LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Theme: Power to the People

Celebrating 20 years of the strength within

Read more about the theme of the Conference here

2016 is the year in which ILGA-Europe is marking its 20th anniversary. Reaching our 20th year is a milestone that deserves to be marked. Looking back over the past two decades, it is undeniable that the LGBTI movement has come a long, long way. There have been so many profound legal, political and social changes taking place across Europe for LGBTI people, some of which we would not have dreamed of back in 1996.

And yet, looking at the current political and social backdrop, there are reasons to shy away from overt celebration. There are many reasons to be worried about the world around us. Whether it is about how Europe treats those seeking asylum (including LGBTI people), the rise of bias-motivated hate speech and populism, the debates about the sustainability of the European Union or ever-growing economic inequality, there are many reasons to be concerned about the current state of affairs. Some worries are about LGBTI people specifically; others are about broader human rights and equality issues. All these concerns are shared by the LGBTI movement with many friends and allies. After all, our lives are not just determined by our sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI people are also citizens, workers, voters, immigrants, family members, and so much more.  

That being said, what we can, and should, celebrate in an unashamed fashion, is the LGBTI movement itself. Over the past two decades, our movement has grown and become incredibly strong in numbers and in force. The LGBTI movement has become a driving force for change in societies by showing great resilience and developing creative strategies. Time and time again, we have used a variety of tools and built trust with other forces in society to get more support. We have overcome challenges in ways we couldn’t have dreamed possible. We are mobilising in greater numbers and greater intensity than ever before.

So there are a lot of reasons to come together and celebrate ILGA-Europe’s 20th anniversary this October in Cyprus. It will be a space to recognise our movement’s successes and discuss how we can continue to build on them. It will also be unique moment to honour those activists who led the way 20 years ago or even before that, the advocates who grew up to find their voice in the movement since 1996 and to invigorate the LGBTI leaders of the future. In 2016, we will be celebrating those who have been the architects of so much of what is good in Europe and we intend to inspire people to carry the work into the future.

Welcome to Cyprus!

Bringing the conference to the beautiful island of Cyprus offers us a wonderful opportunity to look at some of the advances made in the south-east corner of Europe. The island’s first legal partnership for same-sex couples was celebrated this year. In 2014, homosexuality was decriminalised in the north of Cyprus. And now we are aiming for even more positive change. The conference will be used to push for legal gender recognition in Cyprus. We will highlight the importance of tackling homo-, bi- and transphobia in schools and address the importance to fully recognise the rights of rainbow families, including joint adoption. These topics (and more) will be on our conference agenda, all whilst enjoying the warm hospitality that Cyprus has to offer us ….

About our conference theme...

In a growing number of places in Europe, the LGBTI movement has managed to work itself out of isolation into the centre of political and societal debates. In the last year alone, long-running battles were won, such as the introduction of a landmark gender identity law in Malta, partnership laws in Cyprus and Greece, marriage equality and legal gender recognition laws in Ireland and discrimination protection policy in Ukraine. Our movement itself continues to strengthen and grow.

However, we cannot be selective in the developments we acknowledge. We have to recognise that change is not always positive or pro-equality. In several countries, referenda have been used to challenge LGBTI rights and introduce discriminatory measures. We are facing campaigns that foster prejudice and try to mobilise against equal rights for LGBTI and women, as well as to fight sexual and reproductive rights. The opposition, lead by hostile conservative voices against LGBTI rights, is increasingly targeting discussions on families and education. Notions of solidarity, respect for human rights, rule of law, basic democratic principles - all values that the European project was based on - seem under threat.

In 2015, this became painfully visible around the refugee crisis. This happens in the same time that civil society spaces are shrinking around the world, including within European countries. All these developments demonstrate how vulnerable the gains made by the broader human rights movement in the past century still are. The current challenges to the rule of law, solidarity and equality should be a wake-up call for the human rights movement to redouble its efforts. We need to be even more alert and develop strategies to counter hate and discrimination, but also silence and apathy.

