Robert Mizzi, 32, was working for the Japanese government in Japan 10 years ago when he noticed something very wrong.
“I saw that queer people really weren’t getting together, because to be different was considered taboo,” says Mizzi.
He stepped up and created a group for Japanese queers and their allies to get together and go on retreats to learn about each other and their common identity.
This launched him into a whole campaign of international research revolving around sexuality and gender issues, spanning the last decade. Talk about ambition.
He has worked in the United Kingdom, Kosovo, Jordan, Bosnia and Thailand, to name a few places, learning about how queers are getting together in the face of tremendous opposition. It became clear to Mizzi that sexual orientation had been left out completely in international development. He did his Masters on how queers are obtaining peace in their communities.
In 2004, he came back to a basement apartment in London, Ontario and it was then that he formed Queer Peace International (QPI).
The organization has come a long way since the basement. It is a global fellowship that seeks peace for queers in their international communities. It has memberships from 31 countries and is growing. And Mizzi is now dividing his time between Ottawa and Toronto.
“QPI came out of that research because I saw that there was a lack of sexual orientation discussed in international development,” says Mizzi. “While there was a good amount of rights-based work being done, there wasn’t that much on development and certainly nothing on peace education.”
So what do they do? Well, groups or individuals in other countries contact them and they send resources, such as books that some people don’t have access to, on sexual identity and politics. They teach ways to write letters and cast nets out to build queer communities across the globe.
QPI offers workshops on how to speak government language on queer issues issues, democratic leadership, team building and financial management.
Mizzi is fluent in Japanese, Albanian, French and English. “I have this problem where I love to talk to people and if they speak another language I have to learn it,” he laughs.
He comes across as both professional and warm. Most of all, he’s clearly dedicated to his calling. Issues like bullying and patient-doctor confidentiality are faced by gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans around the world, he says. They can take many forms when there are no safe spaces.
Mizzi feels like he won the lottery, having been born in Canada into a progressive family. One of five children, he came out at the young age of 21, mentored by an out lesbian friend whom he greatly admired. He wrote a letter to his parents telling them he was gay and that was that. He says his open family life has absolutely contributed to his work on the world stage. And he wants to help other queers obtain the peace he was given.
“I wouldn’t say we’re activist. We focus on the development of queer communities and queer people in developing countries. Activist means fighting for rights, and we empower the local people by giving them the tools to do the work. Queers can’t really obtain rights if they don’t know how to,” says Mizzi.
There are still nine countries in the world where homosexuality warrants death and others where gay people are imprisoned, he notes.
Mizzi knows what he’s up against in pursuit of peace for queers, and it’s his optimism that keeps him going.
“I have people writing me from all over the world. They get my name from somewhere and it’s great that they can reach out to this queer organization,” says Mizzi. “I’m all over the world in my mind.”
Clearly, the need for QPI is acknowledged every time another individual or group in search of support information contacts Mizzi. Now the challenge for Mizzi and his volunteers is to help queer people in developing countries find ways of getting sexual orientation out of the closet and into the dialogue.
“We are looking at physical abuse, rape and torture in the classroom. I have heard those stories coming through from Eastern Europe. When you experience that type of abuse and oppression how do you move on?”
He admires the resilience of many queer communities he has worked with.
“It’s the way that you view setbacks: that they are not really setbacks; they are just postponements for things that will happen later on.”