As it’s been just over one month since I flew home “for good,” I’ve started looking back on some of the adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met over the last year and a half. I discovered this video that The United Church of Canada created from the video and interviews I did in Tamil Nadu last year, of the work of UCCan partner the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation. It’s just one example of some of the amazing work I was privileged to witness along my journey. Take a look!
Four days after I wrote a post about why I’m doing what I’m doing (travelling around the world for 1.5 years interviewing LGBTQ activists), a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, has left 50 people dead and 53 people injured.
I know this might not be a very popular opinion, but can we please just have 24 hours to mourn without things getting political?
I don’t need to hear pro-gun arguments about how if there were more guns this wouldn’t have happened. Nor do I need pro-regulation arguments about how this wouldn’t have happened if there were restrictions on gun ownership.
I don’t need to see debates about whether or not prayer is actually useful in these situations or not.
I don’t need to hear the arguments about people only caring because it happened in the USA/the West. That’s not true. At least in the LGBTQ community, I’ve seen a higher awareness of the struggles of our LGBTQ siblings around the world than in the general population. This response is so big because of the magnitude of violence, and yes because it happened in a place that is supposed to be a safe space, in a country that (albeit only recently) grants LGBTQ people the same rights as straight people.
I don’t need to hear the bigoted arguments about this being an inherently Islamic terrorism problem or how the USA needs to ban Muslims. And I also don’t need to hear the “unapologetically Muslim” comments at the moment, about how this isn’t about Islam and no one blamed Christians for Hitler or the KKK, though I understand why people are feeling to need to defend themselves and their religion.
Let’s just talk about us today.
(And by us I mean all who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community – whatever race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc)
About how gay men in Orlando can’t give blood to their wounded brothers. About how the same is true if this happened in Canada.
About how even little inborn prejudices build a culture where these atrocities are not unbelievable. A culture where many religious people – Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, etc – believe that LGBTQ people are sinners and non-religious people just can’t stand that “ick” factor.
About how I still feel the need to disclose that a movie has “gay themes” before I suggest it for viewing among friends, when no one does that when I watch a “straight” movie.
About how we are constantly coming out, and unsure if it’s always safe, because of the heteronormative assumptions that we have partners of the opposite sex, or identify as the gender you perceive us to be, or identify with a gender at all.
About how this is just the horrific peak of violence that too many LGBTQ people experience daily around the world.
About how many LGBTQ people around the world are mourning alone, afraid of outing themselves to a hostile environment.
And worst of all is the knowledge that there are many people celebrating this atrocity, or at least excusing it. In our own countries and those around the world.
Please, for just one day. For just 24 hours, let this be about us. About homophobia. About hatred because of who we love.
Let our community mourn. Let us mourn the loss of lives, the loss of innocence, the loss of a general feeling of safety among our “safe spaces.”
Yes, it may take this tragedy to “wake people up” to the horrors and effects of guns, homophobia, ignorance, and apathy. But let’s talk about that tomorrow.
Just give us a day. A day of rest on this Sunday. You can restart the political mudslinging tomorrow.
Often when I meet people in the course of my travels and tell them about the work I am doing, they ask me why. Even people in my “home” life ask me why I make LGBT rights such a big issue. Surely there are more important things, they say. Surely being gay myself is not an integral part of my identity – I’m much more than that, so why do I need to tell people? I can pretend to be straight, can’t I?
Five and a half weeks ago, on 25 April 2016, Xulhaz Mannan, a Bangladeshi LGBT activist I interviewed last year, was hacked to death along with fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy. Since then, here are just some other things that have happened in the world of LGBT news:
28 April – Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila banned from playing in Amman, Jordan, because of their music’s themes of gender equality, tolerance, and LGBT rights. Source: Gino’s Blog
29 April – In Egypt, eleven men jailed for up to 12 years for being gay. Source: Pink News
1 May – Woman who travels to all 50 US states in “Fagbug” to promote LGBT pride is attacked. Source: Pink News
2 May – Arson attack on Canada’s only sex reassignment surgery. Source: Rabble
3 May: Bahamian MP suggests exiling trans people to an island. (Week later, says he was joking). Source: Tribune 242
4 May – Trans woman verbally attacked on NYC subway for riding while trans. Source: Mic
10 May – A Chinese trans man vows to keep fighting for equality. Source: BBC News
24 May – Six men taken to court in Nigeria for committing homosexual acts. Source: 76 Crimes
24 May: Jamaican gay couple reportedly killed. Source: 76 Crimes
2 June – A gay couple in Morocco jailed for having sex in a car. Source: The Independent
4 June – A 17-year-old girl is sent to a “pray away the gay” camp in Texas against her will. Source: Go Fund Me
And all over the world, LGBT people who didn’t make the news came out and were rejected, disowned, kicked out of their homes, forced into opposite sex marriage, beaten up, and killed.
