News
3 min

World’s first openly gay government head to attend WorldPride

Iceland's former prime minister among speakers announced Dec 10

Jóhanna Siguroardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland, Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha and Russian activist and journalist Masha Gessen. Credit: Xtra file photos
Toronto will welcome prominent and prolific activists, thinkers and human rights leaders this summer for the WorldPride Human Rights Conference.
 
The list of confirmed speakers includes the world’s first openly gay head of government, former prime minister of Iceland Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
 
Sigurðardóttir will join presenters from more than 60 countries who will gather at the University of Toronto June 25 to 27, says organizer Brenda Cossman, director of the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. "The conference is such a wonderful opportunity to have important discussions around global human rights," she says. 
 
Sigurðardóttir, who was elected in 2009, plans to attend the conference with her wife, Jónína Leósdóttir, an author, playwright and journalist. She is also scheduled to speak. 
 
“Her wife is writing a book on their experience being the first openly out lesbian couple head of government, which is very cool,” Cossman says. “[Leósdóttir] will be telling some stories and talking about their diplomatic experience going to countries that do not recognize same-sex couples, but they would always attend together.”
 
In 2010, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Iceland, Sigurðardóttir and Leósdóttir exchanged their civil union for a marriage, international feminist blog Worldette reports. At the time, the relationship raised few eyebrows. Iceland was one of the first countries to approve of civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples in 1996.
 
“There’s something really unique about Iceland that they can produce leaders like this,” Cossman says.
 
Cossman says the conference will be “a who’s who” of international LGBT leaders, including Russian activist and journalist Masha Gessen, Ugandan activist Frank Mugisha, Kenyan human rights lawyer Justice Monica Mbaru, Venezuelan trans activist Tamara Adrián and Canada's Stephen Lewis.  
 
“Masha Gessen is certainly one of my heroes right now,” Cossman says. When the Russian government proposed a law in August that seeks to remove children — adopted or biological — from LGBT families, the Russian-American journalist and gay rights activist and her partner announced their plans to leave Russia in order to keep their three children safe. 
 
“To me, she is such a voice of reason coming out of Russia right now in the face of other activists and speakers who have been less reasonable," Cossman says. “I’m very interested to hear her story and what is ultimately leading her to immigrate to the US, and living under increasing threats to her family and her children."
 
Cossman says she is also looking forward to hearing from a group coming from Vietnam who work with LGBT families, similar to PFLAG.
 
“You don’t hear a lot about LGBT activism happening in Vietnam,” she says. “And this follows a theme throughout the whole conference, which is youth and education. I think that is the number-one human rights issue of our time for LGBT folks.”
 
The full schedule for the WorldPride Human Rights Conference will be announced early in 2014. Speakers and panellists will address issues including HIV/AIDS, sex work, trans rights, employment, aging and intersectional human rights. 
 
There have been more than 400 applications for 150 speaking spots at the conference since the call went out in the summer. 
 
“This will be a first for Toronto, to host an international human rights conference of this size and scope,” Cossman says. "It's remarkable and exciting."
 
Conference organizers are still working toward the fundraising target of $200,000. The plan is to have 50 fully subsidized, and another 50 partially subsidized, bursaries for activists travelling to Toronto.
 
“It’s impossible for me to say where we're at right now with the fundraising because we have quite a few soft commitments [for funds],” Cossman says. “But we are working really hard to raise the money for this. I’m optimistic we will reach our target, but it’s definitely a struggle.”
 
The most significant cost will be travel and accommodation expenses, she says, adding that organizers have started a crowd-funding campaign.
 
The first WorldPride was held in 2000 in Rome, followed by WorldPride Jerusalem in 2006. In 2012 London hosted WorldPride, but the event had to be scaled back just days before the event started because of financial problems.
 
WorldPride organizers in Toronto say the event is expected to be the largest the city has ever hosted.
 
Toronto city council may give WorldPride a funding boost. Councillor Shelley Carroll confirmed to Xtra last week that an additional $140,000 is included in the 2014 proposed budget.