— by Cicely-Belle Blain, www.qmunity.ca, NOVEMBER 4, 2016
A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the whirlwind experience of being involved in formulating the Queer Declaration, a document aimed at encouraging the United Nations to include LGBTQ/2S-friendly language in the New Urban Agenda at the United Nations Habitat 3 conference. The document was endorsed by many local supporters and eventually garnered international attention, prompting the official Canadian Delegation to the Habitat 3 conference to support and adopt it, mirroring Canada’s history of progressive LGBTQ/2S* inclusion.
The best part about all of this for me? I got to go to Quito, Ecuador to lobby for the Queer Declaration and advocate for the safety, well-being and happiness of queer and trans youth in cities. The theme of the conference was No One Left Behind, and so I made sure this statement extended to LGBTQ/2S communities. I’m now sitting in Houston airport after the first leg of my twenty-one hour journey home to Vancouver and I’m excited to reflect on my experience.
Quito, 2,500 metres above sea level, took my breath away… literally. With the help of altitude acclimatization medication, I quickly became accustomed to the reduced oxygen levels, which was fortunate because I needed every breath I had to make space for LGBTQ/2S voices in a conference of 50,000 attendees.
Caption: the city of Quito
The Habitat 3 conference was preceded by YouthHAB, a youth-led and -oriented mini conference to engage local Ecuadorian youth as well as international guests in the conceptualization of the New Urban Agenda. Along with Ellen Woodsworth (the mastermind behind the Queer Declaration), Joy Masuhara (one of the advocates in the successful battle for same-sex marriage in Canada 10 years ago) and Danilo Manzano (a local Ecuadorian LGBTQ activist), I presented at an event entitled “LGBTI* and Cities: A Youth Declaration for Habitat lll”. We each shared our personal experiences as queer people and reflected on how the work we are doing represents small steps towards safety and inclusion of LGBTQ/2S communities in urban environments.
Caption: the presenters at YouthHAB; Danilo Manzano, our translator Andrea and a friend, Joy Masuhara, Cicely-Belle Blain, Ellen Woodsworth and Andrew Robert Martin of SCARP UBC.
Representing Canada on an international stage presented challenges I hadn’t prepared for. It was a complicated experience to present Canada as wholly progressive and inclusive because I wanted to steer away from the narrative of ‘perfect and peaceful’ Canada and recognize the ongoing discrimination, violence and settler colonialism that still occurs within our borders. I wanted to explain the nuances of living as a queer, Black, non-binary person in this country, especially considering the lack of PoC, queer and Indigenous representation within the delegation chosen to represent Canada in Quito. However, it was still important to recognize the privileges that I experience, especially in comparison to countries where homosexuality is still criminalized and punishable by life imprisonment and even death. From this lens, Canada stands out as beacon of safety for LGBTQ/2S folks so juggling this dynamic was complicated.
Caption: Canadian delegation memorabilia and some members of the 163-delegate strong Canadian team.
Ultimately, I was really proud to share the work that QMUNITY does and particularly our Youth Program. I felt excited that I was able to use our organization as an example of community work done well and provide testimonies from clients and community members who have been impacted by the work that we do. It was great to see many people feel inspired by our organization and ask for advice on providing similar resources to youth in their cities. I practically ran out of business cards!
I reminded people that no country is perfect, and still many LGBTQ/2S communities within Canada, especially youth, people of colour and trans folks, are isolated and at risk. However, it was an important responsibility to share with Ecuadorian youth, and later with UN officials and foreign ministers, some of the ways in which cities can strive to be more inclusive and accessible.
The following day was filled with further excitement. I was invited by the United Nations Association of Canada to meet the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Head of the Canadian Delegation and the Minister for Children, Youth and Social Development and Marianick Tremblay, the Canadian Ambassador to Ecuador at the Canadian Embassy. The youth of the Canadian Delegation had an opportunity to share their thoughts on how the Canadian government can better address the needs and opinions of young people.
Caption: the youth delegation after a round table with Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Marianick Tremblay, the Canadian Ambassador in Quito.
I took this opportunity to share the Queer Declaration with the Minister and the group. I was excited to hear that the Minister and his committee, on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had advocated for LGBTQ/2S inclusive language within the United Nations in the lead up to this conference. Other countries such as the USA and Mexico as well as the European Union had also shown support but unfortunately, several countries with notoriously homophobic policies had shut down the idea in favour of “family values”. The rhetoric that queer and trans inclusions means an undoing of families is sad and completely unfounded, but unfortunately very prevalent, I learned. Seventeen countries including Belarus, Russia, Nigeria and Qatar were fierce opponents of our Queer Declaration and argued that the UN needed to support “mainstream” families.
In order for an amendment or declaration to be agreed upon within the United Nations, there must be no objections to the proposal, Jaques Paquette, Deputy Minister to Jean-Yves Duclos told me. However, on Tuesday, my trip culminated with an incredible event led by the Canadian minister and the head of the United States delegation, Julian Castro. Local Ecuadorian activists Danilo Manzano and Sandra Alvarez Monsalve presented very moving and personal experiences:
Danilo brought many audience members to tears as he said, “every day I dream of being a dad, but I can’t, because in Ecuador, gay people can’t marry or have children”.
Caption: Cicely-Belle with Minister Jean-Yves Duclos after he proclaimed his support for the LGBTQ community and the panel at the Urban Stage: the Ministers from Canada, USA and Mexico, two Ecuadorian LGBTQ/2S activists and the Mayor of Oakland, California.
The experience had many challenges: the altitude, the 50,000 conference attendees (not fun for someone who has anxiety and hates lining up), the scorching sun followed by torrential rain and juggling the responsibilities of promoting the Queer Declaration within a huge global bureaucratic system. While we were not able to change the wording of the New Urban Agenda, we did manage to convince many government officials that the term “inclusion” should explicitly and eternally support and care for LGBTQ/2S communities. Many of them took this message to heart.
We were able to provide tangible solutions to the ongoing problems of discrimination and isolation of queer and trans communities such as creating specific and well-supported spaces for LGBTQ/2S youth to socialize and get support, having accessible gender-neutral washrooms in publics spaces, putting effort and funding into the sexual, mental and physical health of these people and unashamedly celebrating these communities as government officials (like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marching in pride parades across Canada). The United Nations is now moving towards urging all countries to decriminalize homosexuality.
Habitat 4 will take place 20 years from now, and I am confident that by then, queer and trans youth in cities across the world will have access to a ‘Q’munity.
I would like to thank Douglas Ragan and the Urban Economy Branch of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme for making it possible for to me to make QMUNITY’s work international. With their support I was able to go to Quito and they were instrumental in giving me a platform to promote the Queer Declaration by arranging for me to speak at several events. I am also grateful to Ellen Woodsworth for her passion and determination to see the Queer Declaration through. Finally, I am thankful to my friend Urooba Jamal for hosting me and beautifully summarizing the events through her work as a journalist for teleSUR English. To QMUNITY, I am always grateful and fortunate to be doing this work with you.
*LGBTQ/2S is the language used by QMUNITY to reflect the diversity of our community and be inclusive of Two-Spirit communities, a term specific to Indigenous people of Turtle Island. LGBTI is the official language the United Nations uses, hence the disparity in this blog post.