A gay rights conference in Antwerp
From July 31 to August 2 the World Outgames LGBT Human Rights Conference took place in Antwerp. The conference was titled: “From safe harbours to equality. A changing LGBT world: transitions and migrations.” For a LGBT human rights conference I am sad to say it was an absolute failure for being not inclusive and run mostly by Gay Inc. The only good thing being mainstream gay being called out on racism.
When around a year ago the first announcement for the conference was sent out, it was met with serious and fundamental critique of non-inclusivity. There was no equal footing of North and South, it was unidirectional, hot issues were not touched, the spectre of the white saviour rose again. The conference Human Rights commissioner replied on the elaborate and poignant critique (paraphrasing) “What you say is not true, the conference will be different from all others and also the main elements of the program are already accepted.” I am very sorry but these words of difference are not true and the conference proved itself to be of no true relevance. Which is quite a pity.
The human rights conference forms the start of the Antwerp World Outgames and as such is meant to be about sports, culture and human rights. The conference is the human rights element of the Outgames. The rest is Sports and Culture. In this approach Outgames differs from the older Gay games, that have not invested so much in the human rights aspect. During the Games the town becomes a cheerful rainbow coloured multisexual and multigendered place. Where normally the rainbow is more a side event in its own places, it now takes over the sports venues and the city squares. The city of the Games becomes ‘gay heaven’.
At the end of the Outgames a Declaration is to be adopted, at least the times that the Outgames have been held up to now. The first Declaration of Montreal, was an important one. The first Declaration to couple human rights, LGBT and sports. It was presented to the UN and since then is part of the LGBT human rights archive. Copenhagen was more about the International Lesbian and Gay Chamber of Commerce. The Antwerp Agenda is intended to draw a roadmap for the years 2013-2018 for the human rights of LGBT people. An important element in this conference was the presence of a rather large contingent of sub-sahara African lesbian and gay activists, some of who are very outspoken., which helps in addressing the blatant racism in the gay male community. Not that lesbians would be less racist, but with the economic power residing mostly with white gay middle class males, and they being more sexually outgoing, this is more an issue.
The Antwerp Conference featured panels such as: migration and safety, LGBTI health, trade unions and LGBT rights, the role of progressives. A fresh element was the co-chair being a trans* woman, Tamara Adrian from Venezuela, who holds the ILGA Trans* Secretariat. Looking at the (visible, recognizable) trans* presence existed of literally a handful of people. On a population of around two hundred attendants. Trans* or Inter* themed organizations were absent. Either consciously or unconsciously through just not knowing of the conference at all. And they were totally right. My hindsight conclusion of the WOGA Human Rights Conference “You who enter here let go of all hope of inclusiveness”.
The content planning of the conference could be defended with the argument that it is good to have a conference that focuses on gay (and lesbian) rights. It may be beneficial to get gay men (and lesbian women) from all over the world together. In that case I would expect it to be called a conference on gay men’s issues. However it is still called a human rights conference about a changing LGBT world, and this change lies not in the fact that gay men are taking back the initiative. The change lies in a changing outside world and the fact that transgender is slowly more accepted as a human rights question that has to do with gay also, and with bisexual and intersex people being heard also. In that respect making the conference mostly about gay mens’ issues is a reactionary tendency. There were women, quite some black lesbians of whom several spoke out quite clearly but not so very much about the situation lesbians live in, more general.
In the three days of the conference not at single time I have heard a word on the problems that bisexual people face, inside nor outside of the LGBT movement. This constitutes another confirmation of the elimination of bisexuality by virtue of the hetero/homo binary and the not being taken seriously. Nowhere bisexual issues were touched, unless you would count Bisi Alimi’s saying this in a screened TV interview. Nor has there been any official reference to questions relating to sex conditions, but maybe that would be asking too much as the intersex movement itself is not yet clear about the question on how their alliance with LGBT should be if there is need for one.
