Saturday, June 8, 2013

It's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.

Some might say that it was only a matter of time before the Salzburg Global Seminar embraced its Inner Camp, and held a programme directed at issues facing LGBT people around the world. The Seminar is housed in the eye poppingly beautiful setting where much of 'The Sound of Music' was shot. The mountains, the schloss, the lake that everyone fell in, it's all there - one of those few places around the globe (the citadel of Carcassonne is maybe one, St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow another) about which one might paraphrase Voltaire and say that had it not existed Disney would have had to invent it. Or Rodgers and Hammerstein in this case.

Strolling about amongst the priceless art, suits of armour and fireplaces the size of my back bedroom, I was struck by another parallel. 'That movie' - the one about which everyone talks when there (inevitably reenacting cheesy musical numbers with the assistance of agreeable wine late at night) - covered themes like triumph over preconception plus the elevating power and resilience of the human spirit. It was about the unexpected blossoming of love, the right to it, and the escape from prejudice. With some running about on mountains of course. And dirndls. 

I don't know whether this connection played a role in the mind of the Chief Program Officer, appointed in 2012, when she developed the idea for a week of exploring the global human rights agenda for LGBT people. Perhaps knowing me, and my story, played a bit of a role - we have been friends for 25 years. Or maybe an overarching sense of the need to bring the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world into a setting like this - more familiar to UN diplomats or World Bank officials perhaps - recognising their critical importance on the front line of international debate and thus an issue with which Salzburg should grapple. Whatever blend of motivations, it was a big departure for the seminar, a decision taken with some courage, and she and her superbly professional team made it happen. Well done to her.

We didn't do a whole lot of running about on mountains (partly because the rain at the start of our week was on a Biblical scale - though one of the seminar team did rock up in local costume for our farewell dinner), but we did spend quite a lot of time exploring and unpacking some of the issues that we, as LGBT people from 33 nations have to face in our daily lives.

We talked about a world pulling in different directions - of notable success in some African nations in some areas, but also of the appalling state sponsored hate being imported into nations like Nigeria and Uganda and into their judicial systems. Of the forced sterilisation of trans people in Europe and elsewhere - the number of countries where you have to have your reproductive organs removed before you can even apply to have your authentic gender recognised in law remains sickeningly high. Of the relationship between religion and nationalism and sexual and gender identity rights, hearing of hard right or religiously sponsored sadism and abuse of an intensity that left the audience wanting to take the speakers, hold them, protect them. But also of - and from - thoughtful religious figures who were as appalled as we at this corruption of their faith - including a widely respected, female Islamic cleric from Indonesia who spoke with an open mindedness and sensitivity some in my country - the UK - would do well to acknowledge.

We heard of success with the funding of projects, shared ideas about how to get funded, though more often of the increasing difficulty of finding money to save lives - and not just (as one might assume) from those in the 'Global South' (as I, Conference Virgin, have now learned it's called).

We heard from someone who had seen a friend beaten to death in front of them, others who had been thrown out of families and communities, made unemployable, been nearly killed by the police, forced into exile, raped. Of legislative bigotry, but also of subtler, cultural prejudice - of countries where the judicial code suggests a level of equality but the reality on the ground is very different.

And we were there when the House of Lords in the UK approved the second reading of the Equal Marriage Bill, to applause. I shared in the moment, delighted too - though also explained that trans people still have to get 'written permission' from their partner if they both seek legal recognition of their gender and wish to stay married. Not something that will affect many, one hopes, but the legal supremacy and 'protection' of the cisgender remains deeply embedded - trans people's basic rights tend to appear only and when they are seen not to threaten that privilege. Even if they are couched in the most primal of human rights terms.

I also told my own story. It came early in the week, and we were yet to hear from many others. I was already humbled, knowing that despite the difficulties I had faced there were many in the room who had undergone things of which I could barely conceive. The group was kind to me, genuinely touched I think by what I had to say as I shared my experiences and how I came to be sitting in front of them, with the von Trapp's mountains looking on.

Later - this time at the very end of the week - I had the chance to expose some of the behaviour of the British media towards trans people - playing delegates a few minutes of deeply transphobic 'comedy' drawn from a range of UK panel, chat and stand up shows on tv, going on to discuss just a little of what the tabloids have been up to via a look at some typical newspaper headlines. I have always felt that accurate, respectful and dignified portrayal of minority groups - trans people are 'mine' - is ultimately about saving lives too. About helping innocent people not get beaten up, murdered or driven to suicide - as the media in any country has a profound role in shaping attitude. It can drive acceptance and understanding or fuel hate, as every government since Caxton has known (and the church even before). But I did wonder - after all we'd discussed, if this group - of all groups - might look at this theme with a little more distance. When you've almost been killed, or you have seen your friends killed, you might perhaps imagine matters media to be a little less pressing than some of the stuff on your personal plate. But the audience was shocked and angry I felt. As we sat there living through a few minutes of average Friday night British tv, I could feel the outrage in the room.

Film set ambience or not, it was a tough week. The powerfully personal was everywhere. So were some agendas that crept into the room from elsewhere. Some geopolitical, a few moments of identity politics. At times I saw pain erupting around assumptions - assumptions made about individuals because of their nationality, regionality, or perhaps because of what some of their fellow nationals were doing in the world. 

Luckily the reaching out to find the common spaces was the loudest theme. 60 people from 5 continents sat and worked together. Found our shared ambitions, found our shared goals. Amongst us were novices, like me, alongside politically connected and diplomatic figures who cared. One afternoon, I shared an observation with one delegate about a UN campaign soon to be launched. She took my point. Sent an email to someone in New York. The next morning the reply arrived - the UN team had agreed to the suggestion. You had the sense that it was That Kind of Week.

Of course whether it really was That Kind of Week principally depends on what happens next. The Salzburg Global Seminar was created after the Second World War to rebuild the intellectual bridges, shared purpose and common humanity of a world shattered by the ideology from which the von Trapp family were running in the famous movie. At the end of the week we hammered out a closing statement, framing our objectives and our basic rights, which we hope will hit important desks around the world and create a tangible response. This issue is now on the worldwide human rights agenda we were told, and having Salzburg's voice behind this community can add much - if the Seminar and those who hold it in high regard now maximise the exposure of our work. And if those of us who were there remain true to the aspirations we identified at the end of our week together, and act on those too.

The production of a nicely crafted policy statement to gather dust on a diplomat's desk was not the purpose of our week away. Our efforts need to make an actual difference to policy makers and governments. And we seek action from them, not mere gestures of support or sympathy. Actions which stop people being attacked, killed, sexually assaulted. Which help them get and keep a job, have a home, retain their right to a family (and the reproductive organs to do so). To love and to be loved.

As Julie Andrews might have said - surrounded by the immense baroque splendour and the snow capped mountains, perhaps in a scene which lies forgotten in the cupboard of an edit suite somewhere - it's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.

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