To London, for an evening with Una. Sorry: UNA. Not some quaintly named Madam: but the Westminster branch of the United Nations Association, meeting in a committee room at the heart of that fusty-modern mix that is the Houses of Parliament.
There to hear some excellent speakers on the question of whether the UN is a good place to be campaigning for the rights of sexual minorities, which mostly they seem to think it is.
To begin, the meeting, introduced by Lord Black of Brentwood, made much of the fact that after decades of ignoring or even, openly resisting the call to support lgbt rights across the globe, the UN did so last year for the first time ever.
Stuart Milk, of the Harvey Milk Foundation, expressed the view that across the globe, there was one universal human rights movement now taking the lead – and that was the struggle of the sexual minorities for their rights and, in some cases, for life itself.
He rejected the UN view that “tolerance” is enough, calling instead for an active celebration of lgbt lifestyles. A large part of making this happen, he believed, was in reclaiming lgbt histories: in getting various cultures across the globe to acknowledge that before colonisation, many had a proud tradition of being supportive of non-normative sexualities.
Everything from past Indian tolerance of lgbti lifestyles to the native American tradition of “two spirits” should be on the agenda.
Respecting local traditions
Next up was Renato Sabbadini, from International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, who spend a lot of their time working with the UN. He provided some interesting corollaries to Stuart’s view on histories, by pointing out that opposition to lgbt rights was far from monolithic.
Different countries rejected rights for different reasons – and there was a need to respect local differences: to press for change in accordance with what local movements asked for, rather than to attempt to impose change from outside. Too, western governments needed to be more consistent: not condemning Iran for its lgbt stance and ignoring Saudi Arabia.
Otherwise there was a risk that lgbt rights could come to be seen as a selective political weapon – and the backlash, in the sense of countries like Russia digging in and bidding to lead a return to traditional values, could become more widespread.
Softly softly showcasing values
Last but far from least was Emma Reed, Head of LGB&T Equality with the UK Government Equalities Office. She explained the need for a softly-softly approach, while at the same time extolling the virtues of the Olympic games as a chance for the UK to showcase its positive views on lgbt to the world.
Echoing Renato’s comments on working with rather than against, she suggested that when it came to religion, the true situation should not be seen as lgbt vs. religious folks…but lgbt allied to religious liberals vs. extremists.
“I” is for intersex…
Important throughout the session was great care being taken to extend lgbt to include intersex, a minority that I firmly believe is now finally on its way to recognition. The most touching speech of the evening came from a young student, Anis, who kicked past enormous nervousness to remind the audience just how important it was NOT to forget the I in lgbti.
P.S. One quaint piece of parliamentary frippery is the fact that most committee rooms have two entrances – one labelled “Members” and the other labelled “Public”. The idea – how engforced it is nowadays i am never sure – is that Members of the two parliamentary Houses use the first – and us great unwashed use the second.
But, lo! Who is this making her entrance through the first set of doors? Why, tis none other than Lady Paris of Diva (and now Meta, too!).
Too soon, too soon! Give it another thirty years or so and yes…one day you could yet be the UK’s first trans peer. 🙂
ETA: One of the organisers of the event drops me a line to say i haven’t QUITE got it right. I know! There was a lot of debate around the difference between the French and English use of the term tolerance. For completeness, here’s what he sent me…
“The UN did not argue that tolerance is enough. The International Year for Tolerance(1995) was a UNESCO initiative and the rest of the world understood it because, as 1985-1997, both the UK and US were not UNESCO members, the dominant langauge there was French. We consciously used the French meaning of the word – to show interest in ‘the other’.
“Our plan was to tackle the unwillingness of NGOs to even wish to learn from the experiences of others working in what might appear to be totally different fields. But, we argued, all encounter prejudice. Even today, these continue to work within airtight universes, a feature that delays input from others. So we prompted several initiatives intended to introduce its members to each other. And it worked. Although Stuart and indeed Renato rejected the ‘tolerance’ label, they were rejecting the application of the English meaning, a construct we avoided in 1995.”