Last week I spent 5 days in the city of Mannheim, Germany, for a twin-city exchange on LGBT+ issues, accompanied by Network member Daf. Mannheim invited representatives from LGBT+ organisations from all of its twin cities to apply for a place at the event, and Swansea University’s LGBT+ Staff Network was offered 2 places on behalf of the city of Swansea. The other organisations and twin cities represented were LISTAG (Families and Friends of LGBTIs in Turkey) from Istanbul (Turkey), GENDERDOC-M Information Centre from Chisinau (Moldova), Haifa Rainbow Association from Haifa (Israel), and Community House from Haifa (Israel).

From left: Metehan (Istanbul), Anfonso (Germany), Arnon (Haifa), Slavi (Chisinau), Anastasia (Chisinau), Cath (Swansea), Daf (Swansea), Yoav (Israel).

On Thursday 10th August, I participated in the city’s Rainbow Reception event, which was the official city reception for all LGBT+ activists to celebrate Pride Weekend. The event was opened by the Major of Mannehim, Dr Ulrike Freundlieb, and was followed by a 40-minute interview with the twin city representatives. In the interview, I spoke about LGBT+ equality in the UK, including the Equality Act 2010 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. When asked if the fight for LGBT+ equality is over now that legal equality has been granted, I spoke about the importance of continued activism, particularly focusing on trans issues and intersectionality where significant barriers still remain, as well as the importance of being active allies to those in the community. Allyship is not just for those who are straight and cis, it is also for those of us within LGBT+ communities who have relative positions of privilege that we can use to affect positive change.

Afterwards we met the Mayor and the Twin City Commissioner Dr Ludovic Roy, and spoke with some press representatives about our organisations and LGBT+ activism work. Read more about the Rainbow Reception event on the official Mannheim website.

Far left: Dr Ulrike Freundlieb; far right: Dr Ludovic Roy.

On Friday 11th August, all twin city representatives met with various LGBT+ organisations and activists from Mannheim to share best practice and discuss ideas for how the twin cities could work together to advance LGBT+ equality in Europe. We talked about the situations in our own countries, the work we do, and ways to work together – suggestions that we’ve taken away include setting up a shared resource website, a Twin City LGBT+ Equality Network, and joint events including film festivals and Pride visits (watch this space!).

The aspect of the workshop that had the most value for me was hearing the other delegates talk about their experiences in their countries – e.g. in Turkey, the question Metehan hears the most from people who come to his LGBT center for help is “can you please cure my son/daughter?” and if he answers “no”, they will just go to a Doctor who will claim they can cure their child. In Moldova, Anastasia and Slavi’s organisation GENDERDOC-M is the only LGBT+ organisation in the whole country, and are entirely funded by European grants and donations – they receive zero government support, and in fact, Anastasia later told me that the reason she got into LGBT+ activism is because she received first-hand police discrimination for being queer where she was detained against her will by the police and had her ID confiscated. This served as a reminder to me not only of how far we’ve come in the UK, but also that there are still enormous barriers for LGBT+ people on our doorstep in Europe. But what was inspiring was the activists’ determination and courage to keep campaigning for equality despite discrimination, prejudice, and burnout.

 

On the Saturday, the twin city delegates were the guests of honour at the Mannheim Pride Parade – after being welcomed in the opening speeches, all twin city reps were invited to cut the ribbon and begin the parade, and then we marched at the very front through the city centre. The march had such a fun, uplifting vibe full of floats and lavish costumes and loud music, and the city was filled with members of the public taking photos and cheering us along the 1.5-hour parade route. The march ended at a street party in the Mannheim Palace grounds containing 70,000 visitors over the course of the day, where the university had a table – we made sure to promote our upcoming LGBTQ Inclusivity Conference there too!

Later in the afternoon a minute’s silence was held at the party in commemoration of the victims of homophobic violence in Chechnya, and the twin city reps were invited to read out the English translations of the German words of commemoration. A little while later, we were all invited back on stage to be interviewed about our LGBT+ activism work for the Pride audience.

One of the main things I learned from this visit was how much I overestimate perceived barriers to equality. It was fascinating to speak to people from other countries where human rights violations and discrimination against LGBT+ people is routine, or where their culture is so closely linked with religion in which many followers have deeply-entrenched resistance to LGBT+ rights. In the UK sometimes we perceive religion to be such an enormous barrier, when in fact we’re fortunate to live in such a pluralist and tolerant society by comparison to others in Europe. The experience has helped me see my own work through new eyes.

It was an incredible experience, and I’m honoured and grateful for the opportunity to have met so many inspiring LGBT+ activists from other nations and share our stories and ideas. The visit has inspired me to keep working towards LGBT+ equality in our own community, and to use our relative privilege here in the UK to support those who are still fighting for their civil rights in Europe and beyond. We’ve achieved a lot in the UK in regards to LGBT+ equality but there is always more that can be done.

Cath Elms
LGBT+ Staff Network co-chair, Equality Advisor

August 25th, 2017

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Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule/Desert Hearts dir. Donna Deitch.

Desert of the Heart is a classic novel by Jane Rule which explores the lives of women in America in the 1960ss. Set against the backdrop of the Nevada Desert and exploring life in the 1950s when women’s lives were very much restricted, it explores the relationship between an English Professor and a young woman living on a ranch in Reno, and provides an explicit account of emergent lesbian love and its challenges. Rule evokes a vivid and detailed world in which the attraction between two women, as problematic as it is, signifies life, energy, and vitality.

The 1985 film inspired by the book, Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch, is as transgressive and thought provoking as the book, but for different reasons. It is the first lesbian film of its type which presents both the angst of lesbian life and love and a potential happy ending, unlike its predecessors such as The Killing of Sister George and The Children’s Hour. It was also the very first lesbian film I ever saw.

I was 19 years old, at my first ever ‘grown-up’ lesbian party, in a house actually owned by a lesbian couple. Everything was new. I knew nothing of how gay people could live together, and had come to my awareness of my sexuality in my own ‘desert of the heart’ with no idea of what it meant to be attracted to my own sex. I remember the room was full of women, of various ages, styles and sizes, and I was on a date with a woman I had been attracted to for months. I settled down in front of the sofa, on the floor, to watch the film, which everyone else had seen many times, and it was only during the hotel room scene that I realised they were all watching me, and my reactions, rather than the film!

The film and book are radically different in many ways, and in particular, the relationship between Cay/Ann and the stepmother Frances differs strongly. However, the narratives resonate powerfully for me and for many people I have talked to because of the issue of the close relationship between a mother and her daughter/stepdaughter and the issues with that daughter developing a close bond with another woman. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of women’s intimate and close relationships and for this reason the book is very much on my recommended reading list for friends and the film remains one of my favourites. The book in particular speaks strongly to me of the tension between family and romantic love, and in particular, the loss that many LGBT+ people have faced, having to choose between their family and their identity, when family cannot accept their gender or sexuality. To lose the support and love of your birth family is tragic, but for many it is simply a fact of their life.

In the wider context of LGBT+ history, both the book and the film are products of their time, but still relevant now. Many women did not (and still do not) identify an attraction to women until later in their lives, often after marrying and having children. This may indeed be the same for people of all genders, and it makes me reflect on the ways in which we are ‘channelled’ towards certain expectations and choices in life. Our collective history certainly shows that regardless of the social, political and legal conditions in which our lives take place, we still fight for the freedom to live and love honestly and without oppression. This is more apparent than ever in today’s changing global and political landscape. The value of works such as these lies in their ability to ground us both in the past and in the reaffirmation of our commitment to a better future, for all.

February 8th, 2017

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