Language matters

Mariana Winocur
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    Reflections on ARC’s latest International Dialogue

    The International Dialogues hosted by ARC International with local partners aim at gathering activists, scholars, practitioners and other stakeholders from around the world to share experiences and challenges in advancing rights for LGBTIQ persons. Dialogues are safe, protected and private spaces, where human rights defenders can learn from each other’s experiences and strategies, as well as build transnational solidarity and alliances. Dialogues are also an opportunity to talk about and exchange best practices, knowledge and strategies to improve the exercise of human rights.

    In 2019, the International Dialogue was organized by ARC with The Centre for Health Law, Ethics and Technology (CHLET) at O.P. Jindal Global University in New Delhi.  This year ‘s theme encouraged speakers and participants to share their “best practice” experiences in international law, domestic litigation and apology/reparation processes to advance human rights related to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

    Language was an important issue during the Dialogue. Words and the way people express themselves can assist LGBTIQ activists in exercising their human rights or, conversely, put their freedom and their lives at risk. In that sense, there were some presentations I want to highlight, in terms of revealing how language plays out in the lives of LGBTIQ persons.

    Language and how to interpret diversity. Argentine activist and scholar Blas Radi shared with the audience how the Yogyakarta Principles helped inform the Argentine Gender Identity Law. He highlighted how the definition of gender identity in the law was based on the YPs, and showed how the language of what gender identity is, helped better capture the diversity of human experience. He also highlighted the resistance that law still generates towards a proper understanding of the concept of “gender identity”.

    I celebrate the fight that LGBTIQ people in Argentina —especially the “Frente Nacional por la Ley de Identidad de Género” (National Coalition for the Gender Identity Law)— have done for so many years, not only until the law was passed (in 2012), but also on how to interpret the law, and how to make it be able to legally recognize every single identity. Going on with language and words, the way the law frames the concept of gender identity has allowed non-binary people to remove the sex marker in their IDs.

    Nevertheless, said Radi, there are still prejudices and ignorance to dismantle, such as considering only a binary gender scenario when writing bills to help advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, i.e. the prescription that in order to become a mother or get pregnant, you must necessarily be “a woman”, or list the gender options as women, men and “gender identities”, marking a clear status difference between the binary and the “others”.

    Language and self-identification. Michelle Yesudas is an activist doing important human rights work in Malaysia. In a country that criminalizes same-sex sexual relations, cross-dressing and persecutes LGBTIQ people, domestic law can be paradoxically used to advance rights related to SOGIESC. Michelle presented the case of four trans persons who challenged a Syariah Criminal enactment (exclusively Islamic laws with jurisdiction upon every Muslim in Malaysia) with several arguments, one of which is the right to freedom of expression. The case she shared had a key component of language.

    She explained that in the Malay language, the most common word used to refer to the LGBTIQ community is ‘pondan’, a derogatory term to demean transwomen or gay men. Malay language also has the word ‘pengkid’ referring to ‘tomboy’. Challenging such humiliating words, and trying to find a word that reflected a different gender identity, trans women of Malaysia created the expression Mak Nyah during the 80s. ‘Mak’ meaning ‘woman’ and ‘Nyah’ meaning ‘lady’.

    In 2015, four Mak Nyah went to Court to revoke a section of Syariah Criminal Enactment of 1992, which made it an offence for Muslim males to wear women’s attire or to pose as a woman in public places. The Court of Appeal declared that the claimed section was unconstitutional because it violated freedom of movement and freedom of expression. It also said it was discriminatory, and interfered with their right to live with dignity and right to life.

    Lawyers during this landmark case used the expression Mak Nyah throughout their documents, and the petitioners narrated their lived experiences to the Court. The Courts verdict has been an inflection point in recognizing the right to freedom of expression, a right that includes cross-dressing. As recognized by the Court, freedom of speech also includes the right to express oneself through symbolic conduct. In a country with a history of persecutions against LGBTIQ persons, nothing is better than listening to and reproducing the voices of the harassed, intimidated or arrested just for being who they are.

    Language and inclusion/exclusion. There was a heated discussion on feminism and the LGBTIQ movement during the Dialogue. It was triggered by Ishani from CREA who explained the process of Beijing+25, and pointed out that some mainstream feminists are leaving aside trans women and focusing almost only on women who can become pregnant. The discussion on who is a woman, who is part of feminism, and who is not part of it was enriched by Akkai Padmashali, an Indian trans activist who highlighted the importance of broader feminisms —those who take into consideration castes, social class, genders and multiple identities—, visible. During her intervention, she named all the possible identities that are part of the feminist’s political subject. She brought the “other” identities into visibility.

