4 min

Trudeau Foundation hosts global LGBTQ conference in Montreal

Activists converge to discuss queer concerns from around the world

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Charron and Trudeau Foundation scholar Kyle Kirkup at the Imagining the Future of LGBTQ Rights conference in Montreal. Credit: Richard Burnett

Scholars and activists from around the world attended Montreal’s two-day Imagining the Future of LGBTQ Rights conference at Concordia University on Oct 6 and 7. Organized by the Trudeau Foundation in collaboration with the Centre Jacques Cartier, the conference featured nine public panel discussions on such issues as the ongoing criminalization of LGBT communities worldwide, LGBT refugees and foreign policy, and featured such A-list participants as former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Charron.

The tone was set early on by Dutch lesbian activist Joke Sweibel, a former member of the European Parliament, who criticized French author Frédéric Martel’s 2013 bestseller Global Gay: “The book’s emphasis on sexual subcultures may not be applicable throughout the world,” Sweibel said. “It also underestimates the practice of local identities.”

And so the conference was off to a rollicking start.

The same theme was picked up by University of Pennsylvania law professor Fernando Chang-Muy during the Colonial Legacies and Global LGBTQ Human Rights panel.

“In the West, it is desired that we come out to our parents, but that is a Western construct,” Chang-Muy tells Xtra. “In Taiwan and Hong Kong, they do not follow that construct. Gay liberation in the Asian context is very different — coming out to our parents is not needed. In the global south, we are trying to develop our own culturally competent gay liberation model. I think the West needs to back off and let the rest of the world do it their own way. Listen to us and then take your cues.”

For Nehraz Mahmud, who joined the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in 2004, “visibility is the issue. They say we don’t have an LGBTI community in Bangladesh, that we don’t exist. So the first fight is for recognition.”

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Charron introduced Trudeau scholar Kyle Kirkup, who in his keynote address examined criminal laws designed to target and incarcerate LGBT people worldwide. But Kirkup got the most traction when discussing the arrest of transgender people (such as Chris Wilson in Scotland in 2013) for obtaining sexual intimacy by “fraud.”

“If you had an ambitious Crown in Canada, you could imagine a scenario where they argue that under the sexual assault provisions, failing to disclose one’s trans identity could be considered grounds for fraud,” Kirkup said.

Kirkup tells Xtra, “Ideally, I’d like to see Canada get rid of HIV disclosure laws altogether, but it may be another decade before we get another kick at the can before the Supreme Court. Until that happens, we need guidelines for police officers and prosecutors, and that’s an enormous task.”

The LGBTQ Youth Activists: The New Frontier panel was moderated by Steve Foster, who tells Xtra he will not seek another term as executive director of the Conseil Québécois LGBT after nine years at the helm.

Foster’s youth panel featured Odélie Joly, who trains young people in human rights for the Quebec chapter of Amnesty International. When asked if there is a gender divide among today’s LGBT youth, Joly replied, “Men’s voices are louder. But in the schools, women are more involved.” Joly added that off-campus, “I think it’s true that youth are not very involved in the current battles over LGBT issues.”

That sentiment was echoed by two-spirited Mi’kmaq panellist Gina Metallic, of the McGill School of Social Work, who said she was shocked at the absence of a two-spirit float in Montreal’s 2014 Pride parade. “We’re still invisible,” Metallic said, “and young people need to get more involved.”

Meanwhile, high-profile McGill law professor (and husband of dancer José Navas) Robert Leckey told the audience during the After Marriage: LGBTQ Rights in Western Democracies panel, “Straight families are more radical than people realize.” Leckey added, “Many of us have many different living partners. So why do we keep adhering to a model [of marriage] that doesn’t work?”

The Trans Realities and Human Rights Activism panel on day two was especially cogent, exploring the fight to add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to human rights codes and advocating for better access to healthcare. The panel strongly argued that change will come only by reducing trans social isolation. “No state is a poster state when it comes to trans rights,” said panellist Alecs Recher, who founded the Trans Association Transgender Network Switzerland (TGNS) and was the first trans parliamentarian in his country. “There is no safe place for trans people anywhere.”

Hassan El Menyawi, an exiled Egyptian gay activist and Islamic scholar, also holds little hope for the short-term prospects of LGBT rights in the world’s 49 Muslim-majority nations. “This is hard for me to say because I want to be truthful,” El-Menyawi tells Xtra. “We are not talking about a handful of countries — there is widespread homophobia. I find that as the United Nations has jumped onto the LGBT bandwagon, more and more countries have begun to target their LGBT citizens.”

Jennifer Petrela, director of the Trudeau Foundation’s public interaction program, says the success of her conference will be measured by “the participants networking with each other and returning home to their countries, where they will use these contacts to help improve the lives of LGBTQ people.”

But there are many forks in the road to equality. “In the 1960s, it seemed easier because we could identify common causes and goals,” says legendary Quebec lesbian activist Line Chamberland — research chair in the study of homophobia at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a member of the conference’s scientific committee. “But there has been a splintering of the LGBT movement, and subsequently, it has become harder for us to find common ground.”

Trudeau scholar Danielle Peers, from Alberta, put it most bluntly in the closing session: “Most human-rights conferences feel like, ‘How to Build a better Home with One Screwdriver.’ Fortunately, this conference wasn’t like that. [But] we make a lot of problems worse. So my words of advice are, ‘Stop fucking people over.’”