LGBTQI+ activists in French-speaking countries (La Francophonie) must overcome many challenges that their counterparts in English-speaking countries do not face. Two representatives of the new French-speaking IGLF Coalition took part in August’s first-ever international French-language LGBTQI+ conference in Montreal. Here they discuss the importance of this gathering and the state of LGBTQI+ activism in La Francophonie.
By Dominique Menoga and Michaël Cousin
On August 18, 2017, we attended Equality and Legality — International Conference on Sexual Diversity & Gender Plurality in the Francophonie — the first international francophone conference on sexual and gender minorities (GGS). Organized in Montreal, this event allowed two hundred professionals from the worlds of academia, activism and government to meet, converse and address the specific problems encountered by francophones.
Was the conference important?
This gathering might seem trivial and some might wonder why congratulations are in order. But any LGBTQI+ activist who has worked internationally understands to what extent the French language is rarely used — even rejected — at international organizations and non-governmental institutions.
Far be it for us to defend here the French language and the imagination that it conveys through its grammatical structure and its lexicon. Like any other, it is a tool that human beings use. The United Nations has six working languages (or is supposed to have six) including French. Please note that none of the six comes from sub-Saharan Africa. French remains an important instrument for the 410 million francophones living in these lands.
Although it is known that language is the central element linking human beings in international relations, the majority of governmental organizations, working groups (such as UNSOGI *, CSW_SOGI *, and SDG_SOGIESC *), networks (such as the SOGI ** list or the Amsterdam network **) and finally all conferences like those of ILGA are held only in English, or even slightly in Spanish and very subsidiarily in French. Let’s not talk about Arabic, Chinese and Russian. Such hegemony excludes a significant proportion of the Francophone sexual-and-gender-minority (SGM) population from working internationally and making its problems known.
On the financial level, we are no better off. Most the major donors are English-speaking (Arcus, Wellspring Advisors, International Transfund, Astrae, Open Society, programs in the United States, Sweden, Norway or the Kingdom of the Netherlands). For francophones, this implies that you have to be able to read announcements, write projects and activity reports, and negotiate agreements in English. Not to mention that even if we had made the effort to use English, we must wait for these investors to include La Francophonie in their next action plan.
Nor can we rely on French-speaking donors. For example, of the CA $ 350,000 cost of the Montreal conference, the City of Paris donated 5,000 euros, the French government 0. Considing the important role of France and Belgium in the imposition of sexual and gender restrictions during the colonial era, those countries should be more willing to pay to make amends for the past!
Public and philanthropic organizations also impose criteria that are inapplicable to our French-speaking associations such as having more than two or three years of existence or obtaining legal status (being registered with the State). Francophone patronage is also non-existent. Finally, the Expertise France organization manages an LGBTI fund with a value of just over 300,000 euros, but the steering committee has only met once in the past two years.
At the research level, Francophone researchers rarely report on their studies except in overpriced journals. Access to knowledge is reserved for the elite and the privileged, which is indefensible because taxpayers finance this activity. The academic world has no contact with the world of activism. SGM community research is conducted only in Quebec. In France, we do not have a an SGM research center. Researchers are scattered here and there, studying gender issues and male-female equality.
In light of all these problems, an LGBTQI+ Francophone conference is obviously important. Researchers, activists, artists, government representatives, and UN officials were able to meet during the conference’s 10 hours.
Do you have any criticism of the conference?
First of all, we would like to congratulate the organizers of this event and the challenges they overcame. This is the first conference of its kind and, as with any innovation, it advances into the unknown. The themes of the panels were very diverse. There was talk of the place of women in SGM struggles, the role of international non-governmental organizations, awareness of SGM in the education of young people, colonialism and its current effects and many other topics. There were eighteen panels in all, not to mention the plenaries, the display areas and the short films.
However, we are saddened to find that many Africans, women, men and possibly intersex, were unable to participate for technical reasons. We know from the organizers that they have learned from their experience in confronting the problems of visas, scholarships, contacts with local associations, etc. We hope that this knowledge will be shared for future events.
As often occurs, the composition of some panels was inadequate. We are thinking of the session dedicated to women in sub-Saharan Africa. Marthe Djilo Kamga, coordinator for the Massimadi festival, was the only woman on the panel, with three men. Still, her insights were remarkable. Other panels were also lacking. For example, our panel included the Emergence Foundation, although it does not act internationally. What this organization presented was interesting but off topic in relation to the theme of our panel.
The conference was just one day long. It was impossible for us to attend much of the program and also find people we wanted to meet. Workshops dealing with our daily problems were also lacking. Finally, no donors attended, apart from DILCRAH ****.
We also felt that we were being used by the Canadian government as part of its communications strategy. At breakfast, when government ministers arrived, we were expected to continue applauding them until they sat down at their table. In light of the living and working conditions that we experience, as well as the sacrifices we make so the story of our struggles can be heard, we found this expectation of submission quite disagreeable.
What did the conference offer to your coalition?
For us, it was very important. Half of the active supporters of the coalition were present in Montreal. We were able to meet for the first time. The IGLF Coalition project dates from the ILGA World Conference in Stockholm in 2012. After some interruptions, it resumed work in March 2017. Some activists had participated in 2012 and others are new. We had never seen each other in person. So it was a great moment.
We were also able to meet with researchers, Quebec and Francophone organizations, and organizations from sub-Saharan Africa. All these interviews are essential for the development of our network and our future work, particularly in community research and advocacy.
Last March, we also set the deadline of August 18 to finalize the writing of our association’s regulations. We achieved that work on time, so we organized a workshop in Montreal to review those documents and refine our strategic orientation. In the coming months, we will be able to start drafting our first projects and requesting funds.
* UNSOGI — United Nations Sexual Orientation Gender Identity
* CSW_SOGI — Commission on the Status of Women / Sexual Orientation Gender Identity
* SDG_SOGIESC — Sustainable Development Goals / Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression Sex Characteristics
** SOGI — The SOGI email list (sogi-list@arc-international. net) for LGBTI activists.
*** Amsterdam — The Amsterdam network, an informal group of Western national LGBT organizations that work together to coordinate advocacy to national governments.
**** DILCRAH — The French government’s Interministerial Delegation to the Fight Against Racism, Anti-semitism and Anti-LGBT Hatred, which reports to the prime minister.
Dominique Menoga is treasurer of the IGLF Coalition and a member of its Bisexuality Secretariat. Michael Cousin represents the overall coalition.