Don’t Give Up: Human Rights Day 2016

December 9, 2016

Once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.

My grandma used to teach me when I was young, as I would follow her to town hall meetings in our little town Uzebu in Benin city, Edo State, Nigeria. At those meetings, she always spoke out against injustice to district members. She fought for the freedom of Edo women and argued against the idea that women would have to cut their hair for the sake of mourning their dead husbands. She also fought for the rights of poor people to live and survive, rallying the community against the unnecessarily high price of goods and services like the sale of palm oil, cassava flower or a bag of rice.

When I was still very young, my grandmother instilled within me the notion that, as a human being, I am morally obligated to use my voice to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. My grandmother showed by example that if I witnessed evil or wrong-doing or injustice in our world, I needed to act. In the years that have followed, my personal experience with the world has kept this lesson close. But this year I have had to dig deeper than ever to try to understand what my grandmother thought and meant. I’ve done this to find motivation for why I shouldn’t give up.

That’s what I am thinking about this Human Rights Day: why we can’t and shouldn’t give up. It isn’t a rhetorical question. This year has been very long and heartbreaking. I believe for most people in my close circle of friends it’s been that year you just can’t wait to get over with!

It helps me to think of the good news that did come in 2016 for human rights defenders. For example, early in the year the UN General assembly voted on a resolution to appoint the first UN independent LGBTI expert. The Human Rights Council resolution established the LGBT expert by a vote of 23-18 with 6 abstentions, reflecting the deep divisions internationally on gay rights.

In my local level, I witnessed achievements in the area of HIV prevention for Gay men in Africa. This year, AVAC worked with several other organizations to convene the first ever consultation on PrEP for gay men in Africa. (Yes, there was consensus at the outset of the meeting to use the term “gay men”, rather than MSM, and also to be clear that we were not addressing the specific needs of transwomen, an urgent and separate agenda.)

We’ve all been to so many meetings that this can sound less important than it was. Anyone who was there knows that it was the beginning of something new and different! We brought together about 100 community members and donors to engage in a dialogue about oral PrEP. There was tremendous energy and enthusiasm for this prevention tool. Since that meeting, participants from Kenya, Uganda and Zambia have launched advocacy strategies to raise awareness and advance PrEP access for LGBTQ individuals—and all who need it.

PEPFAR announced a $100 million Key Population Investment Fund to scale up high-quality, key-population-led community approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment programs. Also announced this year was the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s $10 million fund to fight discrimination and violence against LGBTI people. The announcement of both these funds was a noteworthy highpoint in 2016.

Then, in the weeks after the US election, when so many of us were feeling afraid, angry, activated or paralyzed, I traveled to the ILGA Conference in Bangkok. I thought of this trip as a human rights journey to bear witness: to follow my grandmother’s teachings. I went to see with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the powerfully moving stories and struggles of so many LGBTI persons around the world.

I met with people from a number of human rights organizations, to listen and to figure out how we can best accompany each other on journeys toward justice—these journeys of perseverance, of truth, of finding humanity in the face of great difficulty.

I went to witness the discrimination that women and girls face from societies that value “macho” culture, where gender-based violence is the “norm” and goes unpunished. I went to hear testimony from the members of LGBTQ community about how the world views same-sex love and sexuality and how the worst of these views, combined with the macho culture, drive hatred and gross miscarriages of justice toward the LGBTQ population.

What I saw in Bangkok at that meeting is what I saw throughout so much of this year in travels and at home. Despite whatever is happening on political, social or economic levels in the countries and communities I have been able to visit or connect with this year, the LGBTQ communities include strong, bold activists with bright smiles. They show a resiliency of spirit and attitude that say: “Notice me! I am here! I am not going away. You can try to take away my identity, my rights, but you cannot break me and I WILL get noticed!”

These bright smiles do not remove the suffering, nor the great discrepancy between the “haves” and “have-nots”: those who are born white or born black, those who are HIV positive and those who are HIV negative. But their faces remind me that people are strong. That people survive. That despite facing incredible hardships and assaults on their dignity, LGBTQ people and so many others are never going to stop standing up, taking risks, acting in solidarity, and fighting for systemic change, basic rights and human dignity of all people.

Through the year while I traveled around the world, I listened and witnessed. My senses were on overdrive during this entire year–both my physical senses and my sense of the soul: my heart and my mind. What I physically touched, smelled, tasted, saw and heard moved my heart, touched my spirit and deeply stirred my soul. And by being open to what was most difficult, I found the strength to not give up.

We are going to need this strength even more going forward. The activists that I have met this year or known for many years—including two dear friends who died this year—are wading deeply into the dangerous waters of our time. They do so knowing and hoping that they must be the agents of change, one small step at a time. We all must walk together, alongside one another in the depths and strong currents. If we do this together, it will be possible to get safely to the other side. This Human Rights Day, I hope we touch the hands of every activist or LGBTQ person we know, understanding that this physical touch will also touch our hearts and minds—and move us to witness and action.