The theme of the Annual Global Conference of the International Gay and Lesbian Association conference in Mexico City was ‘decolonising our bodies.’ Five hundred activists, academics and policy makers talked about forms of colonisation and how to identify, resist and defy it. I followed sessions that reflected areas of work of the Sexuality Programme, economic challenges and resiliencies in LGBTI communities and legal aspects of the struggle for LGBTI rights in the global south. I also visited discussions about immigration, digital security and gender identity which are some of the ascendant issues that reflect important shifts in thinking within queer spaces.
The Year of Conchita
I first heard the term SOGI, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, from the UN so I was prejudiced against it. I am disillusioned by social movements and community actions being instrumentalised by institutions and it is often heralded by a new acronym. But at this conference I realised that SOGI is well used which suggests it better describes the conversation than ‘Lesbian and Gay’ plus the various letters that have been added as history has unfolded. I was also surprised to rarely hear ‘queer’ but perhaps that’s because it’s done its job of making way for gender identities to be liberated from the binary idea that there are men and women and that transgenders and intersex people must become one or the other.
For many people their first view of contemporary challenges to binary gender identity was Conchita Wurst, winner of Eurovision 2013. Predictably some people across all sexualities were mystified, having understood the categories gay men, lesbian women and trans people as settled. But here the importance of freeing minds and bodies from binary sexuality and gender categories in the overall aim of decolonisation of queer bodies were discussed throughout the conference. As well as arguments about how and why law, medicine and anthropology should shift away from gender binaries and heteronormativity, gender activists also called for the process to begin in LGBTI communities and ILGA itself. Given the historical context in which inclusion of lesbian, trans and bisexual and intersex people in ILGA has itself been an evolution, this process is clearly still underway. The outward signs of this shift were the familiar sites of gender contestation – clothing and bathroom designation. Beards and frocks were all over the place at ILGA 2014 and the two bathrooms became three. But the third bathroom was not marked “T” in reference to binary transpersons.
“It’s not the same to be a gay person with means as it is to be a gay person without means.”
Fundamental human rights to life, freedom of assembly and speech, non-discrimination and access to justice are rightly at the top the SOGI agenda. But in view of the number of people at the conference from middle and low income countries I was surprised at the lack of content on economic rights in the Global South.
Micro Rainbow’s research in Brazil is also an interesting exception. It shows that lesbian, gay and transgendered people are more likely to become and/or remain poor due to the stigma, prejudice and discrimination they face on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBT people who live in poverty in Rio de Janeiro often deal with verbal, physical and sexual violence, and other abuses motivated by homophobia and transphobia. It argued that the lack of social and legal recognition of LGBT people, coupled with heteronormative, exclusionary policies on poverty provide a context that maintains the invisibility and structural marginalization of LGBT people living in poverty. I hope we see more research like this and that it drives demand for redress.
The World Bank provided an opportunity to engage with development policy and it was very well attended by Global South delegates. The Bank has recognised that to fulfil its mission of poverty reduction, sustainable development and shared prosperity the development process must fully respect the dignity, human rights, economies, and cultures of gender and sexual minorities; that gender inequalities and differences expose LGBTI to various forms of risk and that LGBTI communities play a vital role in sustainable and inclusive development. It convened the meeting at ILGA2014 to discuss ways in which LGBTI groups can be involved in the process of ensuring that Bank financed projects avoid negative impacts on sexual and gender minorities and promote gender and SOGIE equality. A consultation with LGBT organisations will be taking place over the coming months to develop policy including a Gender and SOGI Plan/Planning Framework that will inform the appraisals or impact assessments of Bank funded projects. Bank staff were keen to hear suggestions about how to do that. ‘Be very careful not to do harm” was the loudest suggestion and perhaps after that ‘Don’t necessarily believe what our governments tell you about how they treat us.’ The session was convened by Chad Dobson of The Bank Information Centre which is monitoring and critiquing this process.
