 minutes about the harsh reality in South Africa, at which point they stopped me to show a video of two transgender persons in the UK. And now we come to what really bugs me…

The video was cute; two young, white, transgender persons talked about their identity… Nothing inherently wrong with that. But the point I was invited for was the issue of those transgender persons, who are not white, not privileged, and their issues. The video, after I explained the harshness of life for a transgender person, rounded it off with a “this is how it should be” attitude; as if the UK is a beacon of hope for all those who are marginalised. So lets forget about all the racism in Europe, the stigmatisation of sex workers, the fact that the only to be accepted as a queer person nowadays seems to be “not queer”… yes you can love a person of the same gender, as long as that gender is either male or female, and as long as your desires lead you to heteronormativity, with the hetero part. Be normal, that is the message of the LGB(TI) movement… I was happy that at least the racism was raised by others during other sessions, but my question is this: what is the value of conferences, when during sessions we all simply pretend to be one big happy family; we know we are not that, we know that gay male misogyny is rampant, that racism exists in LGBTI communities from South Africa to Belgium, that transgender persons are still often silenced, and that intersex persons are simply forgotten about.

From safe harbours to equality? One thing I know for sure, the LGBTI communities and movement have never been safe to me…

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