Copenhagen Outgames 2009 Human Rights Conference Keynote Speech
Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here. I was asked to come here today to speak about the situation and progress of LGBT rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Obviously it’s impossible for me to cover the breadth of LGBT issues in the entire region in the space of 10 minutes, or even 10 hours for that matter, so I’m not going to. What I am going to do instead is posit some observations I’ve had about the international LGBT rights movement in relation to this particular region.
I have to say it’s always fantastic to see so many faces from the movement gathered under one roof, if only for a short period of time, to talk, exchange, debate, and learn from each other. A lot of us from the movement are here. A lot of us unfortunately aren’t, and this isn’t a coincidence. The term “global LGBT rights movement” is perhaps a little misleading, unless by global we mean of the global North, because that is largely the locus of power from where this movement operates. And we need to always be conscious of that, we need to always be aware of who frames the terms of debate, of how that debate is framed, and ultimately, to what end. I think this is particularly relevant when discussing the Middle East and North Africa because there seems to be an abundance of people from the global North falling over themselves to speak on our behalf. There is a missionary zeal within the international LGBT rights movement to deliver us, to save us from our wretched lives, to rescue us from other people like us (and by us I mean Arab/Muslim/brown). There is an un-self-reflexive othering that takes place of people from the global south generally and from the Middle East in particular. A few weeks ago I was introduced to a gay European activist, a lovely, earnest, well meaning fellow who had this insight about Iran to share with me; he said: “you know, something has changed for the average person in your average Western democracy. We now see that people in Iran wear Chanel sunglasses and high heels and use mobile phones just like us, and that’s led to an amazing transformation. They’re like us, we can relate to them now, we can support them”. Of course he was making a point about how the media has the ability to shatter stereotypes, but that statement in itself is so incredibly loaded. Does that mean that if they didn’t possess the trappings of “modernization” then people from Europe would be less likely to support them? Or that “like us” amounts to having the latest mobile phone? Or that we need to start proving our credentials in order to earn European support?
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