Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Grace Poore: Thank you. I want to thank Joy Liddicoat, who I think is not here, for making it possible for me to be here, and also Rainbow Wellington.

This opportunity actually is not only about meeting new people, connecting with people I've already met, but very particularly to see what kinds of relationships IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, can form with groups in the Pacific Islands. We often talk about the capacity of local groups, and we need to pay attention to whether international organizations have the capacity to do certain kinds of work, and that rather than tokenizing and doing work because it belongs to a title, to actually look at what that means. So although my title says that I'm the Programme Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands, I had made a commitment in my second year to begin working and seriously doing work in the Pacific Islands, and that has not happened. And one of the reasons that I'm hoping that I will be meeting with several people is to see: What is it that we can do? Can we do it? Can we do it well? And, what shouldn't we be doing? So I am very grateful for this opportunity to be here to actually do that. Thank you.

I was invited to focus my presentation on my experiences in movement building for social change in Asia, and also at the international level, and to share what this experience has taught me about what is required for successful movement building, and what some of the challenges are. I'm not really going to do that. I'm actually going to be sharing the insights of activists in Asia who have been working for many years to improve conditions for the lives of LGBT people, and then to make some observations of my own about the trends that are emerging in the region.

Yesterday Geetanjali Misra highlighted the successful movement building in India around Section 377, and the development of lesbian organizing in response to the Hindu right-wing reaction to the movie "Fire."

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight two different parts of Asia, northeast Asia and southeast Asia, paying attention to three different approaches to advocating for LGBT human rights: one in Hong Kong, one in Vietnam and one in Cambodia, where different political contexts have shaped and continue to shape how LGBT activists define the term "movement," and how they strategically navigate their activism.

In 2005 a group of LGBT activists in Hong Kong, who made up the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong, decided that they wanted to do something for International Day Against Homophobia. There were 10 of them. All they had was about $100 US, and right away they knew that they could not afford to outreach through advertising and printing posters. The valuable resource they did have was an already established network of credible friendships and working relationships with activists in other social movements such as feminists, women's groups, human right's groups, youth groups, economic right's groups and religious groups.

Using Facebook, email alerts and egroups they reached out to these other movements. They also leafleted gay and lesbian bars to introduce their group and publicize the call to gather for International Day Against Homophobia. An unprecedented 300 people, which is a big number for Hong Kong, showed up in one of the busiest intersections of the city. And since that year there have been IDAHO and Pride gatherings on the streets of Hong Kong every year.

The same outreach and coalition strategy was used by the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong to get domestic-violence protections for same-sex couples; now again, there was success. Despite strong resistance from Christian church groups, many of them funded by groups in the UK and the United States, Hong Kong now covers same-sex couples under its domestic violence law, which, however, was not called a domestic-violence law, to appease the church, but instead was renamed – and Connie, I hope I get this right – Domestic and Cohabiting Relationships Violence Ordinance.

[laughter]

Building and investing in broad coalitions has worked for Hong Kong LGBTI activists, particularly because of the public, visible and vocal support from non-LGBT supporters. Sometimes coalition support is behind the scenes – it's private, it's quiet. The trouble with that is it actually invisiblizes that support, and it is critical for LGBT movements in Asia and the Pacific Islands to receive public support from allies, particularly in a context where there is so much public and private homophobia and transphobia.

When I asked Connie, who is the founder of the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong, who's here at this conference... is that Connie there? I think so. So, when I asked Connie what helped move that moveable middle in those many, many movements, what helped make that difference in getting the broad coalition support? he said that after over 10 years of organizing for LGBT rights Hong Kong society had changed, people are more accepting of LGBT rights, the LGBT movement has become bigger, activists in the LGBT movement have alliances that they didn't have before and they have gained a lot of experience on how to strategize effectively. Working together on that domestic violence law reform was a catalyst, actually, in reinforcing those alliances.

The challenge now for the LGBT movement in Hong Kong is the Christian-right movement, which according to Connie had grown stronger over the last few years. While only 10% of Hong Kong people are Christian, over 50% of schools in Hong Kong are funded by Christian groups. This gives them incredible access and control over the kind of education and the social services that youth receive. In addition, several highly-placed officials in Hong Kong government are Christian, which has added greater support for the family values policy that the Christian groups are pushing for in Hong Kong.