This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Last year around this time, I interviewed LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan in his apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Less than a year later, on 25 April 2016, Mannan and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy were hacked to death by assailants who broke into that same apartment.
When I woke up that morning in my cozy bed in Santiago, Chile, hosted by a lovely gay couple, I saw the news on my BBC app – all it said was “LGBT activist hacked to death in Bangladesh” and I immediately felt sick to my stomach. Was it someone I interviewed? What happened? How was the rest of the community feeling and dealing with it?
Later that night, I found out it was Xulhaz. My heart sank. I emailed the two other activists I’d interviewed with him that day last year, as well as a few others, to express my condolences and ask if there was anything I can do.
But there’s not much I can do, at least not much concrete. It just saddens and angers and horrifies me that there are people who do this – especially people who profess to do this for their God.
I had nightmares for days afterwards, and felt guilty about that because how was I really, personally, affected? I was safe and sound in South America, not a death threat in sight. If I was having nightmares, what were the people in the LGBT community in Bangladesh experiencing?
In the end, I wrote an article for Daily Xtra using some of the words from those in the community who feel forced to go underground. I suppose, one of the ways we can fight this hatred and horror is through our words.
Last week, I finished my second week of Spanish classes – this week at La escuela de la montaña, about an hour or so outside Xela, Guatemala (the first week was a couple of months ago at the Escuela’s sister school in Xela, PLQ). Our last day of classes, we each graduate and give a short presentation that details what we’ve learned. So this was my presentation to show off my knowledge of the two past tenses! (And of course, dogs simply had to feature)
So let’s begin:
Esta semana, yo aprendí los tiempos pasados. Entonces, aquí esta una historia de esta escuela para utilizar estos tiempos.
¡Hola! Nosotros somos los perros de la escuela de la montaña.
Yo soy Coyote y ayer yo tuve un buen día, con la dignidad y el orgullo.
Y yo soy Hachi! Yo tuve un buen día también!
En la mañana, nosotros caminábamos con nuestros humanos y las otras personas que estudiaban en la escuela.
Yo caminaba y corría mucho durante el día porque yo soy joven y un poco loco.
Y porque yo no soy muy joven, yo miraba los pájaros y escuchaba los carros en la calle durante la mañana.
Y claro, yo vigilaba durante el día contra los personas extrañas y los otros perros y quizás un pollo al azar.
Yo intentaba ignorar a Kaitlin y su camera.
Pero, nosotros agradecíamos que ella no nos puso en la ropa como estos perros.
(Photos from the San Lazaro festival in Masaya, Nicaragua on March 13)
Yo estoy muy traumatizado por los fotos, yo tuve que tener una siesta para olvidar el horror.
Entretanto, mi amiga Princesa vino en la tarde cuando Kaitlin hacía su tarea.
Ella miró que Princesa tenia dolor, y ella fue a buscar a alguno para ayudar. Yo me quede con Princesa porque yo soy un buen perro. Y yo me quede en la escuela cuando Jordan y Kaitlin caminaron a Fatima para devolver a Princesa.
¡Hey! ¡Yo conocí a Jordan ayer también!
Bueno, Hachi. Y después del drama, yo dormí.
Yo dormía ya.
Now you can get a little taste of what I’ve been doing in my contracted work with The United Church of Canada while I’ve been travelling.
Last week, I spent the days leading up to Palm Sunday in El Salvador with a delegation from The United Church of Canada that included Moderator Jordan Cantwell and her partner Laura Fouhse (who are both awesome, in my humble opinion). Yesterday, the end product of some of my work was published on UCCan’s Youtube channel, and while I of course see places where I could improve, I think it’s pretty frickin good considering I was on my own doing everything from conception of B roll, filming, directing, photos, etc.
And for my French speaking friends/fans (you know who you are), here’s the video with French subtitles:
Happy Easter everyone!!
So I don’t often get a chance to brag, but today I found out something quite fabulous, if I do say so myself. My story on gay men in Pakistan – Is Pakistan a gay man’s paradise? – was Daily Xtra‘s number one most read world story of 2015.
Pakistan is a world of contrasts: a land of fundamentalist Islam, Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and terrorist attacks, where children are gunned down going to school or accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Yet it’s also a land where secular, liberal, young adults socialize by drinking whisky and smoking weed, where you can find used lesbian erotica or buy a dildo on the black market.
It’s a pretty awesome way to set off on my next leg of this incredible journey on Saturday – LGBT rights and issues in Latin America!
In early June 2015, in what was one of the hottest temperatures I’ve ever experienced, I found myself taking a 10 hour train from the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, to Kolkata. It was the middle of a viscous heat wave that was killing thousands of people across India.
As I walked along the scorching platform in Kolkata, I saw hundreds of people lying down, listless, under what little relief the open air shelter provided. One woman in particular caught my eye – her head shaven, angry staples and stitches etched their way across her skull. Clearly she’d recently had surgery. A friend or relative beside her poured water from a plastic bottle into her open mouth.
Luckily, and I recognize the immense privilege I have in being able to do this, I only stayed one night in the oppressive heat (I’d spent a few days in Kolkata a few weeks before), and caught a flight the next day to Bagdogra, in the high altitude of Darjeeling District in West Bengal province.
Using my trusty Lonely Planet, I discovered Cochrane Place located in Kurseong, a short drive from the airport. Upon looking at their website, a notice popped out at me:
Are you an Artist/Writer/Travel Blogger/Photographer?
And it listed an email for information. After emailing them, I was invited to come stay free of charge (though I would pay for any food and services used) in exchange for taking some photos and hopefully writing a piece about them.
But really, I didn’t need any incentive to write something – Cochrane Place, and Kurseong itself, is a beautiful “refuge among the clouds” from the intense summer heat in India. While I was there, it was sometimes a bit too cloudy for the really great sweeping views the area is known for. But I didn’t mind – sometimes fog adds a bit of mystery to the adventure!
Kurseong is located at the beginning of the infamous Darjeeling railroad line (actually, it’s in the middle but at the time I was there, the first part was closed due to a landslide a few years before). If you go to this area, you need to take the train!! Even if you haven’t seen Wes Anderson’s awesome The Darjeeling Unlimited (which, honestly is one of the reasons I wanted to come here), this trip is just so quaint and beautiful and lovely. (Sidenote: don’t buy a first class ticket; it’s really just a slightly comfier seat for 10 times the price, and second class is a lot more fun. Though people will ask you a few times if you’re sure you’re in the right compartment).
Wandering around Kurseong, you’ll see some animal life, meet some lovely people, and can check out coffee plantations along the way.
I even saw some monkeys being given fruit by people and tormenting dogs.
Cochrane Place can organize tours around the area – everything from bird watching to visiting a shaman to touring monasteries. However, not all tours are available all the time, and some can be quite expensive if you’re a solo traveller.
One of the best things I did in Kurseong was have a stick massage at Cochrane Place. A stick massage may seem – at first – like a slightly benign form of torture, but it was SO amazing!
Basically, in this one hour massage, you are fully clothed (as you normally would be; you don’t have to be covered head to toe) and your masseur basically starts beating you with stick-like instruments.
Or at least that’s what it feels like at first. In reality, the masseur uses these instruments to hit different points on your body in quick succession, and it really works! While I felt at times like I was being punished for something, in the end, this is one of the best massages I’ve ever had. All my knots were worked out – and believe me, I can have some serious knots in my shoulders.
So in the end, this was a fabulous two night stay in Kurseong. On day three, I packed up my stuff and boarded the Darjeeling Express!
For more pictures of Kurseong, see my Flickr album
Having grown up Catholic, I suffer from that stereotypical illness that is Catholic Guilt Syndrome (or CGS. And the older I get, the more I realize it isn’t actually limited to Catholics).
So, the impetus for this post initially came from wanting to defend myself – both to others and to, well, myself, for travelling to Greece on what’s basically a holiday when hundreds of thousands of refugees are (sometimes literally) dying to reach these shores.
For those of you who don’t know, here’s my story: I’m a Canadian freelance writer/photographer/videographer who is currently travelling around the world for about a year and a half, reporting on various human rights and human interest stories. My main theme, though, is LGBT rights and the situation for the LGBT community in the countries I visit. (Check out the articles I’ve written so far here)
Being a lesbian myself, I naturally wanted to visit the “homeland” – the island of Lesbos (or Lesvos, or Mytilene) in Greece. Particularly the village where the famous poet Sappho was born, Skala Eressos.
Having just been in Lebanon for two weeks (visiting and learning about projects assisting Syrian refugees, among other things), and heading to Israel next week before visiting Jordan, I needed somewhere to go in between as I couldn’t fly directly (Lebanon doesn’t allow people to enter the country who have visited Israel, let alone let people travel directly to its neighbouring country, for a wide variety of reasons that are too complicated to address in this post). Deciding to forego Turkey until after the election and judging the security situation there then, Greece was one of the few viable options.
And so I found myself on the island of Lesbos, as originally envisaged so many months ago when I first set off on this journey. After landing in Mytiline, a shared taxi took me into town, passing groups of refugees walking into town with all their possessions on their back. (I did have to smile to myself as I noticed how many were wearing winter jackets in 20 degree weather; I, after worshipping fans in what was apparently “cold” weather in Lebanon, was comfortable in a t-shirt).
I walked along the coastline some more, and as I came back, the ship had docked and a hundred or so refugees were disembarking.
Tiny babies, some who looked no more than a couple of months old, were gently taken from their mothers by the coast guard men (sailors? What are they called?) so they could safely walk down the sloping plank, and then carefully lifted down to another man, who placed them back into their mothers’ arms.
The migrants and refugees (I don’t know if it was a mix of both, or just refugees or just economic migrants) were quickly loaded onto a bus, probably going to one of the makeshift camps set up near where the ferries leave for Athens.
It was a heartbreaking sight – seeing people who were so desperate to leave whatever trauma and hopelessness they’d experienced behind and risking their lives and their children’s lives to come to Europe.
LGBT Syrian refugees are among some of the worst off – they’re fleeing torture and the very real threat of being thrown from the top of buildings to their deaths by ISIS.
So in the midst of all of this, what am I doing here? I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be like these horrible people, blaming refugees for “ruining” their holiday, but still.
I did consider not going. This trip to Greece is largely a break for me after some long days in Lebanon. Am I selfish to go to a country that is in the middle of a refugee crisis? Are my actions insensitive to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees risking their lives to arrive in Greece, a country I reached via an easy flight, no questions asked about my origin?
But then I rephrased the question a bit – am I selfish to go to a country that is in the middle of a refugee crisis and still dealing with the effects of an economic disaster?
No. To have planned to go to Lesbos and cancel would help no one, besides perhaps myself by clearing my conscience and not having to face these difficult questions. Rather, by travelling as a tourist to Lesbos, I can inject some (not much, but some) money into the Greek economy. I can offer to help local Greek organizations that are doing everything they can to assist refugees in need, people arriving in shock and traumatized after everything they’ve experienced.
Organizations like The Captain’s Table in Molyvos, a restaurant and its owner that have been described as “a beacon of hope” for incoming refugees. Here’s a short video about their efforts, where the owner, Melinda McRostie says people should not feel guilty for coming to Lesbos on holiday. Imagine having no tourists – many Greek islands’ biggest source of income – she explains, along with the economic crisis and the refugee crisis.
And perhaps I can also give my friends and family a unique perspective on the refugee crisis, having interviewed Syrian refugees in Lebanon and now meeting them in Lesbos after a harrowing journey with human smugglers.
Because I still come across horrible things people say and believe, on the Internet and in person. Things like: they’re only trying to steal our benefits, or they’ll never assimilate, or they’re all just opportunistic economic migrants – and while it’s true that there are economic migrants arriving, there are also many, MANY legitimate refugees.
Some even criticize the way they look, how they’re dressed, or what they’ve brought with them. “They have a smart phone, so how downtrodden can they be?”
Yes, they do have smartphones. These are people who were often well off in their native Syria, who had good jobs or good educations. Imagine if you, living in the Western country you live in, suddenly found yourself in the middle of a violent, brutal civil war – one that has killed hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens and displaced millions more. Would you leave your phone behind – or throw it away – when you always have it with you, so that strangers in a land you hope will welcome you will think you’re more deserving?
All of these stereotypes – all of these fears that people have about “hoards of Muslims infiltrating our countries” – are completely baseless. Plus, I think it’s pretty ironic for Canadians or Americans to complain about immigration ruining “our” countries based on our history with colonization and past and present treatment of Aboriginal peoples.
Check out this short video for some fast facts about the refugee crisis:
And yet, the guilt is still there – it’s there every time I consume or do something that isn’t “necessary” – like visit a museum or drink a beer. But guilt is an unhealthy emotion – it basically stems from feeling like you’re not doing what you should be doing, or not doing enough. Or at least that’s what it is in my case.
But I can still do something – I can give a monetary donation to the volunteer groups helping newly arrived refugees and offer my own services as a volunteer for a couple of days when I arrive in Molyvos tomorrow.
And I can keep doing the work I’ve been doing – attempting to amplify the voices of people who aren’t always heard, like members of the global LGBT community and refugees from a variety of countries.
