Envisioning LGBT Struggle for Equality in the Commonwealth

Thirty-one organizations on three continents come together in Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights, an international research and documentary film project that examines the legacy of British criminal laws affecting sexual minorities and documents the work of human rights defenders to resist criminalization and to advance LGBT rights.

Envisioning is led by principal investigator, video artist and documentary filmmaker Nancy Nicol, a professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts and faculty associate in York’s Centre for Feminist Research, and is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). As the project approaches the midpoint of SSHRC’s five-year funding commitment, a group of Envisioning researchers will share some of their findings and work-in-progress at a book launch in Toronto on Wednesday, June 26.

Nicol with Monica Tabengwa2Monica Tabengwa (left) with Nancy Nicol

Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change,” co-edited by Corinne Lennox and Matthew Waites, is the first book on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the Commonwealth, where 42 of 54 member states criminalize same-sex sexual acts.  Envisioning researchers have contributed three chapters to the book from Canada, Uganda and Botswana.

The launch event takes place in the ballroom at the 519 Church Street Community Centre from 6:30 to 9:30pm. It features a panel discussion with Nicol, Monica Tabengwa of Human Rights Watch, Nairobi, Kenya, with whom Nicol co-authored a chapter in the book, and Nick Mulé, a professor in York University’s School of Social Work, among others.

The panel will explore contemporary struggles for societal change in response to British colonial laws that criminalize people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Panelists will also discuss ongoing Envisioning research into the experience of LGBT people seeking asylum in Canada.

“The asylum research is particularly timely given the recent changes in Canadian asylum and refugee law,” said Nicol. Based on consultations with service providers, researchers published a preliminary round table report titled Envisioning LGBT Refugee Rights in Canada: Exploring Asylum Issues in June 2012.

An excerpt from work in progress on the documentary film Botho! Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana will also be screened at the launch event.

“I’ve been thinking a great deal about the traditional southern African concept, “ubuntu”, or “botho” in Setswana, which translates roughly as ‘I am human because you are human’ and which recognizes the right of all people to live their lives with dignity,” said Nicol. “Everywhere I’ve travelled as part of the Envisioning work, I’ve been reminded of the tremendous diversity of sexual and gender expression which peoples around the world celebrate as part of their indigenous cultures and societies.”

Nicol notes that ubuntu/botho stands in stark contradiction to the penal code imposed by the British and the continued human rights violations which LGBT people face throughout the world. She points out that in Botswana, the concept of botho has been used by human rights advocates to argue against homophobia and to challenge the discriminatory law.

2HUMANRIGHTSbookcoverThe Envisioning project uses participatory video as an important component of research and knowledge mobilization, providing training, funding and equipment to community partners. Nicol, who teaches time-based art in York’s Department of Visual Art & Art History, and two fine arts graduate students, Terra Long (MFA, Film) and Yoon Jin Jung (MFA, Visual Arts), provided training in videography to research partners in the Caribbean and Africa where work is currently under way.

There will be a broad spectrum of video project outcomes. They include a number of participatory video projects, a documentary shot in India, and a collaborative project created over the past five months documenting conferences with NGOS and government officials in Nairobi, New York City, Paris, Kathmandu, Brasilia and Oslo. The resulting documentary, The Time Has Come, premiered at a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva on June 5.  Produced by Arc International in partnership with Envisioning, the documentary was shot by videographers from Envisioning partners in Africa and the Caribbean and edited at York by video editor, Kaija Siirala.

The Time Has Come includes very strong interviews with human rights defenders and material on the challenges faced in terms of violence, human rights violations and the threat of laws prohibiting the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality,” said Nicol. “It also celebrates the diversity and voices of indigenous queer activists from around the world, and that is, for me, the strongest and most engaging material.”  The video can be viewed online.

The India documentary, which Nicol is directing, examines the legal challenge to section 377 of the India Penal Code, the first of the British colonial laws on “crimes against the order of nature”.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with organizations and interview individuals who were at the forefront of the legal challenge to section 377, to gather first-hand accounts of this action and more broadly, queer rights and activism,” said Nicol, “The production has been an intense and moving experience for all of us.”

Nicol’s collaborators include Delhi-based line producer Pearl Sandhu and cinematographer Shakeb Ahmed. She has amassed a tremendous amount of material for the film, which she is editing with the assistance of Siirala and Adonay Guerrero, a York graduate film student.

In addition to publications and documentary films, Envisioning has coordinated, attended and presented research at a wide array of events and conferences. ARC International, United and Strong in St. Lucia and Envisioning partnered to convene the four-day International Dialogue and Training on LGBT Human Rights in St Lucia in February 2012. Envisioning has also held screenings and discussions of work in progress in Toronto, St. Lucia, Kampala, Gaborone and Nairobi, and is organizing a conference and community screening to take place in Kingston, Jamaica this July.

Further ahead on the horizon, for World Pride in Toronto in June 2014, Envisioning has proposed panels from the Caribbean and African participatory video projects, as well as a panel on asylum from the Canadian research team and an international panel of lawyers at the forefront of legal challenges in Africa and the Caribbean, to the International Human Rights Conference for World Pride organizing committee. “It would be a great venue to showcase the stories Envisioning is collecting,” said Nicol.“The Envisioning videographers and researchers from Africa, the Caribbean and Canada plan to march together at World Pride”.