The annual conferences of ILGA Europe have become events that cannot be missed by the European Forum. From 1st to 4th November 2017, the European Forum went five people strong: Co-Presidents Elaine Sommers and Wielie Elhorst, Eastern Europe Coordinator Tatiana Lehatkova, Project Manager Misha Cherniak, and Fundraiser Damir Kurtagic. ILGA Europe now has a membership of over 500 organisations throughout Europe and Central Asia, and 570 representatives were present. As the political situation is changing in Europe, with populist movements on the rise and human rights for several groups—such as (LGBTI) migrants—being under ever greater pressure, the theme of the conference was well chosen: “Change! Communities Mobilising, Movements Rising!”
As shown by the horrendous persecution of LGBTI persons in Chechnya and the fundamental changes in political leadership in countries like Hungary and Poland, it is very important not to deny this change and to build a movement of very diverse LGBTI communities that is ever stronger and that can withstand all changes and (potential) adversity that lies ahead. Only a few of all the organisations present bring together and represent LGBTI people of faith. Four of these were present: Maruf Foundation, the European Queer Muslim Foundation, HuK (Homosexuelle und Kirche) and the European Forum. The conference, however, proved to be a great opportunity to collect information and to connect with ILGA Europe, some of its other member organisations and quite a few persons of interest, like the newly appointed General Rapporteur on the Rights of LGBTI People, Piet de Bruyn, in the Council of Europe, in which the European Forum is also present (since July 2016).
The European Forum was not present in or with any programmes or workshops this time, although religion and faith were on the agenda of the Conference, directly and indirectly. Several workshops on hate speech were conducted, one of which was presented by queer Muslims. Religious studies research was presented on the subject of the (problematic) influence of religion (i.e., Christianity) on the process of accepting homosexuality. And of course, in many panels, religion as a force to be reckoned with was acknowledged again and again. Dino Suhonic (Executive Director of Maruf Foundation) and Wielie Elhorst presided over the Perspective Session for LGBTI people of faith at the very beginning of the conference. About 15 people attended; surprisingly enough, half of them were not religious, but rather were representatives of organisations, who showed interest in the intersection of LGBTI issues and religion. The interest was welcomed greatly and showed good promises for the future.
ILGA in Poland
The fact that several international LGBTI networks (including the European Forum) brought their annual conferences in 2017 to Poland is remarkable. Since the right-wing party took over the legislative, executive, and, eventually, judicial powers, the situation in the country has changed for the worse regarding both general rule of law and specifically the attitudes, atmosphere, and law enforcement practices relating to LGBTI persons and issues. An extensive overview of this correlation was given during the opening ceremony by Adam Bodnar, the country’s ombudsman. He recalled the course of events and the outcomes including the attacks on LGBTI individuals and organisations’ offices, endless court battles around cases of discrimination, vetoing of a new gender recognition bill, complete standstill on civil unions and marriage equality, and constant flow of LGBTI migrants leaving Poland in search for a safer place. At the same time, he praised the growth of civic activity related to the potential tightening of the anti-abortion law (“Black Protest”) and the fight for the constitutional and other courts, where the LGBTI movement constituted a visible part of the popular movement. Nevertheless, the situation remains critical, which prompted the conference participants to sign a joint appeal to Polish authorities demanding immediate actions.
The programme of the Conference had a significant Polish dimension. The QueerED talk on November 2nd was given by Urszula Kuczyńska from the Black Protest, who gave an excellent speech on the options that a person has in the middle of political turmoil and the good that comes from standing up for your own rights and the rights of others. A panel with representatives of four Polish political parties and movements revealed and exemplified the existing tensions and challenges for the potential joint opposition. Yet, it also highlighted the excessive role of religion in Polish society as one of the key obstacles to progress. As one of the participants of the discussion said, “LGBTI people simply want to lead their lives and not be held hostage by other people’s (religious) ‘conscience’”. At the same time, the example of the famous Polish campaign “Let us offer each other a sign of peace”, co-organised by the European Forum’s Polish member group Wiara i Tęcza and the host of this year’s ILGA-Europe conference Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH), was brought up regularly as a sign of hope and a good practice.
