Report on Changing Faces Changing Spaces Conference

Report on Changing Faces Changing Spaces Conference
By Allan Muhaari

My name is Muhaari and I live and work in Kenya. For many years I have worked in the public health arena - first as a HIV counselor, then as a community sensitization and mobilization head in one of the bio-medical research institutes in Kenya.  I have also worked as a research officer and a trainer.  Over the years my titles have changed, but what has remained constant is that I am an east African queer activist, passionate about social justice and sexual health rights of sexual minorities. I am currently unemployed but that has not stopped me from sharing my skills with others and engaging fully in activism and movement building in east Africa.

I recently attended the 3rd Changing Faces Changing Spaces conference and will try and share my thoughts on the event. This is not an attempt to write a report or summarize the conference proceedings in any way as I had no such role; this are my thoughts and perspectives as an activist that I would love to share with the MSMGF community. I am writing on my own behalf and hope to share my learning and experiences at CFCS3.

I did not attend the first two conferences, and I was therefore quite excited to attend one of the pre-conferences that looked to evaluate the objectives set in the second CFCS.  It was quite clear that though some changes had taken place, the challenges were overwhelming.  Some of the notable changes were the positive trends in media reporting from some Kenyan media houses, especially when reporting on sex work.  It was reported that dialogue had opened up within the last 18 months and commitment was starting to change somehow.  This was a clear sign that some of the strategies had worked to some extent.  We also heard reports of a successful Arts theatre festival organized by LGBTI organizations from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, as well as good news from the decriminalization process that is ongoing in Kenya, spear headed by the Kenyan Gay and Lesbian coalition (GALCK). 

This is not to say that all the objectives set in CFCS2 were fully achieved; there were notable challenges - especially due to lack of friendly health service provision, except by a few health care providers in some major cities with research agendas. However, these research-biased service providers, though friendly, were seen to focus only on the HIV negative persons, leaving out a majority of people who were not participating in their research but in dire need of health care. 

The third CFCS conference was one of its kind.  It brought together all stakeholders, donors, activists, allies and representatives from the LBGTI community.  Gone are the days that others would be the experts in articulating issues that affect the LBTI community, the conference allowed everyone to articulate their issues in their own words.

The sex worker community had representation unlike in other east African gatherings that I have attended in the past.  They questioned the current ‘Hype about alternative lifestyle AKA reforming AKA economic empowerment AKA exit programmes.’  For those of you not in the know, most NGOs are targeting sex workers with their reforming programs and sex workers were loud and clear about it: “We are not interested in any alternative lifestyle.”  One sex worker explained that “Sex work is work, and sex workers are workers.”  Another was appalled at the thought of giving free sex and selling groceries as proposed by the so called sex worker economic empowerment strategies; she posed, “Has it crossed your mind, that sex workers may want to sell sex and give out tomatoes for free?” Male sex workers were loud and clear that they are not victims they are laborers.  What this meant to me was the uselessness of not engaging the concerned communities and the futility of making decisions for others albeit in good faith.

One of the more interesting and exciting sessions was when Identity politics were at play - not a bad thing because this was discussed in the African context, a very rare occurrence indeed. Transgender activists wondered why the LGBTI community included them in the abbreviations but excluded them in most of their activities and programmes.  They questioned why there was a need for placing categories on people, and clearly pointed out that “categories are complex, they are not neat.” While most people try to fix categories, they are content and historic specific, they are fluid and flexible. Most of the speakers urged the need for The LGB community to open their minds to transgender identities and the difficulties of “putting ourselves in boxes.”  The discussion was healthy and enlightening.  What was clear is that people have their own identities regardless of what they have between their legs and this should not be compromised nor sacrificed on the altar of certain groups.  All movements cannot serve everyone and they are not to be shoved down people’s throats. 

I realized from this conference that the process of appreciating each other’s struggles had begun and the importance of having allies and friends instead of patrons or saviors or liberators.

Feminism theories were discussed at length and a question posed, are gay men part of the feminist movement? If not, should they be included in the struggle? The answer was a resounding “Yes!” - because feminists are against patriarchy and patriarchy revolves around body politics and control. The violence seen in some gay relationships revolves around gendered roles that are structured around the patriarchal system. There was a discussion around certain feminists not accepting sex workers because of their belief that sex work is a form of violence, but a majority of speakers could identify parallels in the LGBTI movement and the need to fight all forms of oppression, including violence within same sex relationships. As we demand freedom it is also important that we give/share it with the people in/within our movement. If we can name something that oppresses us, then we should be accountable to the people we claim to represent.

It is difficult to sum up all I got from the conference but what was quite clear is that the space is changing, our position in East Africa at present is difficult but not impossible. The faces too are changing. For the first time I participated in a conference where donors had an opportunity to interact with the conference participants to explain their values, sit back and gracefully accept criticism and praise, but also “court” new alliances and network with those who need funding most whilst accepting the myriad of challenges facing the east African LGBTI community. I had an opportunity to participate in defining moments where a people that has been marginalized for long are finally speaking out and demanding for their rights, not special rights but inherent human rights deserved by all. Below I share a poem by one of the conference participants that nicely summarized the session on identities.

I am me
By Jacqueline Asiimwe- Mwesige
04-05-2011

I am me and this is how I want to be
Not necessarily one of the letters of the alphabet,
Plus, there are 26 letters in the English Alphabet
So why LGBTIQH
How about ACD or E?
I am me,
And that is how I want you to see me,
So it doesn’t matter that I am many things
They are all still me
I am me
I love the complexity and the simplicity
Because I am both simple and complex
But all said and done,
I am still me,
So let me be me,
And take me as me,
I AM ME
I love the potency and the power of that two letter word- ME
So I ask you,
Say with me as loud as you can
I AM ME

[Originally posted on the MSMGF Discussion Forum on May 25, 2011]