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This summer I represented NAWL at the Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s (CHRF) 22nd annual International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, just outside of Montreal. (See the CHRF’s website at http://www.chrf.ca/english/general/files/master_eng.htm)
For three weeks, 120 human rights advocates from over 60 different countries stayed in the residences of John Abbott College and participated in the training program. The training was probably the most intense three weeks of my life — jam-packed with experiences and friends I will be learning from for a lifetime.
Coming from Victoria, BC, where, as a black woman, I am highly conspicuous, one of my first sentiments at the training was feeling at home in a multi-cultural, multi-coloured setting. I initially felt a sense kinship with the African participants because there are some cultural similarities between Africa and Trinidad where half of my family is from. However, a rift quickly developed because the training program was also my first immersion in a situation where homophobia was so widespread.
… was shocking. Homophobia is everywhere and I expected to find it here too, but facing the extent and depth of the deep-seated hatred of gays and lesbians among human rights activists was very painful. Aside from numerous derogatory comments about the morality of gay people, and what is or is not natural, there are a couple of incidents that I would identify as low points.
One man stood up at the microphone in the agora (auditorium) and stated that he didn’t think that gays and lesbians should be allowed to publish because this could contribute to a decline in reproduction. The statement itself was not nearly as discouraging as the fact that it was met with applause from about half of the 100 people in the room.
As terrified as I am of speaking in public, I am, on occasion, so moved by anger or desperation to be motivated to such displays. This was one of those occasions. However, I was about fifth in line at the microphone (behind people, most of them men, who had already taken the opportunity to monopolize airtime on several previous occasions). I was not given the opportunity to speak.
I finally did have my say toward the end of the course when I lead a workshop during “open-space” time on “Violence and Hatred of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals.” About fifteen people attended. Some were clearly supportive, others were quiet, but the environment overall was very positive. We began by discussing various forms of hatred and violence that have been “justified” throughout history on the basis of morality or religion. Ironically, while I was in Montreal, Amnesty International had produced a report on Torture and Ill-Treatment Based on Sexual Identity (online at http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/ACT400162001.
My workshop included case studies on some the scenarios presented in the report, and then moved into open discussion around sexual orientation. All questions were posed respectfully and gave me the opportunity to dispel some myths and misunderstandings and to learn about manifestations of homophobia in various countries.
A parallel workshop addressing sexual orientation was run by a (straight) man from Africa. Later, when posters went up in the agora reporting back on the experiences in each group, someone had written on his poster: “Are sexually disoriented people human beings?”
Aside from these impromptu sessions, discussions about sexual orientation and transgender issues were totally absent from the curriculum although it was painfully evident that conversation around these issues was necessary. The Amnesty Report clearly indicates that homophobia is a global problem and my experiences show that many human rights workers themselves are extremely homophobic.
On a more positive note, as a result of awareness raising coming out of my experiences at the training, a fellow-participant from the Czech Republic has decided to implement sexual orientation as part of the anti-hate training modules in Czech schools.
Fortunately, my positive experiences were even more powerful than the negative ones. I met many wonderful people — women and men who regularly risk their lives just by doing human rights work. There were many people for whom the issue of sexual orientation was new and whose commitment to human rights allowed them to challenge themselves and to learn. As for myself, my impatience and frustration with homophobia, and unwillingness to understand the context in which it developed, has made me realize how much internal work I need to do.
I went to Montreal partly because I am tired of writing academic papers and feeling like I am only writing about change instead of making it. I wanted to learn how to expand my human rights work and share resources. But by the end of the course, I was so frustrated, isolated, worn down, and angry that on some days, I questioned why should I help people who would not help me — who would let me be imprisoned, tortured, killed, or at the very least, banned from writing in their countries because I am a lesbian.
Fortunately, there were people there who helped me move beyond this. One person in particular, M, taught about the strength of the human spirit, and human capacity for change. After I came out to my class (of 15 people), M said that he used to hate gays and lesbians, but during his time in prison, and after his release, several gay men supported and helped him, and eventually became good friends. M attended the Gay Pride Parade in Ottawa this year to show his solidarity.
My new friends taught me about the power of positive action to effect change and also the value of small gestures of kindness, friendship, and generosity, which, though they may seem small or insignificant, can provide immense encouragement or even change someone’s life. And it can be something as simple as knocking “hello” in the night on the walls that separate your rooms.
