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Gay Seminar 'Can Make a Difference

11 August 1998

This seminar at the IIRE on August 11-16 was my first lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender (LGBT) seminar at the Institute. It was the most exciting opportunity for a wide-ranging discussion on LGBT issues from a radical perspective that I have ever experienced. I think it is an extremely valuable site for discussion and debate.

The seminar examined important issues for LGBT politics in an era where we have won important rights in many of the developed capitalist countries, yet have gained little or no formal protection in much of the 'third' world. There was a grounded, practical focus to much of the discussion, relating to the political work of the people present. Participants who had participated in previous sessions reported that this one was notably more practical in focus. As a Portuguese activist said, this seminar conveyed a 'feeling that we can make a difference' in LGBT movements, and have an impact with a perspective that has barely been expressed in them so far.

The participation in the seminar (7 women and 10 men from 10 different countries) was heavily 'Northern', though there were important contributions from Indonesia and Turkey. At the same time, the seminar gained from a strong presence of youth. This encouraged us to think about developing appropriate ways for people who might not feel comfortable speaking in the context of a larger session with long interventions from people used to speaking at this kind of event.


The seminar began with discussions that assessed the current state of our movements, the balance sheet of our accomplishments, and the challenges for ongoing mobilization. The first of these was a session on gays and the movement against neoliberal globalization.

The picture that emerged in this session was of a very uneven and contradictory situation, in which we have won important rights in certain places (with varying amounts of political mobilization) yet have not secured the most basic rights in much of the world. The accomplishment of rights has created certain forms of depoliticization, yet the emerging global justice movement presents new openings for liberationist and internationalist LGBT politics. The ability of capitalism to accommodate certain aspects of lesbian/gay existence is something that the left of the LGBT movement must understand in some depth. This session was widely singled out in the evaluation as the one best discussion of the week.

There was a broad-ranging discussion of the question of strategy after winning partnership rights in much of Europe (and parts of North America). The movements in different countries are in very different states of mobilization or depoliticization.

There does not seem to be any single issue that dominates the horizons of LGBT movements at the present time. The discussion was necessarily scattered, but it did include some focus on the importance of organized LGBT participation in the European Social Forum (Florence, 7-10 November) and the importance of LGBT perspectives on the welfare state and the fight against cutbacks. The development of our analysis of strategy after partnerships is an important task to continue working on as a group.


The discussion of HIV/AIDS covered important points and current developments in HIV/AIDS mobilizing. The discussion included an analysis of the politics and strategies of various movements, the importance of internationalism in AIDS mobilizing, access to treatments and prevention strategies. Clearly, HIV/AIDS organizing is one of the areas in which a liberationist and internationalist approach is of particular import.

The discussion of Islam was very ambitious, in that one discussion attempted to bridge the issues of LGBT organizing in Muslim-majority countries and the appropriate responses for LGBT movements to the racist anti-Islamic offensives in Europe, North America and Australia. The speakers had to devote much of their presentations to basic education about particular countries and movements. Many participants ended up concluding that Islam as a religion is neither a key problem nor a key factor in the sexual culture of Muslim-majority societies. These societies' specific histories and social formations matter more. There is clearly a need for more discussion of the issues that arose in this session.

There were women's and youth meetings, as well as a historical session on women's cross-dressing and an added-in discussion on Internet sex that was more theoretical in character. People were clearly as much interested in these historical and theoretical topics as in the more immediately practical and directly political sessions - and the more informal discussion of Internet sex in the institute garden was particularly fun!

PLANS FOR 2004 - AND 2002-03

In general, the participants were enthusiastic about the seminar and had many suggestions for the next one. This included broadening participation (with some specific suggestions) and topic proposals including: gender and transgender in global perspective; LGBTs and trade unions; the impact of racism on LGBT movements; how movements in the North can build solidarity with the South; a general discussion of religious fundamentalism; commodification of bodies; the history of the last 30 years; indigenous cultures; the varied trajectories and shapes of different national movements; the nuclear family and gay identity; parenthood; Africa; popular culture; Cuba/ China/ Vietnam; and the history of early 20th century sex reform organizing in the workers' movement.

We agreed to use the Internet more after the seminar, especially: to coordinate organizing for the European Social Forum; to take up the coordination of HIV/AIDS work that we discussed at this year's seminar; and to help prepare the international cycle for next year's European Euromediterranean Summer University on Homosexualities in Marseilles.

- Alan Sears, University of Windsor (Canada)

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