There was a significant number of delegates, who identified as trans, including many non-binary people, spanning a broad age range. They appeared to be fully accepted and integrated into the framework of the whole conference, demonstrating ILGA-Europe's ethos of full inclusion of minority groups.
In one of two research-paper workshops, more than half of the presentations focused on either intersex or transgender topics. One paper reported detailed research on Transgender Rights in Poland, published by The Williams Institute at UCLA, a centre, which focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. They have evaluated many other countries in the same way.
The workshop on funding for trans and intersex movements revealed a shocking level of underfunding for those organisations and their projects. Many volunteer activists are on the verge of a burnout through taking on tasks, which could (and should) be done by paid staff if resources were made available. The International Trans Fund has been set up to rectify this, but it is a new organisation with only modest funds available, and applications for grants far exceed the current funding levels. There is a pressing need for the major funding bodies to realise the importance of this area of work, and to make sure they include trans and intersex activities as the need continues to grow.
One of the newer developments within ILGA Europe is a growing interest in the position of sex workers. Many of them are trans persons, some of whom have been forced into the job. The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe joins many organisations for Sex Workers across Europe and advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work. This may lead to much less violence and discrimination against sex workers. A lot of work must be done here still also to challenge stereotypes and prejudice within the LGBTI movement. It is fair to say that the presence of this movement within the wider LGBTI movement is not without debate. It is, however, a very exciting exercise in solidarity with people within the wider community, who suffer much under political, societal, and social pressure. In spring of 2018, ILGA Europe hopes to present its position on this issue.
The conference being in Warsaw was in itself evidence of great interest in the position of LGBTI persons in Eastern Europe. The conference hosted several perspectives on this topic, one of which was a workshop on religious hate speech about working with religion-based homophobia in the Islamic world and implementing EHRC decisions in Eastern Europe. Also, the conference was very fruitful from a networking point of view. It was possible to talk with many activists from Eastern and Central Europe, some of whom the European Forum will hopefully cooperate with in the near future. The interest in religion from non-religious activists was significant, too. There was a tangible sense that they are beginning to see religion as a significant actor of anti-LGBTI propaganda, especially in Eastern Europe.
Without a doubt, Pride events across Europe—in whatever shape or form—offer among the strongest possibilities of public presence for the wider LGBTI community and its allies. Both its political nature and its colourful, vibrant dynamics appeal to the masses and to mass media, albeit not always in a positive way. Only in May 2017, the European Forum marched 100 people strong in the local Equality Parade in Gdansk, Poland with 5,000 people, guided and guarded by hundreds of police men and women. There was attention on the Prides during the conference because of the internal debates and discussions that have emerged during recent years. Most of these discussions evolve around ownership of Prides: is it still predominantly a gay (and lesbian) Pride or can transgender, bi, and intersex people, for example, also be truly visible or made visible and heard? Another question is whether the political nature of Pride needs to be stressed more against a backdrop of far-right or even extremist political parties attempt to affiliate themselves with Pride or even participate in the marches. And what about all the corporations that show an interest in or are attracted to sponsoring Pride? Should preliminary conditions be put in place for them to participate or should we just see this as a further step in the wider societal acceptance of LGBTI people? However dynamic the debate, it was quite clear that the instrument of Pride should not be discarded in any case. Different Pride practices should be followed closely to stimulate mutual learning.
Communicating the Message
Pride is one way of communicating the message of emancipation and social acceptance of LGBTI people. Next to all advocacy work that needs to be done, all communication about LGBTI equality needs to be considered carefully. ILGA Europe and the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) presented the result of a two-year project aimed at re-framing LGBTI equality in Europe: the Framing Equality Toolkit. The toolkit is a short guide to strategic communications, based on extensive research and building on the experience of activists and communicators from around the globe. It aims to provide a framework rather than a blueprint; helping to ask the right questions rather than giving the right answers. It is designed to be helpful for anyone who communicates as part of voluntary or paid work.