Burma has been under military rule since 1988. M joined the Burmese military when he was seventeen. Ten years later, he refused to shoot at civilians and encouraged soldiers to join the peaceful pro-democracy movement. As a result, he spent nine years in prison, the last two of which were spent in solitary confinement. When M was released from prison three years ago, he fled to Thailand where he lived illegally (Thailand does not accept refugees). M risked his life to come to Canada to attend the training and raise awareness about Burma, knowing that if he was identified on his return by the Thai police, he could be deported to Burma and imprisoned and/or killed because of his political activity. A fellow activist friend of M’s died in prison while M was is Canada.1
I also met a man from Ghana who works for Timari-Tama Rural Women — a national NGO that is dedicated to advocacy and consciousness raising around the rights of women and girls, as well as health issues. My friend’s focus is on elderly women who have been accused of witchcraft as a result of the diseases or misfortunes of their family members. These women are been banished from their villages and either die or live in “witches'” camps where they endure deplorable conditions, facing problems with water, food, clothing and ill-health. I agreed to initiate some clothing and fundraising drives in Canada to assist.2 Timari-Tama has agreed to write an article for an upcoming issue of Jurisfemme.
Donations may similarly be made to La fondation pour le developpement intégré et démocratique in Haiti (FONDIDH). FONDIDH works toward socio-economic development and the promotion of democratic principles, and also runs education sessions. FONDIDH offers legal assistance to victims of human rights violations without discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or political affiliation. The woman I met who works for this organization explained that it has so few resources that they have not been able to purchase a computer and have difficulty arranging appropriate travel to rural areas. Many of the people served by FONDIDH live in conditions of extreme poverty. Because FONDIDH is able to hire so few employees, the people who do work there contribute enormous amounts of volunteer time to the organization.
During my time in Montreal, I also learned a great deal about global issues, including trafficking in women and children. I also began to understand on an emotional level what it means for a country to be under military rule. A friend from Pakistan watched his country be taken over by the military while he was in Montreal. He was afraid for his family and friends, and had a difficult time trying to find out what was happening because the military takeover in Pakistan was barely news in Canada.
Meeting all of these people reminded me how to communicate from the heart, how to value people, how to value my own small contributions, and reminded me that real social change means caring enough to send food and clothing to countries in need.
Through the training, I learned quite a bit about the United Nations and gained familiarity with international instruments. The facilitators were hired on contract and the facilitator of my small group was fantastic. However, the curriculum, newly developed this year by the CHRF, was disappointing, as was the philosophy that appeared to underlie it, and the way in which sexual harassment, cultural differences, racism, the need for accommodation, and homophobia were handled.
Fortunately, by the end of the course, the CHRF agreed that sexual orientation issues would be included in next year’s curriculum. In addition, throughout the training, the CHRF requested tremendous amounts of written feedback to improve upon the mode for next year. I hope next year’s curriculum will challenge everyone to learn about and question themselves — to challenge their views, and to share their cultures. I also hope that next year, the “training program” will be a conference and that members of the CHRF will learn from the participants to understand and challenge racism, sexism, and homophobia.
By graduation time, I was so emotionally exhausted, withdrawn, and disappointed that I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony. This is not unusual for me — I have received three university degrees in the mail and tossed them into the filing cabinet without a second thought. Later, M told me that the graduation was one of the best moments in his life — he had never dreamed of attending university, and there he was, staying at a university residence and receiving a diploma. I wish I had been there to share that and that I had not taken it for granted. M said that the time he spent in Montreal was the best time of his life.
In the last few years of law school, government work, and living in (white) Victoria I have learned so well to hide myself that most of whom I am has curled up into a pit in the middle of my stomach and were it not for the pain in my gut, I would wonder whether I was even there at all. My time in Montreal reminded me about what is important in my life and the type of human rights work I need to do.
I am grateful to the CHRF for the opportunity to attend the training and I hope that it will continue to offer the program, perhaps in consultation with queer, feminist, and anti-racist organizations, and organizations representing people with disabilities and Aboriginal people.
The course was a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual journey. I faced the challenge of not allowing hatred to breed hatred or indifference, learned the ease with which intolerance of homophobia and harassment flows into racism, and that the biggest mistake we can make as human rights workers is to think that we are immune from being the very thing that we are fighting against.
1 For more information on the situation in Burma, please contact the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) at firstname.lastname@example.org. AAPP needs both political and financial support. See also the Canadian Friends of Burma website at http://www.cfob.org
2 If you are interested in assisting or making a donation, please contact me at email@example.com or send a donation cheque (payable to the University of Victoria Chapter of the National Association of Women and the Law) to Ros Salvador, UVic NAWL, c/o Faculty of Law, University of Victoria, PO Box 2400, Station CSC, Victoria, BC, V8W 3H7. Please indicate that the cheque is for Timari-Tama.
Ros Salvador is a third year law student in Victoria, B. C. and is on the NAWL Steering Committee.