Empowering LGBTIQ Activists Globally

A conversation among LGBTIQ activists at the UN Commission on the Status of Women on March 21 raised some of the key strategies they have used to help move progress forward across the world.

Moderated by OutRight Executive Director Jessica Stern, the panel included activists from Fiji, Botswana, Saint Lucia, Jamaica and Hong Kong.

Stern opened the conversation by emphasizing the need for an intersectional approach to human rights, taking into account the impact of sexual orientation, gender, age, geography, race and other factors. She also noted that the CSW, since it began meeting in 1956, had never referenced sexual orientation or gender identity and expression in any of its outcome documents. “It is time for that discourse to change,” said Stern.

Joining her for the conversation were Miki Wali, an activist and radio producer from Fuji; Maria Fontanelle, an advocate and communications specialist with United and Strong of Saint Lucia; Monica Tabengwa, a lawyer, human rights researcher and advocate from Botswana; Mikee Nunez-Inton, a postgraduate student from Hong Kong who specializes in gender phobia, and Latoya Nugent, of We-Change and J-Flag in Jamaica.

Each activist discussed their approach to challenges in terms of measured progress.

Nunez-Inton described an incident in which two transgender women in Hong Kong were denied entry to a night club, which, due to extensive coverage in the news media, allowed local activists to bring trans issues to the forefront of the media conversation. “When we talk about media, we see significant changes in terms of representation of trans people in entertainment. This was an opportunity to raise the issue in a news context.”

Tabengwa, a human rights lawyer, discussed a groundbreaking decision by the Botswana Court of Appeals, that ordered the government to legally register the organization, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) – a court case that began 11 years ago. “To advocate for legal change, which we do, it should not matter what your sexual orientation is,” she said.

The court ruled unanimously on March 16 that standing in the way of the group’s registration as an organization was “to deny their personhood... to deny their humanity, their dignity,” said Tabengway. “For me, this was very personal. The right to legal recognition is the most basic right you can have,” she said.

Wali, from Fiji, talked about the importance of using art in gaining recognition for rights, whether through film, dance, storytelling or visual representations. “In the Pacific, we celebrate through ar

t, we use art to communicate and advance critical, sensitive issues. Art for us means ‘coming home.’ It is essential to the way we interpret ourselves to the world.”

Tabengwa agreed: “Art is one of the key means we can use to document and showcase our history. Films, documentaries- all are meaningful in our struggle.”

Nugent discussed her work to mobilize support for lesbians, bisexual and transgender women in Jamaica through her year old organization We-Change, which provides advocacy and other training for lesbians, bisexual and transgender women. She described a support group for LBT in which one woman, initially quiet, began sharing her story of sexual violence as a breakthrough in their work. “That moment really resonated. Violence was no longer an academic issue, it was happening to people we knew. If you can tell the story of a person affected by violence, it takes it out of the academic.”

Fontenelle described United and Strong’s efforts to work with academics to get data about LBT women in the Caribbean as a step to empower them to speak out about the trauma many are going through.

Nugent noted in response that violence is an issue faced by all women and it offers an opening to build coalitions with women’s organizations. “On the one hand, we need to make our queer movement more feminist. On the other hand, the women’s movement needs to consider the needs of LBT women.”

In closing the discussion, Stern noted key strategies for change that the advocates discussed, including:

  • Using art to tell our stories
  • Working with women’s rights groups
  • Telling LGBTIQ stories our way
  • Using the power of local language to make LGBTIQ history and culture visible
  • Raising the intersectionality of rights
  • When old structures don’t work, find new ones

She added that the LGBTIQ activist community worldwide is under-resourced, under-funded and largely composed of volunteers. “Invest in leadership,” she said to applause.