A recurring idea about the economic consequences of homophobia and gender was that it pushes people into poverty which forces them to sell sex. Thus sex work was uniformly cast as unsatisfactory, tragic or worse. I was musing during a coffee break about the inadequacy of this discourse with a Canadian woman. Sex workers rights were fresh in her mind because of debates in Canada where sex work has recently been further criminalised (see Pivot Legal Society). She was Helen Kennedy and the next day she was elected as Co Secretary General of ILGA which bides well for more visibility for queer sex workers at the next conference.
Although quite a lot is known about the issues facing LGBTI migrants, refugees and asylum seekers there has been little attention to SOGI issues more generally in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. In the case of outbreaks of illness sexual minorities are often blamed for causing epidemics or making them worse. Gorma Togbah Kollie from Liberia said this is happening in relation to Ebola for gay, lesbian and transgender communities and people living with HIV in West Africa.
I was unsure if my impression about lack of economic and development content was correct until the European Parliament Co-President Ulrike Lunacek mentioned it as she presented the ‘Go Visible’ award to Galang, an organization of lesbians in the Philippines which Lunacek said stands out because it addresses economic issues. Some years back Susie Jolly wrote an article with the self-explanatory title, “Why is Development Work So Straight?” and other work at the Sexuality Programme of IDS argued that ‘development theory and practice impose reproductive heterosexuality (heteronormativity) both as the only functional form of sex for its policies and as the ruling norm subjective experiences of pleasure, desire, and identity claims.’ It would be useful to ask the converse now -why is LGBTI activism not more focussed on development?
Liberation and the Law
Activists from several countries where homosexuality is illegal spoke about their experience with law reform advocacy and strategic litigation. Stephen Chukwumah from Nigeria was one of several activists that spoke about the strain legal processes place on communities and about the challenge of ensuring that potential benefits are distributed. Others spoke about putting energy into different legal processes. Ian McKnight of J-Flag Jamaica spoke about the impact of intense police liaison and a clear directive by senior police against homophobia in law enforcement. He said that although miracles don’t happen there has been real change. Similar stories came from Fiji. This serves as a reminder that ending police negligence, violence and misbehavior doesn’t have to be complex or long term. A particularly heartening story came from SMUG Uganda. An activist is suing a US evangelical church in a US court for the damage it has caused in his life.
Several delegates spoke about the confounding logic and sheer complexity of law. Some groups have been fortunate to have skilled pro bono lawyers but even then law is a maze. I was pleased to be able to share IDS Sexuality Programme’s contribution to addressing that problem, the Sexuality and Justice Toolkit.
Sonia Correa of Sexuality Policy Watch shared her thoughts about sanctioned sexuality and commented very frankly that while the law reform process must go ahead, anyone who thinks that the law or legal reform will liberate the sexually and gender transgressive is deluded. Sonia Corrêa and Akshay Khanna have recently compiled essays that explore and reflect on the limitations and possibilities of law reform and legal processes.
The technology paradox
Several activists spoke about digital security and the paradox that networked technologies have bought joyful, rich and lifesaving opportunities at the same time as posing serious threats. Governments are increasingly taking a keen interest in the use of this space by dissidents in general and sexual dissidents in particular. Homophobic oppression is thus disguised as fighting terrorism, pornography, trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Another threat is on-line violence which causes both direct harms to targeted individuals and indirect harm by turning people away from activism. However in the context of low income counties lack of access to high speed internet remains the most pressing problem. I was delighted to see Tactical Tech at ILGA 2014. It does great work producing internet tools to help activists overcome some of these problems.
The amazing potential of citizen controlled technology was evident in the films, photography and websites on show at ILGA2014. I managed to see the beautiful photography of Chouf, Tunisia (who also won a Go Visible award); No Easy Walk to Freedom about the Naz Foundation’s challenge to Indian anti sodomy law; three short films about the work of BeLong Ireland with asylum seekers and “The Son I Never Had” about the experience of an intersex person.
Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at The Michael Kirby Institute of Human Rights and Public Health at Monash University Melbourne Australia and is a visiting research fellow at IDS.
Previous blog posts by Cheryl Overs: