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Human Rights at Montreal

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In addition to the Out Games athletes, thousands of activists globally turn out too

The description on the Out Games Web site was perhaps a little deceptive. If you were poking around for other things going on in Montreal during the athletic competition held this past week, the Human Rights Conference seemed a small aside. Had you attended though, you would have been at the world’s largest LGBT human rights conference ever held. On the final day, this past Saturday, more than 2,000 people attended the main forum during which Martina Navratilova spoke to the audience and introduced the Montreal Declaration on LGBT Human Rights, a document that will be presented to the United Nations.

The conference opened with a gala dinner on Wednesday, July 26 with Louise Arbour, the Human Rights Commissioner for the United Nations as the keynote speaker. Attendees came from more than 110 countries, including some where many Westerners would be surprised to imagine any gay rights movement in the works. The first morning’s plenary session opened with Canadian Olympic medal winner Mark Tewksbury, Muslim-Canadian author Arshad Manji, and others discussing LGBT issues in the United States and Canada.

According to Scott Long, who heads up the LGBT rights effort at Human Rights Watch, the conference’s international mix created a “chance to share experiences and a chance to share strategies. The main thing that will come out of the conference are people with vastly different backgrounds having a chance to meet.” Long and Jessica Stern, an LGBT researcher, also at HRW, spoke on a panel with gay Iranian Arsham Parsi who gained asylum in Canada after persecution in his home country. Parsi, who is a leading figure in the international Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, said that being at the conference was important for the fight for LGBT equality in Iran and other developing countries because “Western countries teach us how we get our freedom.”

Other activists, researchers, and speakers came from countries as varied as China, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Turkey, Cuba, Colombia, and Poland. A scholarship program enabled the participation of so many diverse attendees. Rachel Corbett, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association created for the Out Games, said, “You can’t be an Out Games if you don’t have a Human Rights Conference” and that getting input internationally was important, especially from women. She said that more than a half-million dollars was spent to bring about 350 people to Canada from the developing world, not including free housing and other in-kind donations.

“This conference enables us to get these women here,” Corbett said. “It’s a credible and bona fide reason to get a visa.”

At the Palais de Congress, Montreal’s premier meeting venue, there were at times 25 sessions overlapping—and still there were often standing room only crowds.

Transgender issues were an important component of the conference. New Zealander Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transgendered member of a national parliament, spoke during a session on Australia and Asia. She won an election in one of her country’s most conservative constituencies though she ran “as a bit of fun,” never knowing what it would lead to.

While herself not transgendered, Mariela Castro Espin, the niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Raúl Castro, who just this week stepped in to rule in his ailing brother’s place, is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and oversees transgender and other sexual identity issues. She grabbed considerable media attention, and her presence was a strong indication that this would be a very different conference from anything held in the United States.

When questioned on repression of gays in Cuba, Castro Espin explained that gays have equal rights by law, but that “socio-cultural reactions against gays exist, as they do all over the world.” Homophobic police, she conceded, sometimes act on their own accord, even as she maintained that armed “with a lawyer,” a gay person unfairly arrested can win proper enforcement of the law and safe release.

The scope of the conference at times created interesting juxtapositions. Maria Belen Correa, a transgendered Argentine woman granted asylum in the United States after persecution in her home country, spoke on the irony of Argentina becoming one of the world’s most important gay travel destinations in recent years. She and the other Argentines shared meals with Dr. Raúl Zaffaroni, an Argentine Supreme Court judge who spoke during the Latin American plenary. While the laws of her country did not protect her, Belen Correa was nonetheless willing to praise Zaffaroni as “the only one fighting for our rights” in the judiciary.

The war raging between Israel and Lebanon also had its role at the Montreal conference. Rasha Moumneh, a member of the Lebanese gay group Helem, was invited to speak but the current situation made it impossible to attend. Instead, she recorded a video played for the audience in which she strongly condemned both Israel’s war and the upcoming Jerusalem World Pride events. After the video was played, Kursad Kahramanoglu, a Turkish human rights activist, presented a resolution against Israel, which was struck down by Edwin Cameron, an out gay and openly HIV-positive member of South Africa’s Supreme Court, who was presiding over the Africa and Middle East plenary session.

Navratilova’s presentation Saturday of the conference LGBT human rights declaration raised the question of whether it will have an impact at the U.N. and elsewhere. Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay, who played an integral role during the Out Games and the Human Rights Conference, believes it will, but also acknowledged the obstacles that lie ahead.

“We believe in the principals put forth,” he said, before adding, “Human rights are very important, but I think if we go piecemeal,” things will be easier. Noting the many U.N. member nations that oppose gay equality, Tremblay argued, “We have to go on what’s really important” as a “first step for many” countries. “You cannot accept as a human being that you can have a death sentence, that you can be in prison,” for being gay, he stated. “That’s the basic we can put forward.”

As for the rest of the Declaration, which includes equality in marriage, in sports, and in other areas of life, where the battle is currently joined in North America and Europe, he said, “Major changes come over time. We have a perspective to keep putting into minds.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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