With regard to my original complaint, virtual absence of trans* in the conference, it still could have been that silently and in absence of trans people the theme had been included anyway, since a large percentage of trans* people identify as LGB also, and there are clear links between LGB and T oppression. So I had a slight hope that in my clandestine presence, I might perceive trans* mainstreaming within the different topics. Idle hope. The two panels I attended (on best practices and on health) were largely about gay practice. This should not surprise those who are active for already a bit longer, who have their active roots in the feminist movement or who are young and have digested queer critique on Gay Inc. thoroughly at school already. Actually it is neither new or surprising to me. More it is astonishment that in this day and age, it is apparently so self evident to talk about LGBT that hardly a person thinks of the identities that are represented this abbreviation. It was a white male gay dominated conference that only talks about civil rights—the union session did have one or two questions on solidarity and economy but not about queerphobia in the workplace and LGBT employees seen as reserve workforce—but it felt like a refreshing change to once in my life attend an explicitly homonormative and homonationalist gay rights conference. Of course I couldn’t be surprised since the Conference’s Human Rights Comissioner told 11 months ago on the sogi e-mail list already nothing substantial would be changed and that he was right. Now I give credit where credit is due and if things are as they seem and he is the brain behind the content of the conference and the declaration, he had a tough job to do all these things. With little and late hired staff he must have worked around the clock. But he has been a bit late in seeking the cooperation of the more critical groups in LGBT land which is one reason why this in this form superfluous conference failed so dearly.
Also, spending a shipload of money to get a decent black representation is one thing, two outreach dinners that are only for the poor African activists (and a single non-African) is of a not very creative way of dealing with a colonial /imperialist burden. Not all that are poor are black. I hope that Bisi Alimi’s and Phyll Opuku’s and Linda Sebos’ critique made the participants realise they are doing something wrong and that racism also exists in not speaking out. Since LGBT people are also black, LGBT organisations in the UK have the moral obligation to speak out against the spot-checks of people of colour are off limits, a form of racial profiling. But Stonewall and others were silent. The WOGA human rights conference and all LGBT organisations must clearly rethink their politics.
At the conference there was hardly a place to vent critique on the setup and that would have been too late anyway. But maybe GLISA feels a need to justify their decisions? Holding a human rights conference on LGBT without B and T (not to speak of the I, let alone Q for queer) is sort of strange. I heard Julia Applegate, co-chair of GLISA say “we are learning, we can’t do everything yet” (on the decision to have trans* people compete in their gender of preference, a good thing). But this was not related to the conference. Nor was this the third human rights conference ever on LGBT rights and even the UN nowadays is aware of issues of gender identity and expression. Also more and more intersex gets the attention it needs. In this conference however not. As an African colleague said: I have nothing to show my activists friends back home, since this declaration does not add to a good existing body of work, on the contrary will end up in the drawer with other declarations that are of no use for us. How come you put up such a crappy politically unjustifiable show? I can imagine this has to do with a fully white board, but more with general political, human rights cluelessness.
Non-profit industrial complex
This way this conference forms part of the “non-profit industrial complex” that does not add a thing to real change because it is co-opted by the neo-liberal political and economical climate, contents itself by pleading for more civil rights, such as marriage. Your way of working and organising – all three Outgames took place in the geopolitical north, the next one will also – is typical for north based and north led organisations. Is Tamara Adrian had any influence in the politics of the conference, I am afraid that did not amount to a clear effect.
My critique comes from the ground, not from inside an ivory tower. I hear and see friends and activists struggle, being excluded for gender non-conformity, ending up in shitty low paying call centre jobs – if at all. I wish, I demand a movement that engages with human rights on the issues of sex, gender identity and expression, and sexuality. For everyone. Not all homosexuals are gay or lesbian, not all deviant gender expressions are trans*. A movement that does not take into account that legislation is not the same as real change. Unless all are free, no one is really free. If we do not fight for the rights of the least powerful, we will fail as a global movement for social justice and be complicit in the breakdown of the rights world currently so under stress.
I am sorry but I am not impressed by the effort. This way GLISA human rights conferences form an opportunity to miss and GLISA should to reflect on their ideals and how to in a better way couple sports, culture and human rights. It was Just Not Good Enough. This did not work. You are the weakest link, goodbye!