Now that it’s all over, I can reflect on that one week this past July when Montreal came alive with the biggest gathering of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Intersex (LGBTI) people the world has ever seen! The First Out Games and the International Human Rights Conference preceding it was an event gargantuan in size but more so, an event that was notably enormous in love and friendship.
Imagine 12 thousand LGBTI athletes and over 1800 LGBTI Conference delegates all converging on one city! A city that opened its doors to this event with great enthusiasm and support. As the Mayor of Montreal Gerald Tremblay intoned: “Montreal welcomes you all in the spirit of love and tolerance that is extended to all of you from around the world who have come here to celebrate diversity in Sport and to celebrate Human Rights for all”.
It was fabulous to be made to feel so welcome, especially for most of us there who have a much harder time in our home countries for just being who we are. For some of us coming from the reality of criminalization and discrimination, this was indeed a welcome that we took to heart, relishing the freedom and opportunity the 2 week long event would give us.
I can reflect now on that week which was filled with emotion, excitement and pride. It was all about people and their stories! It was all about reaffirming that LGBTI Rights ARE Human Rights. It was about a diverse crowd speaking about diverse topics that filled the conference rooms of the Palais des Congrés in downtown Montreal.
I had the pleasure of Co-chairing the opening plenary dinner of the Human Rights Conference which included, as keynote speakers, the Mayor of Montreal - the Hon. Gerald Tremblay, the Minister of Justice for the Government of Quebec - the Hon. Yvon Marcoux and The United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Madam Louise Arbor.
More than anything my excitement rose 200% at being seated next to Mark Tewksbury (the Gold medal winner of the 100 backstroke at the Barcelona Games in 1992) at the dinner table which included the key note speakers, the two Co-Secretary Generals of ILGA (myself and Philipp Braun), the two Co-chairs of the Scientific Committee, the first citizen of Switzerland and the 2 Official spokespersons for the Out Games! Meeting him and chatting with him, I couldn’t help being in awe at the courage this man had to come out as a Gay man at a time when he was at the peak of his career, having won gold and silver in Barcelona and Seoul in back to back Olympics. Just thinking of the many endorsements and financial losses he would have sustained just for coming out as a gay athlete is overwhelming.
The years of being an outspoken advocate for gay rights and a role model to millions of LGBT persons in Canada and abroad have not dampened Mark’s enthusiasm for people. His 1000 watt smile lights up the room when he walks in. He never tires of the hundreds of people who come up to talk to him…and it really does not matter whether he is eating a meal, checking his emails or walking around the Conference complex...he always has a smile and encouraging words for them all! It makes me really proud to have been a part of this wonderful celebration and more than anything, being able to say “I hung out with Mark Tewksbury!” During the week we were at the conference we were thrown together several times and I was always blown away by his natural charm and that wonderful smile!
The Opening Plenary and dinner was attended by all 1800 delegates to the conference as well as the media and hundreds of conference volunteers. I had the pleasure to introduce Madam Arbor. In her speech Madam Arbor said: “Neither the existence of national laws, nor the prevalence of custom can ever justify the abuse, attacks, torture and indeed killings that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons are subjected to because of who they are or are perceived to be. Because of the stigma attached to issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity, violence against LGBT persons is frequently unreported, undocumented and goes ultimately unpunished. Rarely does it provoke public debate and outrage. This shameful silence is the ultimate rejection of the fundamental principle of universality of rights”. This statement brought home to me the realities of life in Sri Lanka and other countries that continue to criminalize and discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
It was great catching up with old friends and making new ones. EQUAL GROUND was ably represented by Manjula and me at the Human Rights Conference and Amila for the Athletics. Manjula proved to be a natural and handled his very first workshop with great dignity and maturity! Indeed the speakers at all of the sessions of the conference were so dynamic and outspoken. From Gene Robinson (the first gay man to be ordained as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire) to the openly Gay Australian Judge Justice Michael Kirby, Georgina Beyer (first transsexual in the world to be elected mayor and to parliament in New Zealand), openly HIV+ Justice Edwin Cameron (South Africa), Martina Navratilova (generally considered to be one of the greatest female tennis players of all time) to the hundreds of ordinary LGBTI people who had so many wonderful stories to share – the conference was inspiring and informative and a memory that will live with us for a long while.
Add to this the opening ceremonies of the First Out Games in Montréal…a complete overloading of the senses…the sights, the sounds and the wonderful performances by the guest artists including Cirque de Soleil, