Putting the “F” in LGBTI advocacy – musings from the 13th AWID Forum

Kim Vance

Kim Vance

Executive Director at ARC International
Kim Vance founded ARC International in 2003 and she currently serves as Executive Director. She also has served as President of Egale Canada (Canada’s national LGBT organization), and is a seasoned activist within LGBTI communities at the international, national and local levels.
Kim Vance

To be honest, there’s no conference or convening that I look forward to more than the regular (but not frequent enough) forums of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). AWID is a global, feminist, membership organization, and for over 30 years they have been a part of women’s rights movements working to achieve gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights worldwide.

 “There is no such a thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” -Audre Lorde

The above quote embodies perfectly the need and rationale for such an organization and the spaces that they create for feminists around the world. The most recent 13th AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil this September exceeded all expectations.  It was the perfect location on many fronts.

Its rich and complicated Afro-Brazilian history and culture was the perfect backdrop for a three-day Black Feminist Forum preceding the main conference, and the energy and passion from that Forum resonated strongly throughout the rest of the conference discussions and outcomes. For the feminist movement, “Black Lives Matter”. Full Stop. Now, if we could get a little more of that feminist analysis and commitment to fighting racism in LGBTI movements, imagine the strength!

Brazil is also on the frontlines of dealing with the Zika virus, not simply as a matter of public health, but also as it intersects with sexual and reproductive rights and disability. This one little insect has shone a global spotlight on how society views sex, reproduction, disability and a myriad of other intersecting issues.  Zika is not a single-issue struggle, and the fact that the original forum dates were rescheduled in part because of this issue, ensured that the analysis around it formed part of the forum programme and discussions.

And finally, Brazil has shown incredible promise around programmes to combat discrimination and advance rights at the domestic, regional and international level. In particular, I think of their leadership on SOGI issues in regional bodies and at the UN, and their widely touted domestic “Brazil without Homophobia” campaign.  Yet they face many contradictions and complexities in the current political context, and we can see that the situation there is mirroring what is happening all around the world. One glaring contradiction is the alarming number of trans murders accounting for 42% of the cases in 2016 so far worldwide, including new killings in the Bahia region during the course of the conference proceedings.

Cross-movement engagement is the only way forward to face these realities, and LBGTI movements globally have much to lose if the leadership of countries like Brazil is lost because we did not join forces with other movements. For instance, trans murders cannot solely be understood through a lens of transphobia. The violence is connected to the struggles of sex workers, people of colour, those living in poverty, etc. For anyone who did not know any Portuguese coming to the conference, or who did not understand the current political climate in Brazil, after shouting “Fora Temer” a hundred times in each conference plenary, dance, etc., you had to have figured it out! (Fora Temer broadly refers to  Brazil’s period of extraordinary political upheaval and specifically to Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim present, who is widely despised by labour and allied movements. It literally means “out with Temer”.)

This type of cross-movement engagement is rare in many convenings, but not here. The forum had around 2,000 vastly diverse participants who all wanted to work for something better. I tend not to be a big fan of such large convenings, and generally have low expectations around their potential strategic outcomes, but AWID forums never fail to prove themselves worthy.

The forum themes were lofty, but so what? I get so exhausted by the minutia of analyzing UN language, and debating a single sentence of text for its presumed vast implication, that the opportunity to engage in these spaces is a gift. In fact, it is necessary to keep all of our work in check, and give us the energy to keep going. And from the perspective of my forum experience, all of the following goals were met.

  • Celebrate the gains of the past 20 years by diverse social movements and critically analyze the lessons we can carry forward.
  • Assess our current reality to locate the opportunities and threats for advancing the rights of women and other oppressed people.
  • Explore strategies for mobilizing greater solidarity and collective power across diverse movements.
  • Inspire, energize and renew strength and purpose.

One of the most moving elements of the conference was the purposeful effort to build and foster not just an L (lesbian) and B (bisexual)-inclusive feminist movement, but also a strong T (trans) and I (intersex)-inclusive feminist movement.  AWID forums have not always been an overwhelmingly supportive space for LBTI folks, unfortunately, but this forum demonstrated a true commitment to dialogue, inclusion and advancement. If the feminist movement itself cannot commit to the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of no one left behind, then how can we expect governments to? It was clear that AWID was trying to ensure it didn’t leave anyone behind.

Of course, I looked for opportunities to enhance ARC’s partnership work, and in that sense, it was wonderful to connect and strategize particularly with strong activists from the MENA region who offered a diversity of panels, films and strategic engagement. It felt like their participation was stronger and more visible than even in the last AWID forum in Turkey, but perhaps that was because I was looking for it more actively! Nonetheless, exploring the intersections of Islam, democratic movements, feminism, land rights, conflict, etc. is not a viable option in many spaces. AWID offered something different, and some tangible ways to address the intersections of many of these struggles.

 Another highlight was the engagement of Pacific activists and the spotlight on the amazing intersectional work being done in the region. If one truly wants to understand how to “DO” work around gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights, and not just “TALK” about it, look no further than the work of DIVA for Equality in Fiji and some of their partners in the region. The more we celebrate and learn from these diverse social movements, the stronger we all become. I’ll say it again…there is no single-issue struggle.

The presence and engagement of feminist-thinking UN special experts, staff from UN agencies, and members of treaty bodies was great to experience. Even they themselves acknowledged the limitations of meeting together and supporting each others work in UN spaces, so the chance to do that at the forum, along with the input of civil society partners, was particularly important, and provided lots of fertile ground for concrete action.

There were many more highlights, of course.  Having an all-Black all-women samba band rallying people to the morning plenary and charging our batteries at the closing  (at the same time as draining them!) was an unforgettable experience. The moving tribute to women human rights defenders that we’ve lost in the struggle allowed time for quiet and reflection. The weaving together of nurturing spaces, art, technology, etc. is really unsurpassed in any other conference space that I’ve been in.

At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, I had relatively few complaints. The conference space itself, while extremely comfortable, beautiful and nurturing, left me feeling somewhat disconnected from the region and broader community engagement. This was not lost on organizers, and I can appreciate that it’s a struggle to balance nurturing and security with broader engagement.  And even though the conference app was a brilliant new feature, and some of the smartest techies I know were there and engaged, much of the forum’s technical effectiveness was lost due to extremely poor internet connectivity.  This, combined with the physical isolation of the space, may have meant that the passion and fire present at the conference itself was limited in its reach.

It’s now incumbent upon us all to keep those flames of passion burning and alive in the work that we do, and continue to weave our issues together into a tapestry that can withhold any force directed at any of its fibres. As LGBTI activists, we must ensure that the “F – for feminist” is clear and present in our analysis and action, even if it’s not in our ever-growing alphabet soup of community identities.

On a personal note, I’d like to bid a fond farewell to AWID’s outgoing Executive Director, Lydia Alpízar Durán. There is no doubt in my mind that a large part of AWID’s growth and development, especially in the area of LBTI issues, is because of her leadership and personal commitment.  Yes, we are a movement, and we all share the burden, but we are also all very busy and place a certain level of trust in our leaders to gently guide us in the right direction. It’s clear that the trust was well-placed in Lydia and it’s important to acknowledge her role, while welcoming new and exciting leadership within AWID. Thanks so much!

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