Funnily enough, I’m reading Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn and just came across this passage, which is quite relevant to today’s situation despite being set over 250 years ago:
“Despite the expense and difficult of the journey, despite the pain of parting from friends and family and homeland forever, the immigrants poured in, in hundreds and in thousands, carrying their children – those who survived the voyage – and their possessions in small, ragged bundles; fleeing poverty and hopelessness, seeking not fortune but only a small foothold on life. Only a chance.”
I think that we, in all our infinite privilege, can give them a chance. Don’t you?
“I’m writing articles about LGBT rights, and the situation for LGBT people, in the countries I visit,” I tell the British woman squeezed in beside me in the back of a grand taxi on the way from Tangiers to the small coastal town of Assilah. There are four passengers in the back seat of a normal-sized car, and two passengers in the front along with the driver.
“So are you a lesbian?” she asks me.
“Does that matter?” I retort back, perhaps slightly rudely.
She protests that of course it doesn’t matter to her, she has lots of gay friends, the other people in the car don’t speak English, etc, etc.
But the problem is, in Morocco, as in many countries, it really does matter.
As some of you know, I’ve been travelling to different parts of the world since January, meeting with and interviewing members of the local LGBT communities. I’m slowly pitching and publishing articles to various publications, such as Canada’s Daily Xtra.
I spent nearly the entire month of September in Morocco. It’s a beautiful country, one that I ended up staying in longer than anticipated because I loved it so much.
Morocco is an amazing place to travel, and relatively safe as a solo woman traveller. I’ve had incredible experiences riding a camel in the Sahara and sleeping under the stars. I’ve visited the surreally beautiful blue town of Chefchaouen, and gotten deliciously lost in the souks of Fez medina. I even celebrated Eid in a not so fantastic way when a goat with its throat slit staggered towards me and splattered blood on my feet.
It’s been quite the adventure!
But Morocco is also a country where I’m a criminal for who I’m attracted to. In Morocco, as in over 75 other countries, several of which I’ve visited or will be visiting, homosexuality is illegal.
It’s a bit ironic in that Morocco was a kind of Mecca for gay men in the 1950s.
This has been a really interesting journey for me, as it’s the first time in my life I’ve felt the need to be closeted. I’ve had some people tell me that this shouldn’t bother me, that my sexuality does not define me, and that I don’t have to go around proclaiming that I’m gay.
But the funny thing is, it’s usually straight people who tell me that. And they don’t always realize that, while it’s true I don’t need to proclaim my sexuality wherever I go, when I’m travelling in homophobic countries – where the punishment of being who I am is jail, harassment, or even death – I have to constantly deny a part of my identity.
It’s the times when fellow female travellers want to bond over the cuteness of a nearby man. Or having to constantly invent a husband in some countries to make men stop following me and talking to me (fun fact: this works really well. As soon as I mention a husband, they just leave. Usually without even saying goodbye). Or the fact that it’s really, really difficult to have any holiday romances for fear of outing myself to an unaccepting person.
Or even just the simple knowledge that a lot of the people I’m meeting, who are kind to me or invite me in for tea or give me directions, would feel very differently about me should they know this one piece of information about who I am.
That can be really difficult to live with, day to day, if you think about it too much.
But of course, that’s nothing compared to what the Moroccan LGBT community lives with.
In Morocco, I’ve spoken with about a dozen queer people, as well as a couple of straight allies. The stories they tell are unfortunately not surprising, or really that different from the stories I’ve heard in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Zambia, and Sri Lanka.
They talk about growing up and thinking they were the only gay person in the world, about hiding their sexuality from their families, and about getting kicked out of their home when they did come out. They have to worry about things like blackmail, sexual assault, police harassment, mob violence, and jail time. One young man met up with a man he met on a gay dating app, only to have that man say he wasn’t gay, he hated gays, and then stole his phone, which contains personal and possibly incriminating information on it.
Sometimes I wonder if most of the tourists who come here even think about any of this. When walking through the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, which according to Tripadvisor is the #1 thing to do in that city, do they think about the fact that it was created by a couple who were criminals for loving each other? (That couple would be Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé).
When they go to see the famous Hassan Tower in Rabat, do they know that two Moroccan men were arrested there in June for standing too close together while posing for a photo? They happened to be a gay couple and were each sentenced to four months in prison. Two topless women from the French feminist group Femen had been arrested and immediately deported the day before, after kissing each other at the same tourist attraction. The Moroccan couple deny they were copying that protest.
Now that I’ve left Morocco, I can publicly say these things and share a photo I took of myself at the Hassan Tower in Rabat. I’ve shared this selfie on social media with the hastags #HumanRightsSelfie and #LGBTatHassanTower.
Hopefully, eventually, we will live in a world where no one is criminalized or discriminated against for who they love.
(Originally shared in TSP Times, a congregational newsletter of Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto)