Guest post: Privilege and Activism
Today I offer you the following guest post from my friend Sara, who I’m sure will object to my description of her as a rising force in the world of LGBT and women’s rights. It’s mirrored from her own blog, the appropriately titled That’s What She Said.
Last Friday, I attended a Commission on the Status of Women parallel NGO event put on by ILGA and RSFL called, ‘The rights of invisible women – the human rights of lesbian and bisexual women.’ While it was about sexism within the LGBTI movement internationally and the intersectionalities of homophobia and sexism for lesbians, bisexual women, gender-non-conforming women, and transgender women in society generally, the discussion tended to focus more often than not on violence against these women. The amazing speakers discussed a variety of things, including many specific cases and dynamics of this violence and the gender dynamics within one particular LGBTI group.
The room that this event was held in was pretty small, and there were maybe 40 people there total. CSW parallel events have a pretty wide range in size and I’ve been to ones with maybe 15 people and ones with 100, but I went to another LGBT focused one last year on the Yogyakarta Principles and you couldn’t even fit all the people into the room—there wasn’t even standing room. Even at a women-oriented event like the Commission on the Status of Women, queer events about women specifically are apparently less popular. Who would’ve thunk?
Anyhow, during the question-and-answer period, one woman, an Anglican priest, stood up with a sheet of paper with an IGLHRC press release printed on it. It was about a 3 day conference happening in Uganda featuring a number of American anti-gay speakers. It is run by a Ugandan organization whose mission is, the “restoration of Ugandan family values and morals.” It opposes access to safe, legal abortions. It also opposes the use of condoms and promotes abstinence-only programming as its approach to HIV prevention. It makes the sensationalized claim that homosexuality is “spreading like wildfire in schools.” The event organizers have invited parents, teachers, government workers, politicians, counselors and faith leaders. It is important to note that in Uganda, senior government officials have called for the arrest and deportation of homosexuals, causing extensive persecution and violence against LGBT people. She asked the speakers what she, and other religious leaders, could do to counter these kinds of efforts.
One of the speakers looked deeply uncomfortable and spoke a little about the situation, for those who had not heard, and then said something to the effect of,
“And even now, people representing these anti-gay organizations are in this room with us, taking notes on what we’re saying.”
She then told that woman and anyone else interested to speak with her privately after the discussion.
This moment really shook me up, even though I’m well aware that there is extensive spying between pro- and anti-LGBT and reproductive rights groups, because all of a sudden I had to ask myself, ‘is this nice young girl sitting next to me someone who hates people like me?’ because I didn’t know who she was. Everyone had gone around the room when we started and said who we are and what organization we were from, but being a relative newbie, I only knew some of them and only knew some of the people. I also had to worry that people thought the spy was me because I was taking notes and when I introduced myself I just said I was a ‘student’ because I’m not officially with any group except the one I’m interning at, and I wasn’t there on their behalf.
Anyhow, it was deeply unsettling to think that I was less than four meters away from someone who was part of these groups that were specifically supporting the state-sponsored injury and death of gay people in Uganda, and all over the world. It made me feel less safe than I have in a long time, and at the same time deeply privileged that this was one of the scarier experiences I’ve faced as a politically active bisexual woman.
I don’t mean scary in the physical sense–I didn’t fear for my life or safety, exactly. But when I enter a room, especially a small room, full of out queer people and staunch allies I feel an intensely strong sense of safety and comradeship, and that bubble of comfort was abruptly pierced by this realization. I am now hyper-aware how how much of that bubble was the product of a whole mess of my privileges, which isn’t to say it was a bad thing, but perhaps it was distorting of my view of the world.
Only two days previous I had been at a different parallel event about women in power and politics in central Asia and one of the other attendees, sitting next to me, was this girl/young woman roughly my age. The last speaker on this truly amazing panel was a middle-aged woman from Pakistan, who had a really depressing and upsetting account of the state and future possibilities of women in political life in Pakistan. She made a comment about having, personally, to balance fear of attack with continuing her political and feminist work. The girl next to me chimed in that she was also from Pakistan and that she was constantly having to weigh her desire to do this work with her desire to survive. It was profoundly humbling.
I am so damn lucky in the relatively mild homophobia, biphobia, and sexism I have faced in my life, and that I have the freedom and leisure to attend and participate in events like this one and do this kind of work.