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RGOD2: 10 dos and don’ts for global collaboration on LGBT issues

For years now, our household has reflected an international dimension that has become part of our normal working culture. My partner is employed at Qualcomm and has two regular evening conference calls with colleagues in India and sometimes China. I will regularly speak to colleagues in Cameroon or Uganda and we are in daily contact through emails and Facebook.

This is globalization. We have never done this before on the scale that we are now capable of doing and so these new culturally complex interchanges need some ground rules for engagement, so we don’t make things worse for our LGBT colleagues who work daily in dangerous and violent situations. Globalization, beyond LGBT specific issues, means we have to learn to engage with others in a culturally competent way. It makes good business sense to have employees capable of these international partnerships. It is no longer an option NOT to do this and the normal working culture of our household today will become much more common for everyone to engage more deeply on an international scale. How we do it is vitally important.

Many of us receive weekly messages about some LGBT person in Africa in need of asylum, or someone forced out of their community when it is discovered they may be LGBT. It is difficult to know how we can help. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is impossible for us in the West to micromanage or provide case management to everyone we may hear about and my golden rule is always to check back with organizations on the ground who will have their own security team to investigate any threats to LGBT people or our allies.

We recently had a referral from a young gay couple in Uganda in need of emergency assistance and asylum. When we checked them out through local contacts, we discovered this was merely a scam to get money from well-intentioned people from the West. It is vital to have close working relationships with well-functioning organizations on the ground so they can be in the front line of emergency response and policy formation. Our focus should be on deepening these relationships and ensuring local activists have the tools they need to get the job done.

The Human Rights Campaign’s recent experience

Recently, there was a lot of criticism directed towards the Human Rights Campaign when they announced the launch of an international program without engaging activists from the Global South or even their own sensitized staff colleagues. The campaign’s public announcement included something about extending marriage equality from the Global North to the Global South when this issue is not something Global South activists see as necessary.

It actually could harm the good work that is being done in many difficult places simply because it reinforces the idea that the global gay agenda is being driven by western organizations. We can easily put people in harm’s way if we do not follow a simple process. There has been a lot of work behind HRC’s important announcement and the excellence that HRC brings to a program like the Corporate Equality Index can be brought to bear on their nascent international program. LGBT western organizations are used to the bright lights and media splashes to convey positive messages that may encourage others to give to a particular cause, but I would caution HRC to use this method when working with organizations in the Global South. Sometimes, it is more important to work quietly behind the scenes and support struggling organizations who are doing great work but do not have the fundraising capacity to fund their programs. This is an excellent role for HRC but it demands a less public approach than maybe other campaigns.

Jessica Stern has been engaged in international LGBT issues for over 20 years and she is now executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She spoke at the Compass to Compassion Conference at Union Theological Seminary in October 2011 on these moral ground rules that are emerging as helpful tools in our shared hope for global equality. Two years later, after making a lot of mistakes myself and wishing we might have done things differently, her wisdom embodied in these 10 principles is very helpful. We recently helped JP Conly, a nurse from San Diego, achieve his dream of visiting and working with Ugandans and one of the first things I shared with him, was Jessica’s ground rules. Here they are: dos and don’ts:

TEN PRINCIPLES RECOMMENDED FOR U.S.-BASED ACTIVISTS IN SOLIDARITY
WITH LGBT RIGHTS STRUGGLES IN SOMEONE ELSE’S COUNTRY

ONE

Don’t: Act without consulting people who live and work in the country you’re concerned with.

Do: Consult and develop relationships with people who currently live and work in the country you’re concerned with.

Why: First, LGBT individuals and activists working within their own countries know these issues best. They know what breaking events to respond to and what to let pass. No book learning can amount to more expertise than someone’s daily lived experiences. Second, these activists may have a long-term strategy, and so obstacles along the way need to be addressed within that context. Third, while LGBT people from that country’s diaspora can play an invaluable role in the struggle, they don’t know the on-the-ground realities like someone who lives there today. Fourth, a single news outlet may get the story wrong, so if that’s your source, you need to fact check to get your facts right.

TWO

Don’t: Assume that just anyone from the country you’re concerned with who calls herself an LGBT activist is an adequate contact.

Do: Your due diligence and make sure that you’re working with the right individuals or groups. Try to have multiple, diverse contacts.

Why: Not every person calling herself an LGBT activist understands the political landscape, has credibility with the local LGBT community, is an experienced activist, and/or has good politics. We would never expect just one person in the US to speak for the entire movement for disability rights or for abortion rights, so why would we make this assumption in another country?

THREE

Don’t: Proceed as though LGBT rights are the only human rights violations in a country.

Do: Understand the broader human rights context.