Now, a quick glimpse of Vietnam. When I asked activists there how they would describe the movement for LGBT rights in Vietnam, their first response was, "What movement? We have no movement." The word "movement" in Vietnam is associated with confrontation, and as one of the Directors of an organization that is documenting discrimination against lesbians and gay men explained, "Our approach is not confrontation. We promote education." He said that by carrying out research and documenting the experiences of gays and lesbians in Vietnam – they only focus on gays and lesbians – that by documenting the experiences of gays and lesbians in Vietnam and presenting this information in a scientific way, he believed that Vietnamese society would be more open to challenging their ideas about gay people even if their personal beliefs and customs are rooted in a tradition of non-acceptance. As he explains, enlightenment through education is promoted by the government, so this then becomes the entry point for LGBT advocacy without using the word "movement;" without using the word "activist."

This strategy is premised on the expectation that when people have information that they never had before they have an opportunity to challenge their flawed thinking, which is based on misinformation and old ideas. In other words, they believe that people are educable.

Now, Cambodia is the third country that I want to focus on. Cambodia also uses the education approach, but their focus of the education strategy is the LGBT community and not so much the general public. In 2009 Rainbow Coalition Kampuchea, RoCK, organized a three-day-long weekend workshop during Pride. 300 to 400 women who love women came from the capital city of Phnom Penh, but more significantly, they came from distant cities and provinces, travelling sometimes for a night-and-a-half on a bus. Now, according to RoCK this was the first time that lesbians have been invited to do anything for Pride, which has been celebrated in Cambodia since 2004.

Now, when I say Pride activities I don't mean rallies and marches on the streets. These activities are low-profile activities that take place indoors, because when we think Pride people usually assume outdoors. So for instance a Pride party would be held in a hotel, and like 500 gay men would be at the party. This series of workshops that took place all took place on the premises of HIV/AIDS NGOs, where the gay directors very quietly allowed them to use the space. And I say quietly because they were really not supposed to do that.

Now what's interesting about Cambodia is that the people who mobilized the Cambodian lesbians were foreigners. They were from the UK. They were basically white people from the UK and Ireland who came under the VSO – Voluntary Services Organization. Now, they saw that the lesbians were marginalized and invisible in Cambodia. They raised $6,000 US from supportive American, European and overseas Cambodians and organized the workshop. As one of the VSO staff said, "It's hard for lesbians to come out in Cambodia. Because we are foreigners and white we could risk being out, and we had access to resources that the local lesbian community did not."

Now since 2009, that workshop that was held, lesbians in Cambodia have met again to address the key issues in their lives, one of which is violence. And they have formed a national email network through which they keep in touch regularly.

Now, this kind of arrangement where foreigners drive a local movement can be a problem, and I think that sometimes under very careful circumstances it may be necessary to have this kind of arrangement, particularly where it is not possible for local activists, in a particular point of time, to initiate a movement. But again, I think that it has to be very carefully monitored, it has to be done in partnership, there have to be a lot of caveats, it has to be short-term, and priority has to be given to developing local capacity and developing local leadership as soon as possible.

I think that three of the four VSO people have now left Cambodia because their terms are now over, but two or three of the Cambodian lesbians that convened in 2009 have now emerged as leadership to continue the work.

Also, the National Human Rights Commission of Cambodia has begun a documentation project on violence against women, and when they heard that there is this lesbian network that is forming in Cambodia and that violence is one of their issues, they have now invited that lesbian network to be included in the documentation project, which would not have happened if this hadn't come before.

So, from the three examples I hope that it is clear that movement is not a monolithic concept. It depends on context and possibilities that people have in that context. There can be a movement with few people, because only they can be visible and vocal. You can have a movement from outside a country because it's not possible with activists inside the country. A movement may start because local people who have been educated abroad come back to connect, collaborate and inspire.

But the integrity of movement building is linked to who suffers the consequences of being part of a movement, and who bears the brunt of what that movement does. Sometimes people outside the country may drive a movement from outside, but they don't face any of the risks within the country that they are advocating for. Similarly, people inside a country may internationalize an issue without first consulting with other people in that country, so the question becomes: who represents who?

