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Rhodes LGBTQ Forum 2017: Over the rainbow? LGBTQ in our Changing World

Wednesday 29 March, 2017

by Rhodes LGBTQ Commitee

Rainbow Colours

Collection of thoughts from the Forum

Session 1: ORIGINS - Victorian England, Rhodes & Africa

While the queer community likes to emphasise the “naturalness” of homosexuality, historian Paul Maylam opened the Rhodes LGBTQ forum by tracing the remarkably recent ‘invention’ of homosexuality by imperial Britain. The criminalisation of all male homosexual acts in 1885 created a social reality around something that had beforehand existed only in the shadows. Professor Maylam also confronted us with a troubling paradox around the founder himself. The tender story of Cecil Rhodes’ enduring love for Neville Pickering, set against the brutality of Rhodes’ imperialism, speaks to the ability of queer love to coexist with deep cruelty.

Naomi Wolf, the acclaimed author and feminist, also used a gay love story to emphasise how the “LGBTQ” emerged as a political response to oppression. In Victorian England, she argues, homosexuality was something that all men might sometimes “do”. The contemporary conflation of homosexuality with innate identity, again a political choice, delimits and restricts who has access to, and how we think about, queerness. If sexuality is constructed, then it can necessarily be reconstructed.

Both Maylam and Wolf deftly used history to mount social constructionist critiques of contemporary queer politics. We were reminded of social theorist Bruno Latour, who reminds us that though our social worlds may be entirely of our own making, that doesn’t make them any less real.

Session 3: ACTION - Colonialism & Activism

Salvation comes from the margins
Safe spaces

Perhaps what was most striking was how all 3 panelists were connected. Being forced to deny who you are because those spaces exclude an essential part of who you are. Whether this means that the state has legislated that your sexual identity is criminal and they will no longer protect you to something as intimate as religious spaces where you should find comfort.

Moderating a discussion on post-colonial spaces and sexual identity with Dr Frank Mugisha, Moud Goba and Bishop Gene Robinson brought to light the pain of exclusion in spaces you should find safety in. Gene Robinson had based his faith in the knowledge that as children of God these spaces should protect all of us and that was the role of the of Christian allies.

Western Allyship

Perhaps most striking is how the world needs to reconfigure what is meant by ‘progress’ and how this is so often attributed to the Western world. Moud’s journey of asylum from Zimbabwe was littered with authority figures demanding she prove her identity and her right to be in a space where she could be herself cannot be considered progress. The case of SMUG v Lively with Frank at its helm, is an example of African LGBTQ+ grabbing back. What these stories told us was real allyship was more than just creating safe spaces; it also required allies to seriously question how to manifest that allyship in ways that took real-world context of those affected into account.

Session 5: FRONTIERS - On the frontline of the future

Speaker: Doug Hallward-Driemeier

Doug is known as one of the lawyers who argued before the Supreme Court of the United States and made marriage equality the law of the United States. Naturally, we expected a speech about the law and civil rights. However, Doug’s talk at the Forum started off personally – he talked about his church, his friends and his days from Oxford and beyond, which all shaped his view of the world and of LGBTQ rights.

What particularly struck us were his commitment to the idea of marriage and that this tradition can be and has been re-appropriated as an institution of equality at least in the eyes of law. Indeed, we were told that this shaped his very own marriage, as he recounted his family’s decision to adopt hyphenated surnames instead of having his wife use the married name. Such continuity between his political views and his personal life was truly a demonstration of his commitment to these values.

Strategically speaking, Doug’s belief in the link between tradition and progress also sat well with the need to sway a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. However, to the more cautious ones in the audience, the focus on marriage has its limits in bringing about true equality for LGBTQ people, and many were worried about even the future of marriage equality in the United States.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s ruling was a pivotal moment for many LGBTQ people around the world. In this brief session, Doug has not only shown himself to be sincere and personally dedicated to the cause, but also strategic and effective. We will only need more and more of such passion and skills as LGBTQ communities continue their struggles around the world.

An Ally's Reflection

Justice Edwin Cameron, in convening the Forum, stated that we were in the room not because we were the same, but because peoples’ hatred attempts to make us the same. In thinking about the process of being an ally, this is my starting point. And it is certainly a process, and not a label. Just as listening, learning, and acting are all processes influenced by one another. Recognising the role that hatred plays when manifest in perceptions of someone as the ‘other’ is my starting point for being an ally because the tendencies toward othering are common. We ‘other’ those we do not know, and when we fail to seek understanding we reinforce the removal of that individual or group from our circles of grace and love.

Edwin Markham was quoted at the Forum: “He drew a circle that shut me out-- Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout / But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in” (Outwitted). Bishop Gene Robinson reminded us that salvation comes from the margins, that pursuit of progress means recognising who we have left behind because of race, sexual identity, and socioeconomic status, and that each of us has a role to play.

Upon reflecting on steps forward from the Forum, one of the greatest things to do is foster a world in which people listen more. When we listen, we learn not to take battles and victories for granted, as well as not to take them uncritically. When we listen, we understand that liberation must be intersectional in its means and its ends. When we listen, we can be inspired by those who continually fight, and acknowledge that we have much to do to draw the circles of ourselves, our culture, and our laws even larger.

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