E rave rahi te whakawhetai, Mani ko Rawa. Ahau whakakake a kororia ki te korero i roto i te mua o koutou i konei i tenei ra ahau: ko te whenua whakamutunga o te Whenua ki te kia tae e te tangata.
Many thanks, Mani and Rawa. I am proud and honoured to speak in front of you here today: the last land of Earth to be reached by human beings.
But before being reached by human beings, this land was the land of birds, birds which had reached these shores untouched by mammals, apart from two bat species. And in this mammals-free environment, birds were able to evolve and flourish for millions of years, filling al the niches of their ecosystem.
I think that this land of birds is a very fitting place for the second ILGA Oceania conference, because it means that ILGA Oceania is really ready to take off and that the sky is the limit!
ILGA Oceania is the smallest of the ILGA regions: but do not let this fact fool you for a single moment. As we say in Italian, the best wine is to be found in the smallest vats. Thanks to a board of hard working people, led by Ymania Brown and Corey Irlam, ILGA Oceania has really began to flourish and to address its unique challenges: a huge expanse punctuated by small to medium sized groups in a mix of promising advances and pockets of enduring homophobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.
Between marriage equality and criminalisation of same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults, between recognition of more than two gender options on passport and fight against enduring gender based prejudice, between the recovery of ancient wisdom and mana and fight against the bitter legacy of colonialism, you are laying the foundations of a new world, where social justice for all and personal freedom for every one live side by side. An epic effort, and one that in its regional scale reflects the same effort taking place at the global scale. ILGA needs your energy and your experience, while welcoming you in a global community of like-minded spirits, comrades and friends.
Since 1978, LGBTI organisations have been gathering in increasing numbers and with increasing diversity, at first only in the global North, then spreading gradually in the global South, to find in ILGA a platform where to share experiences, practices and knowledge, and – above all – to decide all together as to the direction the global LGBTI movement should take in order to advance equality and freedom for all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, bodily diversity and sex characteristics.
This is in essence what ILGA is all about: having the movement speak to the world by itself and for itself. No think-tank talk, no mediation by experts: we assert our right to stake our claims on our own. Anything else, anything less will not do. No liberation movement in history has ever contented itself with others representing its points of view and claims. By experience we know that change only starts when we take the floor. As our co-secretary general, Helen Kennedy, loves to say: if you are not at the dinner table, you are on the menu! And we don’t want to be talked about, do we? we want to be talked to and to talk back!
The liberation movement of lesbians, trans, gay, bisexual, intersex, queer people can only be true to its mission if it speaks by itself, for itself and on its own terms.
By coming together, by joining forces, by having everyone stating their needs and dreams for a better world, we gain the strength and courage to remind everyone else that the state of the world is unacceptable as long as discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, bodily diversity and sex characteristics continues.
ILGA is what it says it is: the only democratically organised world federation of LGBTI organisations that has the legitimacy to represent the voices it represents. Our diversity is not a hindrance, but our strength; our multitude is not an impediment, but the source of our legitimacy.
As the global movement grows stronger every day, and the plurality of our voices is more and more enriched by our diversity, some of us might question the need of working – all together – in a world organisation. Shouldn’t each of us focus on our own specific battles instead? At the end of the day, what could a German lesbian and an Indian Hijra possibly have in common? What has intersex got to do with sexual orientation? Are we all together for a reason or is it just an accident of history? Don’t we risk confusing the public about our own individual identities if we march all together at a pride parade? Quite often this kind of objections come also from the general population, when the same people who “adore” the well-off gay couple living next door are disturbed by the presence of a person whose appearance does not correspond to the gender image expectations of their culture (we are talking of the people who would come up with sentences like “My God, is it a man or a woman?”)
The first answer to this kind of objections is very banal: united we are much stronger than if we were to proceed separated from one another. But I believe there is a much better and more convincing answer, one that goes at the heart of what we all truly share.
