Editors' Note: Brian Tofte-Schumacher is Communications Associate at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He tweets on @IGLHRC and personally as @briantschu.
A year and a half ago, when I said my teary-eyed goodbye to my mom after dropping two suitcases packed with all my essential belongings at the check-in counter for my one-way flight to New York City from Spokane International Airport, I had no idea I would soon be writing about my first experience at the United Nations -- especially not this soon.
Nonetheless, here I am, ready for it or not. Saturday, December 10 marked the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, following a truly historic week. First came President Obama's memorandum on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights and US Foreign Policy issued by the White House. Then, we heard an amazingly LGBT-affirming speech from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the United Nations in Geneva on Tuesday.
Less astounding, but deeply important to me as well as others present, was the panel discussion about LGBT Bullying and Human Rights, which I attended (and helped to organize) at the New York United Nations headquarters on Thursday. Last week was a hallmark week for LGBT human rights activists and defenders and an awakening for myself.
For me, as a 24-year-old white guy from Spokane, Washington, this week was monumental. I've been working at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) as Communications Associate since July. In that time, I've had the opportunity to learn about the work that program staff does in each of their respective regions -- Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia and the Pacific Islands -- and I've met some international LGBT activists in passing. But this time was different.
On Thursday, December 8th, I sat down in the completely full United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) chamber, shoulder-to-shoulder with representatives from UN member states, grassroots LGBT activists and representatives from LGBT-supportive NGOs from around the world. We had all gathered for the fifth annual LGBT Commemoration of Human Rights Day at the UN. The panel discussion, organized by my colleagues at IGLHRC and our partners at Human Rights Watch along with representatives from a coalition of UN Member States supportive of LGBT rights, opened my eyes to the human side of the work I have mostly understood in a technical sense for the past six months.
Sitting before me was a panel of human rights defenders from Lebanon, Nigeria, Thailand, and the United States, who were joined by representatives from UNESCO and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the issue: "Stop Bullying: Ending violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity."
It was amazing to hear from high level officials from the United Nations who are doing meaningful work to promote and defend LGBT Human Rights, and to hear the letter of support for LGBT human rights from the Secretary General of the UN himself -- words I had never imagined hearing at the United Nations. Yet, it is the connections I made with the human rights defenders themselves that left the biggest impact on me.
When I met Judy Shepard in the hallway outside the event I found out it wasn't only my first visit to the UN, but it was hers, too. I thanked her for being present on the panel and for all of the work she has done in the past 13 years since her son Matthew's brutal murder. I asked her for more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation and she took the purple "erase hate" bracelet from her wrist and handed it to me so I wouldn't forget the website. It's pretty easy to remember, www.MatthewShepard.org, but I'll cherish this bracelet forever.
I didn't get to spend much time with our panelist from Lebanon, Nadine Moawad, but she still got me thinking. Nadine is a coordinator with the Coalition for Bodily and Sexual Rights in Muslim Societies. During her presentation on the panel and in subsequent answers to questions from the audience, Nadine stressed the intersectionality of identities which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims must take in to account. The sexual orientation and gender, gender and religion, religion and nationality, all intersect with each other to make up the fabric of our being. Nadine has left me pondering the way the individual facets of my own identity relate to each other and how these intersections influence the activism I do.
When I met Doi Nakpor, a transgender activist from Thailand, for the first time -- the night before the event -- she was exhausted from a 20-hour plane ride and nervous about her first presentation in front of the United Nations. But somehow, she was still full of cheer and excitement about her first visit to New York. The next day, in the few hours between the panel event and our evening reception, Doi and I spent time together preparing for a radio interview she was about to have. Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the United Nations Millennium Plaza Hotel, I asked Doi the questions I hoped the host of the show would ask. Together, we took notes on the questions and I tried my best to console her nerves, reassuring her that her English is just fine. To both of our relief, the interview went really well.
Later Thursday evening, we giggled as I mimicked the grimace Doi had on her face while she daringly tried a slice of baguette topped with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes. She taught me the English translation for "khatoey," the word used to describe transgender people in Thai, is "ladyboy." Khatoey is used for both trans women and gay men. We spent the rest of the evening practicing my pronunciation of khatoey. The next day on Facebook Doi declared our friendship as the Kathoey Thai-New York Alliance Network. In those two short days, I became friends with an activist who shared a part of her work with me in a way I could only understand by being in her presence.
I first met Ifeanyi Orazulike, a Nigerian LGBT activist, in September and got to know him over the past four months through his work with IGLHRC while he completed the Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia University. Having the opportunity to get to know Ifeanyi has given me a concrete perspective of the impact the proposed anti-gay legislation is having in Nigeria. In our discussions prior to his panel presentation, which he then shared with the audience, Ifeanyi told me he has received death threats to himself and his son.
Before I met Ifeanyi, I would have been saddened and disturbed to hear that one person would threaten to take another's life for defending their right to simply be themselves. I didn't have any real connection or gateway to truly understand the realities of life in Nigeria. Now that I have a personal connection with Ifeanyi, someone who has received these death threats directly, I'm downright angry. I would be absolutely devastated if anything were to happen to him.
Personally feeling the impact of the anti-gay legislation being passed around in Nigeria through my friendship with Ifeanyi makes this work so much more real for me. As a white guy who has lived in gay-affirming places like Bellingham and New York City, I have never had to (and might not ever have to) balance my personal safety with the expression of my sexual orientation. It's important for us all to have an occasional reality check on our privileges as a true reminder of what's at stake in the activist work we are doing.
My experiences last week changed the way I understand the International Human Rights framework and have caused me to reflect on my own activism at home. For a period of time, I was feeling unsure of the impact I am able to have as a New York-based member of a network of international human rights defenders. The real conversations I had with Doi, Ifeanyi, and others on Thursday; being in the ECOSOC Chamber, a room where many important human rights discussions occur; and getting a hug, a handshake, or a smile from someone who is risking it all to improve the situation for LGBT people in their community, has fundamentally changed the way I understand IGLHRC's work, our partners' work, and the important work of the United Nations.
We are all a part of a diverse family. Each of us makes a contribution that keeps our family alive. Thursday's panel discussion and the people I met renewed my commitment to continue living, learning, and growing in this diverse family filled with love, fierceness and the strength to make positive change. This week confirmed for me that the field of International Human Rights, while sometimes hard to understand, is the right place for me, right now.
A video archive of the panel discussion is available on the UN's website, by visiting: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/12/stop-bullying-ending-violence-and-discrimination-based-on-sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity.html
For a tweet-by-tweet replay of some notable quotes I took down during the event, visit @IGLHRC on Twitter. Continue the discussion about this event and bullying in general by using hashtag #StopBullying