The positive changes that occurred over the past two decades of ILGA-Europe’s existence did not have an air of inevitability about them. In many places where the LGBTI movement has gained a strong position and was successful in pushing for positive change, several unique elements had aligned. People recognised that the human rights- and equality-based values that they held dear were shared by others. Individuals that come together to uphold values that are important to them hold people power. Itis often when activists pool their resources and begin to collectively organise as a community that changes becomes within reach. Individuals that come together to uphold values that are important to them hold people power. By harnessing their voices, the LGBTI movement has demonstrated the potential of people power and true mobilisation

This effective mobilisation invites questions of how the LGBTI movement use our prime position in a responsible way. Institutions that we could previously depend on for support have reduced their active engagement in recent years. In some countries, support has fallen silent. As a community, we need to work together not only to make sure that our collective capacity to instigate change is not diminished, but that we enable more activists from all over Europe to be empowered. In the growing vacuum between political populism, silence and apathy to respond to changing discourse and practice on human rights in Europe, it is increasingly important that our movement actively promotes people’s power.

People power means many things. It can of course  mean using our right to vote. Going one step further, it is also about asking ourselves what we can do to bring about change. We must remember the potential for creating change is contained within every individual in society. Every individual can be an agent of change. The beauty of these values is that they are not unique to the LGBTI movement alone; equality, non-discrimination, self-determination and collaboration are values that many communities share. We need to recognise the potential energy here and push for greater change for all. We all need to speak out about our values, protect our common spaces and use our voices.

When we talk about people in our movement, one crucial question we need to ask ourselves is “who are the ‘people’ we talk about?” We can be people of faith, colour, disability, young or aging. We are part of many different communities in society and our communities stretch through all walks of life. It is precisely being part of each and every segment of society that gives us an incredible potential strength. Our understanding of our community and our commonalities has become more nuanced and diverse, as we have built really resilient links with allies in other NGOs. This widening and deepening of the movement is something we need to celebrate too.

The values that brought us together as a movement still underpin the changes we want to bring to our countries and society. By holding on to these values as our starting point, we hope to strengthen our response to the challenging societal developments we have already mentioned. We want to contribute to building a world in which equality can truly be within reach for all. We also want to reflect on how we are the change we want to see in the world, by asking ourselves: how do we ensure no one is left behind? We want to discuss the structural causes of exclusion of some groups within the LGBTI community and from there, actively explore strategies and tools that can result in a truly inclusive movement. We hope to build from our strengths and challenge our own internal weaknesses, to re(imagine) the future of human rights in Europe and the society we live in. A society in which we do not just see ourselves as LGBTI community members, but also as parents, children, students, workers, sports players, musicians and whatever else constructs our rich individual identities.  

In Cyprus we will explore key questions, such as:

  • What is our vision of the society we want to live in?
  • What is people power and what does it mean for the LGBTI movement?
  • How can we make sure that the ‘people power’ we create is a force for good for all people in our community, not a select few?
  • Who are left behind and how do we bring them on board?
  • How do we forge new solidarity and alliances to respond to growing apathy and ambivalence in dealing with human rights? 
  • How do we engage supportive leaders, whether they are political, religious, or cultural leaders? How do they see people power – a support or a threat?
  • How can we increase our powerbase? What role do data, media and resources play in this?

From Athens to Nicosia….
Our 2015 conference already started to look into some of themes we will be discussing in Nicosia. We situated such developments in wider contexts of shrinking space, austerity, growing inequality and ferocious debates about refugees coming to Europe. The conference focused on mobilisation, an area where the LGBTI movement is making great strides. We also looked at issues within the movement, asking ourselves how inclusive we really are. In the words of our conference host Miguel Vale de Almeida, we discussed that: “Considerations of diversity / inequality can and should lead to the building of alliances in which our ”agenda” is never encompassing and over-determining … since our experience is the epitome of the personal as political, the defence of our lives and rights can be a very palpable cause for others and a symbol of a more just society. From threat and urgency we can identify the opportunity that lies in diversity and in alliance building.”