As I write these words, people from all over the globe are returning from Caracas, Venezuela and Bamako, Mali where they attended two meetings of the World Social Forum.
United by the notion that “a better world is possible,” participants gathered to talk about issues as diverse as participatory economics, water and sanitation, culture, democratic reform and debt relief.
It’s about a form of activism that’s rooted in a strong sense of place, rather than a definition of human rights that exists exclusively in the world of legislation and policy.
It’s about people having a say in the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives — boring things like water and sewer systems (although these issues are far from mundane when you’ve been going without water because the private corporation that owns the pipes has cut your family off for not paying a bill that’s equivalent to six months of salary).
People with no access to formal power structures find amazing ways to have their voices heard — and eventually they make it into the halls of power when decision-makers can’t ignore them anymore. Bolivia recently elected Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, a man who was instrumental in many grassroots struggles, including the infamous “Water War” that succeeded in booting Bechtel out of the country in 2000 and returning the country’s water system to public hands.
You may wonder what the hell any of this has to do with the queer community in Canada. I mean, we aren’t likely to roll up our sleeves and get passionate about sewage any time soon. The gay and lesbian activist movement has generally had the luxury to focus on matters of legal and social equality, rather than the day-to-day struggle to survive — gaybashing notwithstanding. Particularly in Ottawa, many of us have been so focussed on national political battles, like same-sex marriage, trans rights and hate crimes legislation, that we have failed to get involved in local initiatives to improve our lives, and build “bricks and mortar” community structures.
And under a Harper government, it could only get worse for gays and lesbians, as well as for other minority groups. We will be spending the next couple of years desperately clinging to the victories we’ve already won, in an effort to prevent Canada from backsliding into the 19th century. And though there has always been tremendous poverty and exclusion within the queer community, if Harper takes an axe to the universal social programs that we all rely on, you can bet that many of us will be eating Ramen noodles like university students again.
But the danger of spending all of our time in a state of permanent defensiveness is that we will lose the opportunity to imagine a better world.
Remember when we focussed our activism on the freedom to fuck who we wanted, when we wanted, where we wanted? Or when gay villages were the only spaces we could occupy without fear of harassment?
The real danger of the new fundamentalist presence on Parliament Hill is that we won’t be able to see beyond that next battle. We can’t allow the constant state of crisis and resistance to prevent us from worrying about the issues that affect our home, things like building a queer community centre, revitalizing Bank Street and supporting Ottawa Pride.
We can learn a lot from the thousands of people — particularly from Latin America — who attend the World Social Forum each year. They have spent years fighting the disastrous policies imposed on their countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But in the midst of their resistance, they built alternative institutions to serve their communities.
In Bolivia, activists now sit on committees that decide how to make sure that water gets to the poorest people in the most remote parts of the country. No doubt, they spend many hours in meetings. And the work is far from sexy. But thanks to them, their communities have a say in how their public services are delivered.
The Stonewall riots were also about preserving a sense of place — about creating mini-utopias, where the queer community could adopt our own social norms. The spirit of Stonewall was the same as the World Social Forum’s is today. It was about fighting and building at the same time. It wasn’t just about attaining legislative equality. It was about dreaming of a better world.