European Lesbian* Conference

During the ILGA Conference in Cyprus in 2016, the idea for the European Lesbian* Conference was born, and the organisers managed to make it reality within one year. About 500 Lesbians*[1]  from all over Europe met in Vienna October 2017, 4th to 8th—an overwhelming response that far exceeded the original estimate of the organisers and underlined the need for such an event. Overall, it was an exhilarating experience and a great start for something bigger.

The European Lesbian* Conference was published and promoted as the first of its kind. This notion was challenged already before the conference and, during the opening part, three older activists told about the series of ILIS (International Lesbian Information Service) conferences taking place in the 1980s and 1990s. While hearing about the history was an enriching experience, it also led to questions about writing lesbian history and archiving.

A recurring theme in various discussions was the issue of mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. On one hand, many lesbians* are very careful to be as inclusive as possible and work hard on many topics that go beyond their personal interests, such as, e.g., general LGBTQI or feminist issues. While this is very important and recommendable, lesbians* have to be careful not to forget voicing their own interests in this choir and make ourselves heard. There were quite a few discussions about lesbian* media visibility and portrayal, agenda setting in LGBTQI contexts and in feminist movements, and exchanges of experiences with allies, who are far more eager to have our support than to give their support to us. On the other hand, mechanisms of exclusion are at play also among lesbians*. While there were significantly more black women than at an average EF meeting, black women in all their diversity were still underrepresented. The organisers tried to counteract the economic imbalances, but still there were more women from Western Europe than from the East.

The word Lesbian* led to discussions and needs to be discussed further. While the asterisk was meant to widen the definition and include anyone, who could at least somewhat identify with the word, several non-binary or gender non-conforming participants expressed their unease about the name, as well as some bisexual women. What could be a widely understandable name for the target audience? The discussions made it also clear that some participants operate with rather traditional gender concepts, some for strategic reasons in their political work, others because they honestly believe in these concepts. Exemplary for the latter was a discussion during lunch between an Italian participant, who stands somewhat in the tradition of the feminist theory linked with women’s bookshop in Milan, that reclaims motherhood as a feminist concept, and a Swedish participant, who told about the struggle of a trans* man, who gave birth, to be recognised as the children’s father.

Religion was a very minor topic within the whole programme; one workshop was dedicated to it. Within that workshop, Tatiana Lekhatkova and Irène Schwyn presented the EF, focussing on the Eastern European Leadership Training as a practical experience of cooperation across the diverse contexts within Europe. There were two more speakers during the same workshop, also from Christian contexts.

The whole programme was put together based on the content applications handed in by participants. In order to include most applications, many workshops were in fact series of short presentations on somewhat related topics, thus cutting down not only on presentation time, but more importantly on time to discuss issues. And while this method of putting together a programme was open and inviting, and, given the timeline, likely the most realistic option, it also led to some topics left uncovered, the most glaring lacuna concerned addressing the rise of neo-conservative and nationalist movements across Europe (and worldwide).

Lesbian visibility was raised also by the Lesbian* March on Saturday evening on a winding route through the Old Town of Vienna. Drums, whistles and megaphones certainly caught the attention of passers-by. It was a great start, and hopefully, plans for the next EL*C in 2019 come to fruition.

[1]   “About the term ‘lesbian’: Our aim is to hold an inclusive European lesbian conference. We insist on calling it a lesbian conference, although we recognize that, as with any category or label, it may be contested and insufficient to describe the diversity of our communities. We are aware that many previous lesbian gatherings have struggled with inclusion and exclusion issues. However, using the word ‘lesbian’ is part of the political struggle for visibility, empowerment and representation. Therefore we used ‘lesbian*’ with an asterisk in the title European Lesbian* Conference, so as to include anyone who identifies as lesbian, feminist, bi or queer, and all those who feel connected to lesbian activism.” (from the conference’s participant pack)