Two weeks ago I sat in a room in Sri Lanka crying. I wasn’t alone: I was with 30 other people sharing our reflections from an emotionally exhausting week.
While the crying might not be too unusual, it was a first for me as a facilitator to be struck so intensely by the words of others. Usually, I’m able to hold it together – especially as I’m often the person holding the room together.
But this time was different: we were all broken by what the past days had meant.
In Colombo, young activists from across the Commonwealth – the quirky collection of countries that were previously part of the British Empire – gathered for a week of campaign training. What should have been a training on gender, sex and campaigning turning into something very different: it was an outpouring of grief, liberation and freedom.
Most of the participants came from countries where it is illegal to be gay; where the notion of being transgender is unacceptable; where misconceptions and the mistreatment of those who are intersex prevail. From places like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji, if you are LGBTQI, you suffer systemic abuse, violence, discrimination and harassment.
In Sri Lanka, we created something deeply moving.
For the first time in their lives, many of these young people found a space where they could be honest about who they were, tell their stories and share their experiences.
They spoke openly of their sexuality – having never told anyone before.
They spoke of abuse – having felt that they were the only ones to have experienced this.
They spoke of fear – living a life in the shadows with the threat of exposure and attack.
For them, it was liberating.
Freed, even if temporarily, from the often-harrowing daily lives they lead.
For six days, we removed the fear in their lives and gave them an opportunity to be themselves. We enabled moments of freedom – relaxing with the opposite or same-sex, dancing to Shania Twain, or sharing their innermost hopes and fears.
These are moments they may never get again.
I thought I knew the situation before I arrived. I knew the numbers, the laws and the history. But none of this prepared me for this week. Their stories were haunting and I was unprepared for my own emotional reaction to their lives. For days after my return I was in a haze; while my body was in London, my head and heart were stuck in Sri Lanka.
What struck me most was the violence. The continual threat, fear and (forced) acceptance of violence as something prevalent in their lives. Whether from the state, their partners, families or the mob, too many lived lives where violence lingered constantly. And when it arrived, that violence was ferocious.
In that final session, we cried because the thought of going home was overwhelming.
Once again, these young people would shroud themselves with secrecy. They would need to hide again. The fear would return.
This was why I was crying.
But, I hope, one thing will stick with them: they will no longer be hiding from themselves. They will have experienced a freedom – even if simply speaking out loud about their sexuality, their lovers or their dreams. No one can take this away from them.
Throughout the week, I grappled with the idea that I was somehow an ‘inspiration’. While struggles remain, the LGBTQI community lead privileged lives in the UK. I live with my boyfriend, without fear of violence and abuse, I’m out to everyone and enjoy full, legal equality. This is the inspiration, not me.
We are a hope: a hope that life can get better, that the world can be tolerant and accepting, that #lovealwayswins – at least in the end.
I was inspired by them, by their determination for a better world and for their bravery.
It reaffirmed my commitment to LGBTQI activism. How can we help?
Live openly, freely and proudly.
Donate money to international campaigns – like All Out.
Remember that the struggle isn’t over.
Ps. I’m also tempted by setting up some kind of LGBTQI funding circle to directly support movements and organisations around the world. If you’re interested, get in touch.
The photo is a screen shot of ILGA’s maps of sexual orientation laws around the world in 2017. Red = criminalisation. Yellow = protections. Green = recognition. 72 states criminalise homosexuality – 8 of which use the death penalty.