As I walked into the Vienna AIDS 2010 LGBT BBQ, sponsored by COC Netherlands and Schorer, I was struck by how many people from the conference were all in one place who also happened to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender. The diversity that is the International AIDS Conference was represented there – queer people with a diversity of nationalities, accents, languages and dress.
My friend and former colleague, with whom I worked in forming an LGBTI support group and MSM/WSW research in Lesotho, was there and one of the first things she said to me was, “There are so many gay people here, all in one place. It reminds me of your going away party when you left Lesotho.”
She was referring to a party I threw and to which I invited every LGBT person I knew as well as their friends and friends of friends. I not only wanted people to remember me, but I also wanted to give back to the community that had accepted me and included me with such open, welcoming arms. At my event in Lesotho, people could be who they are, with no toning down and nothing hidden.
And that party was popping! Over 200 people showed up, some I knew, some I didn’t, but it didn’t matter because it was not just a party for them or for me, it was a party to just be. Without any sort of gay club or community center in Lesotho, that time and place was slotted for them to shine.
And that is exactly how I felt at the Vienna LGBT BBQ. It was like we all took off our shrouds and burdens and masks, heaved a sigh of relief and had a great time with no pretense or worry. I don’t know for sure if these kinds of community events are standard fare for most of the people who were there. But given, that there were party-goers from countries where LGBT people are raped, murdered, imprisoned, whipped, beaten, ostracized and a host of other inhumane offenses and rights violations, I can imagine that the BBQ was a rare haven for those brave advocates.
What will it take to create such spaces in the countries we live and work in? Health and human rights is just one aspect of it, but changing a law does not mean that society instantly changes with it. It’s an important step yet it’s just one of many that need to happen.
Take for example, South Africa’s constitution that protects LGBT people from discrimination while also affording the right to marriage equality. Yet, from what I witnessed myself in South Africa, homophobia and stigma are still rampant in the townships and villages (and even in urban areas). Hearts and minds are still catching up with the laws.
So while we wait for laws to change through our own advocacy, appeal to people’s hearts and then their minds will surely follow.