    Her personal story together with her activism on women’s, children’s and LGBT+ rights is an example on how feminism and LGBT movement are interlinked and intersectional. Akkai related that she felt a girl/woman since she was 6 years old, despite the fact that her parents were rising her as a boy (she was assigned male when was born). She told that when she was a child, she locked herself in her room and put on her sister’s underwear, used her lipstick and her makeup.

    She also said that her father severely punished her when she saw her feminine behavior. Because of such experiences, Akkai first thought that something was going wrong with her, and tried to commit suicide, twice. It took her some more time to accept herself the way she is, and started to be a public activist some years after, even though she now recognizes that her activism started at the age of 8. The personal becomes political, she emphasized, and that is a feminist slogan.

    The right to expression and domestic litigation. Human rights activist Ihab narrated how the government of Egypt arrests LGBTIQ people whose behaviors are suspected to be gay or trans persons, and charge them under the accusation of debauchery. He indicated that the police have two methods to arrest peoples based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. One of them is creating fake profiles on gay apps like Grindr and Hornet, contacting users, then trapping them and having their cell phones confiscated and examined thoroughly to use its content to make charges against their owners.

    The other method the police use is to go to the known hangouts of LGBTIQ people and inspect their cell phones to find messages and/or pictures that could demonstrate sexual relationships. After finding such messages and/or pictures, those persons are charged with practicing prostitution —forbidden in Egypt—, debauchery or being rapists. Once arrested, they are obliged to show their bodies to see if they have had their hair removed, and subjected to anal examinations to “prove” their homosexuality. Just in 2018, 71 cases were heard in first,-and second, instance courts. Most of them were sentenced to one-three years in prison.

    Ihab showed the tools of domestic litigation that Egyptian human rights organizations/defenders have used to advance human rights related to SOGIESC in their country. He shared some strategies developed in his organization to help release LGBTIQ persons from prison, or to avoid being arrested. First, he said, lawyers must deny the alleged homosexuality of the detainees. Secondly, it is imperative to expose those cases at the international level, especially at UN spaces. Thirdly, as a prevention, they train LGBTIQ people on how to act, how to move, what to declare if they are arrested and, above all, what information NOT to keep on their cell phones.

    Language and apology/reparation. Michelle Douglas, from Canada, shared a moving history of harassment and violence she suffered from being a lesbian in the Canadian Armed Forces. When she narrated it live before an auditorium of activists in which the majority suffered violence and discrimination, her story touched an immediate chord. She tried to keep her voice from breaking, but she couldn’t. She narrated that she worked for the Canadian Armed Forces, and that she was removed from her position and transferred to another unit because she was presumably a lesbian, although she tried to hide it. Before being fired, she was also forced to declare that her loyalty to the LGBT collective would never be superior than her loyalty to her homeland. Her defense was not enough: Michelle was fired from her job. “Not advantageously employable due to homosexuality,” was the reason.

    When the Canadian justice system ultimately ruled in hers favour, she felt a great relief. The repair also came in 2017, she said, after Prime Minister Trudeau publicly apologized to members of the LGBTQ community for the repressive measures taken by the government against thousands of public service workers and the armed forces between the 50’s and the early 90’s. While the words and language of apology are not enough to repair all harm, in her case, they went a long way in her journey of recovery.

    Language and international law. Kamanda Bosco is a trans woman with a strong experience in advocating for LGBTIQ rights in Uganda. Her speech was on the danger associate with being a LGBT person in that country, where the law criminalizes same sex relations known as carnal knowledge against the order of nature. She also spoke on the way the organization she works for has used international law and mechanisms to raise awareness of the situation LGBTIQ people face in Uganda.

    The international campaigns that human right defenders in Uganda carry on to tell the world how LGBTIQ persons are being violented, usually have a boomerang effect. HRDs gain visibility and, as a consequence, they are arrested by the police. Their activism also puts their lives at risk. We remember LGBTIQ activist David Kato, who was murdered after winning a lawsuit against a magazine that published his name together with other one’s identifying them as gay. The headline urged the public to “Hang them”.

    Kamanda is not afraid. In June 2017, during the 35th session of the Human Rights Council, the Independent Expert on SOGI presented his first ever report which was then amplified by civil society. Kamanda took that opportunity to deliver an oral statement on protection of LGBTIQ rights defenders. That statement, her words, plus the work she and her organization have been doing in international spaces and with UN special procedures, resulted in good news. Ugandan LGBTIQ persons received support for their human rights and international solidarity, and during the Universal Periodic Review, it was recommended the country decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct, and repeal laws that persecute on the ground of SOGIESC. It was also recommended that Uganda investigate and prosecute cases of discrimination, intimidation and attacks on LGBTIQ persons and organizations.

    The experiences of hearing such important activist voices whose work on domestic litigation, international law and apology/reparation processes have been paying off, is inspiring. After having listened to them, no one who attended the International Dialogue could have remained the same. I certainly haven’t.

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