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An emotional end to a far-reaching conference

Sat 19 Mar 2011 In: Community View at Wayback View at NDHA

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."  - Mahatma Ghandi, quoted several times during the Human Rights Conference A sense of people claiming a respected place in the world and the need to support each other against oppression and injustice were the most common themes emerging out of the Human Rights Conference which has been running alongside the 2nd Asia Pacific Out Games in Wellington for the past three days. In the closing session, which aimed to sumarise the thoughts and issues arising from the conference, UN-based and NZ-born human rights activist John Fisher remembered growing up with negative portrayals of gays, but at last feeling, for the first time in his life, that he belonged in his own country when he saw the banner newspaper headline “Homosexuality Decriminalised” in 1986. He said much has changed over the years for glbt people in many countries and often the work has been hard and the progress slow. “But we are winning,” he said. He described an incident which occurred immediately after he was the first openly gay person to address the United Nations and to use the words “gay” and “lesbian” in that international forum. A senior delegate from another nation nervously sidled up to him, furtively checked that no one else was listening and quietly said “Thank you" then disappeared back into the crowd. Although the UN has been extremely helpful in keeping the needs of disenfranchised glbt people on the world political agenda, “the continuing abuses around the world remind us of work to be done... Our voices will not be silenced,” Fisher said. Fisher highlighted the Yogyakarta Principles, a ground breaking UN document which brings all UN standards and policies relating to glbt people into one document and which is already helping gay rights activists around the world confront their governments. And he noted the slowly increasing number of nations signing on to the return to the UN forum this Monday of the Joint Statement of the requirement of signatory governments to protect their glbt people from violence and discrimination. CLAIMING A TURANGAWAEWAE Fisher pointed out that support for equality for glbt people came from the highest levels, including UN Secretary General Ban Khi Moon who recently declared: “When our fellow humans are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity we must speak out.” “You are never alone,” Fisher reassured delegates from nations making only slow progress in protections for glbt people. “We are many and we are one and we are unstoppable.” Chief NZ Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan, who chaired the final session, summed up the “Law and our rights” part of the conference by saying “we can all work towards a turangawaewae... a place to stand.” She noted that New Zealand itself had much work to do, in areas such as adoption. “There is no excuse,” she said, “for the problems we are having with adoption rights.” ENERGY AND ENTHUISIASM New York-based Dutch human rights lawyer and gay ex-MP Boris Dittrich said he has had his eyes opened by being at the conference. “You can almost touch the energy and enthusiasm here,” he told the crowded Ilott Theatre. He said that through attending and participating in the Conference he had learned a lot that was good and inspiring from Maori and Pacific Islands cultures which he had not been aware of before. He said he believed the Conference showed that small populations such as Maori and PI glbt people could achieve much by coming together “United we are strong, he said, before pointing out that there are 22 small nations in the Pacific area with 22 votes in the United Nations. The glbt people of our small nations could have a big effect on international human rights, he felt. But Dittrich also acknowledged the difficulties people, especially in the Islands, face within their own communities, and in particular the negative social effects of conservative Island Christian groups. “We have heard a lot about the negative effects of religion, esp in the Pacific Islands,” he said. “The arrival of Christianity in the Islands changed how people see us. Dittrich gave specific and disturbing examples of the aggressiveness of fundamentalist groups, often American evangelists, working in nations struggling towards equality for all their citizens, including glbt people. “We must not forget while we work to gain equality that religious groups are organised against us.” Dittrich said he had observed from the conference that another significant barrier to work on equal rights, particularly in less well off nations, is the unavailability of funding. Somehow we must address this issue of funding, he said, noting that the NZ Government has recently cut back on its international aid to many small nations, which has consequent flow-on effects on people working to advance equality and human rights. OVERCOMING INVISIBILITY Satya Rai Nagpaul of India took the podium to highlight the perceptions of transgender and intersex delegates, whose main focus had been a full day hui held the day before the conference proper commenced. He said that they are insufficiently recognised in the broader glbt communities, let alone in society in general, which leads to their needs being undervalued or even invisible. In one of the most emotional and uplifting moments of the closing session half a dozen trans and intersex people, who appeared to have purposely spread themselves individually throughout the crowded auditorium, rose and called out their name, their nationality and their most important wish for their lives. They asked those in the room who supported them to please stand in solidarity and the entire gathering stood and spontaneously applauded. "DON'T FORCE US BACK INTO THE CLOSET" Chanele Hapi of the NZ Prostitute's Collective told the session that she had never before seen so many trans people in one place. She said that as a transgender Maori it was wonderful to have met “girls from Asia and India.” She urged the delegates to understand that there is “no shame in being in the sex industry... that's just the way it is!" A highly emotional and well-received speech from the floor came when an elderly lesbian implored the delegates not to ignore the lives and needs of elderly glbt. She said our communities too often turn our backs on our elderly who have much to offer but also suffer from isolation and invisibility. “Please don't force us back into the closet just because we are older,” she pleaded and was acknowledged with cheers and applause. Amongst other brief speakers towards the end of the session was Pru Hyman who said “we all need to be visible, but often the word lesbian has disappeared into the queer sexuality soup. The needs of specific lesbian groups such as old and young lesbians, lesbian parents parenting must be addressed. She noted that for many of these groups “we are talking about cultural rather than sexual identity." Joey Joleen Mataele of the Tongan Leitis Association entertained the gathering with the observation that some delegates had noted that day after day she was immaculately turned out in pearls and stylish but not necessarily practical high heels. “Let me tell you this,” she said. “I was born with heels and I will die with heels.” Then she got down to bussines of speaking on behalf of Pacific Islands delegates. “What we have to say will sound like we are the bitches of the conference but we are here to make a stand She said the main barrier top achieving progress towards equality in the Pacific Islands is “funding funding funding.” She highlighted the lack of Pacific Islands participation in the planning of events and initiatives. A key element to enable us to action our needs and to participate is “representation, representation, representation.” She said that there is a need for a “culturally appropriate” term to describe the differing sexualities of the Pacific and that while much of the work on Pacific sexual diversity focused on faafafine, and sex workers, there were many other sexual cultures and issues beyond those. She that Pacific Islanders “have come a long way and we have a long way to go As a gift of thanks to the programme organiser of the Conference representatives of the Pacific nations, from PNG across to the Cook Islands, presented Barry Taylor with a huge and detailed Tongan tapa cloth while the delegates sang the Fijian song of farewell, Isa Lei, from the stage. Daily News staff - 19th March 2011

Credit: Daily News staff

First published: Saturday, 19th March 2011 - 1:30pm

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