Connecting with women who love women from all around the globe shook me.
One day, I opened my inbox to read an email from the COC Nederland’s regional manager offering to support me to participate in the first Global LBQ women’s conference in South Africa. I would be representing my organization Kasbah Tal’fin and AQYI and contributing to helping achieve COC’s PRIDE program goals.
Without a minuscule of hesitation, I confirmed my wish to attend. The first, not just women, but LBQ women’s conference was going to become a reality, and I was going to be part of such a historical moment. A memory I could tell my grandchildren with pride. A feeling of great enthusiasm engulfed me, for this is a new territory to be breached, and history in the making.
I felt drowsy after taking the long journey from my country that stands on the Northern Tip of Africa to the Southern extreme of the African continent. My feeling of disorientation diminished as the fresh air of Cape Town’s mountains engulfed my nostrils. My preparations for this conference were hectic, and I forgot an important element, that is checking the weather. My country was going through a wave of heat and dryness because of climate change, so summer clothes were the only things I brought with me. I exited the airport expecting to freeze to death with forecast’s warnings of rain and cold winds glaring at me through my phone, but the heavens had mercy! A warm sunray welcomed me when I exited the airport and later, throughout the whole day.
A grand rainbow flag, trans flags, and the LBQ women’s conference flag fluttered with the winds in front of the hotel like the three oxford martyrs on the African land. There were three police cars in front of the hotel. I felt relieved with the security and also saddened that there are people ready to shed blood so that an empowering congressional like this would not take place.
I stepped inside the hotel’s hall, mentally preparing myself to connect with as many of the five hundred women who would be present as I could. COC was the co-organizing committee of the conference, so I clutched to the staff I knew for guidance and was able to make quick friends with the ladies who arrived early.
The greatest thing about being young is the great amount of energy we have and hunger to discover life. Using this excess of energy after a 26 hours’ flight, I put my clothes in my hotel room and rushed with my Moroccan non-binary friend to discover the nearby neighborhoods of Cape Town, and of course, take pictures while there was some sun.
I felt euphoric to see so many Black and brown people around and to see an African country that is establishing itself economically regardless of the challenges it faces. I was able to fit easily with my dark honey brown skin and mixed features. Unlike traveling to Europe, I am not something exotic, I am just part of the people.
Femicide levels are high here, as well as rape, corrective rape towards lesbians, human trafficking, gun problems, etc. I was looking forward to hearing about the experiences of South African activists and how they deal with the daily terrorism they face.
The evening had not even arrived yet, but I was already familiar with the term apartheid and the race issues that plague this country when I encountered a librarian who was selling second-hand books at the big mall. The white Afrikaners and Europeans owned most of the wealthy, and lived in the “safe” part of South Africa, while the Black Afrikaners lived in the midst of poverty and unimaginable rates of crime. I bought some books using the money of my per diem to learn more about this issue of racism against Black people in an African country and the challenges that face queer people of color here.
Turning on the TV in my hotel room, I scrolled down the channels, headlines of murder and crime highlighted the news, while paradoxically, advertisements about the development of South Africa blazed the screen. “Two years old baby shot in the head with two bullets”. The headline caught my attention, a black woman was standing in front of her shack, with tears streaming down her face, describing the death of her baby in a mixture of English and Afrikaners. I could not understand all of what she said, but I definitely understood that she was in gut-wrenching grief, pain, frustration, and helplessness. I never turned to the news channels again during my stay in South Africa.
The opening session started, and all I could see was a sea of women, each distinguished by a different shape, hair or lack of, color, race, clothing, etc. The room had a global air but without borders
Nothing excites me more than possibilities and key opportunities, and this room contained so many for me. I was one of the youngest in the conference, a 21-year-old with four years’ experience in the field of human rights activism, barely scratching the number of years of experience the senior women had. What were their experiences as queer women? How challenging and dangerous was it for them to be an activist for gender and sexuality rights? What were their stories and experiences as women? How did they make it into this space? What were their methods and strategies? My background in journalism took over and I overtook a hunt to answer these questions and more during my attendance.
Most of the women I encountered told me that their presence here would not have been possible if they had not been supported by a donor. The scarcity of women in all the spaces I attended was not just due to lack of freedom and constrictions over female bodies, but also because most financial wealth still belongs to men.
I was also able to learn so much from the conference’s workshops, especially that it was from the perspective of exceptional women leaders, and some non-binary folks. The workshops had three themes: healing, leading and transforming. You could choose whatever you felt the need for the most. The topics prioritized our needs as women for once, in terms of terminologies, strategies, political approaches, the definition of intersectional activism, decolonization, visions, understanding our desires, and the stories shared. This gave me additional insight into the power struggles, gatekeeping, unequal distribution of resources for the feminist LBQ struggle. I was able to meet with different donors, understand their focus and vision, and felt that I have further practiced my negotiation and communication skills in the fundraising field which is key element to be victors in the causes we prioritize.
My age was my greatest challenge, as donors do not trust youth in general when it comes to their ability to manage large scale projects, and lead big movements into victory. But I stood my ground hoping to demonstrate a different perspective for there are many other young leaders who are reshaping the world more than any elders ever did.
The regional meeting, we had at the end of the conference was very important. This time, we shifted the method of work. Regions were already divided; our regions being combined with the middle east under the title “MENA”. This time we raised the question as North Africans, why join us with a region that is different on so many levels. Although we share some commonalities with them in terms of religion and Arab colonization, we stood our ground as Amazigh and culturally different countries with different needs. Other reasons emerged, and we upheld a meeting between North Africa only, leaving our comrades from the Middle East to work on their priorities while we drafted ours and later presented them on stage. The question remained dangling like an elephant in the room. How are the geopolitics of the MENA affecting North Africa’s queer and feminist movement, arguably in a “negative” way?
On the last night, I mounted the stage of the lingerie party that was going to donate the money for the support of sex workers. I undressed my upper half and made a wish come true, to perform with this female body like gay men did in clubs, chest naked, and female nipples uncensored. I was surrounded by women all over, clapping, and smiling, to a sight that is very forbidden in most parts of the world. A woman’s chest, free amidst the crowd, without punches or the system’s policing. In spaces like these, you understand that safety is not a feeling, but rather an experience.
I left to return home with a package of experience, ideas, knowledge, and a more determined spirit. My sense of responsibility grew towards the sacrifices of all the LBQ women who even gave up their lives, some of which would have been attending the conference so that the leash of is looser on my neck. My responsibility as the new generation is to make it looser for the next LBQ women to be born.
Change is a chain connected in the different spheres of past, present, and future. In spaces like these, we connect them.
Mariyem Gamar is a human rights activist; Writer; Founder and Executive Director, Kasbah Tal’fin. Member, AQYI Board of Directors