Let’s go back to the discomfort of the cis-person facing a trans person. We all at one moment or another of our life, or throughout the whole of our lives, have had this wanted or unwanted power to put our “normal” interlocutor in a position of discomfort. In their world built on apparently strongly certainties based on the binary dichotomy male-female, man-woman we have the power to bring a moment of chaos. Through the very existence of our bodies and what we do with them, we have the power to challenge at its foundation the narrative that prescribes what it means to be “a real man” and “a real woman”.
I think this is wonderful. This is our magic. This is our gift from the gods. To have the power to force people to question themselves is good. Because it is only by questioning ourselves and by having others question themselves that we can grow, as individuals and as a society. Whether we know it or not, we are social engineers, social alchemists who teach people that nature, human nature, is far richer and more complex than one was brought up to think. Yes, we take away certainties, but we offer new possibilities.
It is a gift. It is our gift. But it’s very often also a curse. Most people, especially in extenuating circumstances, especially when material welfare becomes very uncertain, don’t like to be challenged on the one thing they’ve always known to be true: that you are born either male or female, and that a nice script is ready for you to play depending on what gender you were assigned at birth. The world is too uncertain for them as it is, for them to question themselves. And I insist on the questioning themselves bit because, don’t let anyone fool you, it is never a matter of accepting someone else’s diversity. It is always a matter of what the diversity of the other says about myself.
So our gift is very often unwelcome. And that’s one more reason for us to stay together: not only to comfort each other, to heal the pain our diversity brings to us, but also to vaccine ourselves against the possibility of discriminating against each other. Because some of us are so desperate for recognition by society, that as soon as we obtain a shadow of respectability we don’t think twice about dumping those comrades we feel might embarrass us if we are associated with them. We were born and raised in societies which lean on the binary and the temptation to yield to new binaries we’ve created for ourselves is tempting.
This does not go only in relation to differences among us with regard to our bodies, our identities in terms of sexual orientation or gender. This goes also for us truly understanding the concept of intersectionality, for us to be able to question our assumptions in relation to ethnicity, faith, class, culture. Belonging to a minority does not – unfortunately – automatically endow someone with the ability to empathize with other minorities. We have all suffered from this at one moment or the other in our lives, as we were rejected by someone who we assumed would have accepted us because of their history of suffering. Most probably, at one moment or the other of our lives, we have also been on the other end of the bargain, as we felt lack of empathy with someone who belonged to a minority almost deserving the discrimination they were subjected to.
Again, we are born and raised in a society which is awash with all sorts of prejudices: to identify the prejudices we have absorbed unconsciously is perhaps the most difficult job. That’s why joining ILGA and meeting such an extraordinarily rich diversity of people represents a great opportunity to explore, question and fight our own prejudices.
At times people outside of the LGBTI movement find our endless debates and soul searching about identities tiring and abstract, unpractical and difficult to communicate to the outside world. I for one find this aspect of our being together one of the most enriching experiences of my life. We are perhaps slow in our decision making, but that’s what real democracy is all about, because we want to make sure that everyone has had their chance to speak their mind. At the same time, we are forging the future of the societies where we want to live in. The level of reflection in our debates is light years ahead of other civil society organisations, not to mention public bodies. We must be proud of that.
ILGA's executive director Renato Sabbadini delivering his speech (image: Twitter / ILGA Oceania)
I would like to finish with an analogy. As I was flying here the 18,000 kilometres from Geneva to Wellington, the longest trip of my life, I was shocked at the size of our planet. In today’s world of internet, we may easily feel that distances are shrinking and collapsing. What a sobering and healthy experience it is to see and feel that we are truly small compared to the Earth. As I was flying, I was also reflecting on the fact that this travel is nothing compared to the travel by sea the Maori undertook to come here 1200 years ago. They must have travelled distances that today we could only compare with interplanetary travel.
If it’s not too bold, I’d like to think of ILGA as a flotilla of people joining forces to reach a new land, a better world than the one we left behind us. Will we reach our new Aotearoa? A land were we finally find the peace and harmony of a society that knows no hatred, no discrimination? Difficult to say, and difficult to know if any of us here today will do: the trip might be very long, perhaps only the children of our children will eventually land on those shores. At the same time, I’m grateful to be in this giant flotilla with all of you. Who knows: the answer may lie in the travel, rather than the destination.