by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
On Tuesday, May 15, the World Affairs Council, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that creates programs and opportunities for Seattleites to interact directly with leaders, educators, and professionals from around the world, held its first-ever specifically Gay forum in its 60-year history at the Center for Spiritual Living in North Seattle.
The forum, titled 'Gay Rights as Human Rights,' featured Jessica Stern, interim director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a project director at Political Research Associates. The forum was mediated by Charlene Strong, co-editor of the Seattle Lesbian online magazine.
'This was the first LGBT-specific event the World Affairs Council of Seattle has put on, though it's been in the works for nearly two years while we've looked into securing the right international and local partners. We've had a number of human rights-based events in the past but none has focused on LGBT-specific issues in the way this event did,' Jesse Swingle, communications coordinator of the World Affairs Council, told SGN.
'The passion and interest we felt during the event has redoubled our intentions to continue the conversation in the coming months, and we're already looking into other ways we can bring the conversation forward to new and diverse audiences.'
The forum was designed to increase visibility of human rights violations against LGBT people around the world and to offer possible solutions as to how to go about addressing the problem. The speakers thoroughly engaged the topic and took questions from the audience of about 90 people.
The forum began with a three-minute video presentation from All Out, a multilingual campaign organization that uses social media and other methods to inform, educate, and engage the public on LGBT issues. The video was a 'remix' of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's March 7 speech asking the United Nations to deal with LGBT human rights violations.
'Some say that sexual orientation and gender identity is a sensitive subject. I understand. Like many of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues, but I learned to speak out, because lives are at stake. And because it is our duty, under the Untied Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere,' said Ban in the video.
'A historic shift is underway. We must tackle the violence, decriminalize consensual same-sex relationships, end discrimination, and educate the public. I count on this council and all people of conscience to make this happen. The time has come.
Although organizations like the IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch have been tackling these issues for some time, Ban Ki-moon's speech has arguably given some much-needed momentum to the subject on an international level.
IGLHRC's Jessica Stern spoke first, giving a five-point speech on why she thought people need to care about human rights in regard to LGBT people.
'If you care about human rights, you have to care about all human rights,' said Stern.
Her most interesting point was about engaging government.
'You should care & because governments and quasi-governments care,' said Stern. 'For better or worse, where governments turn their attention, we must be, as civil society, as intellectuals, as students, as community members, where government invests their attention. We have to help set the discussion.'
The point seems apt, especially considering Ban Ki-moon's speech. Essentially, Stern is calling on us, everyone, to set the discourse. For Stern, governments and their policies only change because of the citizens that drive them.
'We must not speak just about Gay rights, but human rights,' said the second speaker, Dr. Kapya Kaoma. He lent his expertise on the country of Africa, citing examples of problems there, suggesting possible solutions to those problems, and pointing out that while here in the Western world we are organizing for full equality, some LGBT people elsewhere don't have even the most basic of human rights. According to Kaoma, organizing for equality in any sense is an impossibility for those without access to such basic rights as free speech.
Likely Kaoma's most interesting point was the presence of far more conservative Western influence in Africa than progressive Western influence.
'There is no one to counter that infrastructure,' he said.
Kaoma called upon people to volunteer directly - even by going to Africa with the progressive organizations working there to begin to tip the scales.
He pointed out how many conservative organizations present a warped view of LGBT people in the West to the African public, and that the public in turn begins to accept those views.
'They lie to them based on their own myth they have created about LGBT people,' said Kaoma. 'Confronting these lies is important.'
Kaoma mentioned Family Watch International (FWI) in particular, an organization 'not affiliated with any religious group,' and thus a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that works with the U.N. and 'in countries around the world educating the public and policymakers regarding the central role of the family and advocating for women, children, and families at the international, national, and local level.' FWI also provides 'family-based humanitarian aid,' which includes linking orphans with families through a sponsorship system.
'As long as you are the oppressed, you want your rights now. You have no time to wait,' said Kaoma.
'America, you have the power to change the world.'
'Tonight is about discovery,' said Charlene Strong. As moderator of the forum, Strong read questions from the audience as the two guest speakers took turns answering, but not before taking the microphone and asking the attendees to ask themselves something.
'I was hoping this would be like a revival. Because there's a power in our voice and there's a power in our numbers,' said Strong. 'Where is our belly? It's not enough that the U.N. is trying to educate us. It's where you are sitting tonight. Where are your friends? Where is your family? Where is their commitment? Where is our commitment? You see, it's not enough to write a check. It's not enough to just go to a gala and see some Gay icon singing a song or making us feel all good in our tummy about being Gay.'
What Strong was addressing was the fact that the large auditorium that the Center for Spiritual Living had offered for the forum was not even half full.
Strong continued, 'Why don't we have every seat filled here tonight? Are we apathetic? Have we lost our vision? Are we fat Americans who give two shits about anybody else? Yeah. With all due respect, yeah.
'Let's do this again. Let's fill this room to the rafters,' said Strong. 'If you think equality stops with marriage, you are sorely wrong.'
Altogether, the forum seemed to spark interest in this issue and the World Affairs Council seems excited to move forward with it. If you didn't make it to the forum, consider going next time, provided there is a next time. Although parts of it may be, as some attendees said, 'depressing,' you might just find yourself motivated.
'It is extremely selfish of me to think of only my equality,' said Strong.
To find out more about the issues the forum addressed, visit the IGLHRC's website at www.iglhrc.org or check out www.allout.org, and see their video of Ban Ki-moon's March 7 speech.
'To those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender, let me say, you are not alone,' said the U.N. head. 'Your struggle for an end to violence and discrimination is a shared struggle and today I stand with you, and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you too.'
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