Why: First, LGBT activists will never succeed without mainstream allies. The more homophobic and transphobic the country, the more invaluable allies are. Second, if we pour resources into the LGBT movement and overlook the gravity of other human rights concerns, like corruption in governance or food shortages, we will encourage the isolation of the LGBT movement and an counter-productive disconnect from other struggles. Maybe homosexuality will be decriminalized, but will those queers have anything to eat?

FOUR

Don’t: Assume that you’re the first or the only foreign organization to be concerned with LGBT human rights violations in a given country.

Do: Consult international, regional and sub-regional human rights organizations that have a long history of solidarity work on that issue or country.

Why: International, regional and sub-regional organizations may already have deep partnerships and collaborations with that country. Just because this work is not in the public domain does not mean that it doesn’t existent. Sometimes discreet, behind-the-scenes work is exactly what activists working domestically have called for. If you do these consultations, the chance of duplicating work and wasting valuable resources will decrease and the chance of creating a desirable impact will increase.

FIVE

Don’t: Do a one-off response.

Do: Build long-term relationships.

Why: First, as I mentioned, the long-term strategy of domestic activists is the most important question, so don’t undertake any action without consulting them about their priorities. Second, emergency and one-off responses tend to focus disproportionately on violence committed by the State, such as extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrest. These are, without doubt, foundational human rights concerns. However, human rights violations both perpetuated by the State and which occur in the public realm focus disproportionately on the experiences of men and/or those perceived to be men, i.e. transgender women. A feminist analysis requires recognizing the invisibility and vulnerability of lesbians, women-who-have-sex-with-women (WSW), bisexual women, transgender men, transgender men, and intersex people. Violence committed by non-state actors and/or in the private realm is no less egregious. Third, I sometimes fear that emergency response work can be like putting a band-aide on a gaping wound. Develop work that addresses the disease, not just the symptoms. On an utterly practical note, this will amount to a better use of your scarce human and financial resources. Invest in work that will produce a larger, more systematic return.

SIX

Don’t: Break the news before or better than grassroots activists.

Do: Support them to analyze the story from their perspective, to produce a polished communications document, and to disseminate their story not only at the domestic level but also regionally and internationally. Do you have a huge press list? Send out something from your colleagues from the country instead of a product under your name. If you need to issue something in your name, consider doing so jointly.

Why: IGLHRC now tries to issue more material jointly with other organizations, which I think strengthens relationships, uses resources more effectively and more successfully recognizes domestic expertise.

SEVEN

Don’t: Fundraise in the name of activists, organizations, or so-called “victims” from the country you’re concerned with.

Do: Fundraise for or with groups working at the community or country level. Have a strong analysis of global inequalities. Help us all to develop fundraising strategies grounded in the ethics and politics we’re trying to advance.

Why: Realize that while you’re trying to pay your organization’s bills, many of our colleagues internationally are working without salaries, office furniture, or regular internet. I am not suggesting that US-based organizations cannot or should not fundraise for the work they do -- IGLHRC certainly needs to pay bills like the salary that affords me the luxury of delivering this speech -- but my hope is that we can all try to carry our politics into our fundraising strategies, including (dare I say?) the potential for the redistribution of wealth.

EIGHT

Don’t: Speak to a country’s local press without consulting local activists.

Do: Ask them what the strategy should be.

Why: In a recent example, a newspaper cited a minister in Ghana as calling upon Africans to “rise up” against IGLHRC. In reference to IGLHRC, the minister allegedly claimed, “Now our culture is being mercilessly bombarded by an aggressive new hedonistic homosexual culture whereby same-sex marriage is being advocated for by rich and powerful lobbyists and advocates, all in the name of human rights.” IGLHRC was concerned by these remarks, however local activists advised us not to respond in the press. They said that IGLHRC’s silence would help control the issue and keep the discussion local. Excellent advice. They basically meant: we’ll protect you, and in the process, we’ll be better protected, too.

NINE

Don’t: Assume that because there is no organized LGBT movement in a country that it will necessarily be constructive for you to “speak for the voiceless.”

Do: Wait, consult, work behind the scenes, and when you can’t consult credible local activists, consider the option of silence.

Why: If you weigh in without having colleagues working locally to advise you and represent the issue domestically, you may unknowingly do damage that will make their lives and work harder.

TEN

Don’t: Forget what your parents told you.

Do: Think before you act. CONSULT! CONSULT! CONSULT!

In conclusion, Jessica adapted something Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda said reminding everyone that LGBT people from the Global South don’t need Americans. Their march for freedom shall continue, in spite of us. The only question is: Will we a part of the problem or a part of the solution?

* * *

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.