When she speaks, the borders between I and us loosen up: in her voice there is no big difference between the person and the community. Despite the threats and the violence she had to face, the representative of ILGA’s Women secretariat and executive director of United and Strong Saint Lucia keeps trying to bring the issue of human rights of LGBTI people into discussion everyday, both in the Anglo-Caribbean and in the international community. We met her during the 29th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council: our interview
What made you become an activist for the human rights of LGBTI people?
I think the call to action on becoming visible came in 2005, after a friend I considered to be family was murdered. He was brutally tortured and left there, dead. It has been terrible, but what had happened pushed me to bring people together, celebrate his life and ask for justice.
My participation in the movement grew slowly, before that moment I had only been involved in organising parties and social events. But then again in 2006 another friend, who was very close to us, was murdered in a similar manner: tortured, his body left in public display. That is when we said: “We can’t allow this to continue”. It was these murders of two very close friends, back to back, that got me involved in demanding respect for the human rights of LGBTI persons.
The other thing that got me going was coming from a past experience: I had lost my dad to suicide and now I wanted to be a voice, someone who could tell people standing out for various reasons – including their sexual orientation or gender identity – that they are not alone and, even in small communities and countries like Saint Lucia, that they can survive.
Has the attitude towards the LGBTI community always been so brutal in your country?
Surely we had never seen someone being murdered with that brutality: it was an overkill, a hate crime, and we did not how to deal with it. For three years, back to back, these murders kept happening: one in 2005, one in 2006, another one in 2007. And it really hit us all, also because the victims were people we knew personally, people we socialised with: we used to go to their houses, they used to come to our homes. It really hit us.
Do you feel it is possible for the whole LGBTI community to fight the same fight on a global level when our daily, local experiences are so different?
Even if our experiences vary locally due to social and cultural aspects, when it comes to rights being restricted and people not being acknowledged nor respected - or if we consider the sufferings caused by discriminatory laws and the violations we face every day at home, in schools or workplaces – then we’ll see that all our stories have a similar content, even if for some of us there is an additional layer to face, given for example by racism, or ageism.
(hesitates for a moment) I come from a small island, and all the advocacy work we have done has only been made possible by the support of local and international organisations that give you the extra motivation you need and make you feel you are not the only one in this struggle: there is a global family working together to ensure that brothers and sisters around the world are given the same rights as anyone else.
We are not fighting for gay rights, we are not fighting for LGBTI rights: this is something in our language that we need to cut out.
We are fighting for the human rights of the individuals who form the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex community
You are the executive director of United and Strong, which is also accountable for the Women’s secretariat of ILGA: how will your commitment evolve?
I have just taken part in the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and it has really been important to see that many issues regarding women have been considered, from their presence in the family sphere to violence and discriminations. All these discussions gave me a broader picture to look at, and working together with other organisations’ representatives made me understand that my role as women’s secretariat is now to go back to women within the community: we have to understand better how we can represent them, but also what are the issues they care about the most. We have to lay out a plan and implement what we will decide, and not just let it be only theory.
Do you have the feeling that lesbian, bisexual, trans* and intersex women are not represented enough within the community?
Well, I would say we are visible and invisible: we are visible according to a language that speaks of a LGBTI community, but during the Human Rights Council, for example, we felt a bit invisible under the large umbrella of women. There was nothing specific about us. But, if you work on intersectionalities, you have to consider how multiple forms of violence and discriminations are created and affect people.
Even if I look at the organisations that work on a full time level at the United Nations on these issues, I don’t see lesbian or bisexual women being represented too much: that is something for me to look into. Lesbian issues are placed on the back once again: I have to understand why is this happening, and what actions need to be taken in the upcoming months also with the Women’s secretariat.
You had to face a lot of violence since you have become an activist: the offices of United and Strong have been burnt down and vandalized, and you have been held up at knifepoint once. Do you ever feel scared, or have you ever thought of stopping because it was becoming too dangerous?
Every day. Every day I am saying “I am resigning, I need a personal life”. But a then-seated passion has taken over me: everything I do is about my work. And even the threats that have been laid to my life have empowered me even more, because they made me realize that ignorance and arrogance don’t allow people to see beyond someone’s sexual orientation: there is a lot of fear on these issues, and I am afraid this is somewhere religion has brought people to.
This ignorance, though, has also forced me to review my life in terms of where I go, what types of crowd can I expect to find there, what am I comfortable with, how do I reach a certain place… I have to think strategically every time, and sometimes I don’t even go out at all. Becoming visible in unfriendly spaces makes you reconsider all your security measures: which windows can I open? Should I leave the lights on? And it’s incredible, because even if we live in countries where we are pretty much free, at the same time we are prisoners. My social life has changed, and so has the way I interact with my family: I don’t want to put them in danger.
It all got me thinking to a number of things: I have friends who have stopped talking to me because of the advocacy work I do. Sometimes the top of an organisation, and especially of one dealing with such a controversial topic as the rights of LGBTI persons, is a lonely place to be at. But then sometimes I just say “Thanks God, for the global community that is at a touch’s distance with Facebook or Skype”: that is what makes you feel not too alone.
I am still occasionally fighting depression, which is something that has been with me for a while. But my work keeps me going: it makes me realize that what I do is not just about me, and that allows me to be this kind of a superhuman doing things and being there for people outside myself. That is what gives me more than a reason to live.
(interview by Daniele Paletta)