Since I have a few more minutes... yes? I would like to talk about new media technology and how new media technology is actually changing the landscape of movement building in some parts of Asia. When I say new media technology I mean Facebook and Twitter, and half of this stuff I don't even have. Internet – you know, all of this stuff. But mass numbers of people can now join movements that spring into action thousands of miles away.

Now, some of the complaints about this strategy are that you can press a button, you can send a letter of protest, you can sign on to a petition, and you may be thousands of miles away from a country that's initiating it. And then you feel satisfied because you somehow are now part of this movement and you feel great that you've done something, but you know nothing about that country; you know nothing about their issues.

And trying to fit a critical message into 160 characters – the tweet thing – it's a challenge to come up with it, but it's a challenge of how do you communicate and convey details to people about issues of that campaign?

Having said that, though, there are people in Asia who rely on and find that this new media technology is very useful. In 2007 Singapore gay activist Johnson Ong sent out an online petition. He collected 8,000 signatures worldwide for the repeal of the Singapore sodomy law.

Also in 2007 a South Korean LGBT coalition of activists initiated an international cyber demonstration against Lee Myung-bak, who's currently the President of South Korea, at the time he was the presidential candidate and he made some public comments that LGBT people are abnormal.

In 2009 the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission mobilized an online letter-writing campaign to protest the Philippine's Election Commission decision to deny Ang Ladlad, which is an LGBTI party, the right to participate in national elections. And the Election Commission said that LGBT people offend religious beliefs and they are an immoral influence on the country's youth and therefore they should not be allowed to run for the national elections. Hundreds of letters were sent to the Philippine's Commission from all over: from Latin America, North America, Asia, Europe to the Philippine's Commission. And the feedback that we got is the local activists felt really bolstered by getting these kinds of letters, and that it made a difference; it did make a difference to them. It also sent a message to the violators, meaning the Philippine's Commission, that the world is watching.

On the downside of new technology, people who promote hate and violence against LGBT people also use new technology. They monitor our websites. They use the same things that we use, and they can use it to distort, they can use it to mobilize, they can seriously endanger people's lives. One recent example is a virulent hate speech and death threats made by a blogger who saw a video post by a gay man in Malaysia who was making a positive statement about his identity. Now, while he received many, many supportive responses, the cyber attacks against him were frightening, and these raise important questions for us: What is the role of law enforcement in these kinds of situations, when these kinds of death threats are done? How do they protect our vulnerable citizens from such terror? And I think the Human Rights Commissions need to sort of get on the ball and also catch up with technology and see what kinds of things they can do, and how does this come under the work that they do?

I've talked about some of the good things that have happened in the three countries, and given a sense that things are moving. Sunil talked about looking forward and not holding on to the grievances of the past, but I do feel like I need to end on this note: 10 countries in Asia, 9 countries in the Pacific Islands, criminalize consensual same-sex relations. And even in countries where there are no sodomy laws there is little or no political will in many of the countries in Asia, on the part of the government, to remove a whole bunch of other laws that target LGBT people – everything from public nuisance laws, pornography laws, adultery laws, morality laws, obscenity laws, and respect of religion laws.

And this lack of political will is influenced by the presence of dominant religious ideology and cultural conservatives. And this religious leadership functions as gatekeepers, and in many instances they encourage policy makers to reject efforts to decriminalize sexual orientation and gender identity, and to shut down efforts to introduce non-discrimination provisions in the constitution. This has happened in South Korea, which has a small population of Christians. This has happened in Singapore, which has a very small population – like 2% – of Christians. This is happening in Hong Kong. This is now starting to happen in China. This is starting to happen in many other countries, as well.

The rise of ultra-conservative religious groups and their influence with policy makers is also evident in Indonesia, Malaysia. Using home grown expressions of imported religious homophobia, Christian groups and hard-line Islamist groups are actually a trend that I think we need to pay attention to. They don't only affect LGBT rights, they affect women's rights. There's a lot of overlap that takes place. They incite public vigilantism, they promote homophobic backlash in the media and they are often endorsed by silent collusion of the government in the countries that they operate in.

So, I think that these are things that we should pay attention to.

[applause]

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com