Every now and then there are international events that startle me sufficiently to look beyond our national borders: the death of Princess Diana, "shock and awe" in Iraq, Sir Elton John performing in Russia.
So how cool was it to have the world come to me - as The Williams Institute opened its four-day "Global Arc of Justice Conference on LGBT Rights Law Around the World" at the Pacific Design Center here in West Hollywood.
The conference got me thinking. If not for Doug Ireland's persistent coverage of death squads hunting gays in the Middle East, I don't know if I'd stop naval-gazing long enough to know about the gay teens hung in Iran and those seeking asylum. And if not for performance artist Tim Miller, blogger Chris Crain and Love Exiles - I wouldn't know about the heart-wrenching plight of bi-national couples. And, well, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has perhaps been at this the longest - now focusing on the intense homophobia in Uganda.
The conference runs from Wednesday, March 11 to Saturday, March 14th - mostly on the UCLA campus where the Williams Institute is headquartered at their School of Law. There are over 300 attendees with 120 speakers from 40 countries - including Supreme Court Justices from Argentina, Australia and Nepal.
Williams Institute Executive Director Brad Sears and USC Professor and International Lesbian and Gay Law Association President David Cruz opened the conference Wednesday night after welcoming remarks from West Hollywood City Councilmembers John Heilman and John Duran, who co-sponsored the event as part of the city's Human Rights Speakers series. West Hollywood, Heilman noted, was the first city in the country to divest from South Africa during apartheid and "is proud to always be on the side of human rights."
Actress Jackie Guerra ("Selena") also welcomed the crowd, saying she appreciates her LGBT fans and linked homophobia to racism. She told a story of how she would talk to her father about racist comments directed at her in school and her father would say, "your job isn't to get mad. Your job is to educate them." She remembered that lesson when she discovered people she knew voted for Prop 8.
The opening plenary focused on LGBT Rights in Latin America. It was moderated by Javier Corrales, associate professor of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts who is a Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. He has also been a consultant for the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Center for Global Development.
Sears set the stage:
"In the past several years, countries in Latin America have been leaping ahead in recognizing LGBT rights...Given that California and the U.S. already share so much with Latin America in terms of history, culture and population, we now have the opportunity to share a growing recognition of LGBT rights."
Then Sears brought it home:
"There is a crisis of courage right here in California and apparently with our judges last week [referring to the attitudes of the California Supreme Court Justices during oral arguments on whether to invalidate Prop 8]. They seem to have forgotten wheat judges and courts are for..."
Cruz also elbowed the US a bit:
"Mexico's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, homophobia and heterosexism under Dr. Saavedra's leadership offer just one example of the many ways Latin American countries can serve as a model for the U.S. and other countries that aspire to justice for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression."
Dr. Jorge Saavedra was Director of CENSIDA, Mexico's national AIDS Program. He developed government-funded anti-homophobia and anti-AIDS phobia radio and television campaigns in Mexico - which he discussed at the opening night plenary.
Saavedra, you may remember, caused considerable buzz at the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City - which was devoted to discussing the stigma of HIV/AIDS and the link between HIV and homophobia - with his plenary lecture about men who have sex with men. He also proved that "the personal is political" isn't just a feminist thing speaking about being an openly gay and married public official and LGBT rights as a public health issue. AIDS Healthcare Foundation subsequently hired him to be their Chief of Global Affairs.
After the opening plenary, Tom Coates, Director of UCLA AIDS Institute, and Oscar de la O, President of BIENESTAR Human Services presented Saavedra with an award thanking him for his service on behalf of LGBT rights and people living with HIV/AIDS.
Accepting it, Saavedra said:
"I will accept this award on behalf of the LGBT men and women of Mexico who have been fighting for their rights and to be treated with dignity. It has been an honor to serve them and to stand alongside them in their fight for justice."
The plenary presentations were moving - marred only by my inability to fully understand the translators at times.
But here's the gist of what they said.
Tatiana Cordero - who helped draft Ecuador's new constitution that includes explicit protections for LGBT people - spoke from a feminist perspective about how gender stereotypes in the culture of machismo lead to societal prejudices. "Anything that was not heterosexual was homosexual...and punished because it did not fit into the parameters of masculine and feminine." That's how they wound up with a constitution and a judicial system "full of tensions and contradictions." She said the constitution must be "transformed" to eliminate the "patriarchy of the family" and bring about a "new biological assumption of race - which is liberty, dignity and equality."
Germán H. Rincón Perfetti successfully litigated LGBT rights cases before the Colombia Constitutional Court. But most of his apparently unscripted presentation focused on an often humorous story of how he helped a closeted gay man he called "Mr. X" to secure his dead partner's pension since the partner worked for Congress. "How do you say - crazy?" Though he claimed to not really know what he was doing - Perfetti took the case all the way to the International High Court in Geneva because Columbia violated an equal rights provision in an international treaty they signed by refusing to give Mr. X the pension. He described stalling opening the envelop with the High Court's ruling - and then once he did, saying "I don't understand - but I think I won the case." But Mr. X refused to identify himself to the inquisitive media. "Mr. X - from his closet - was seeking justice."
Karen Atala Riffo - a lesbian judge from Chile - told a very moving story about having her children taken away and fighting for them before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"I think I am a good citizen. But I am stigmatized as a lesbian mother...
[Losing her children was] painful...but this is no longer a personal case....People are living with discrimination because of their gender identity and expression. What happened to me and my daughters should never happen to other people."
During a question and answer period, there was discussion of youth, hate crimes, and transgender issues.
Cordero said that transgender people are still being "detained arbitrarily for going against morality."
Riffo said it is important to become allies with the transgender community, which is growing stronger because of the struggles transgenders face. "It is my perception that the transgender community is the one pushing the fight."
Later Monica Trasandes from GLAAD told me about a terrible attack on a transwoman in Peru - she has the story and video on her blog.
That was just the first night! The conference also featured speakers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua to discuss what's going on in their countries as they make progress advancing - as the Williams Institute puts it - "in legal recognition and protection for same sex couples; HIV/AIDS and LGBT human rights; the repeal of sodomy laws; efforts by national governments to end homophobia and advance LGBT equality; and advancement of rights for transgendered people."
The Williams Institute has info from all four days - plus links to video events.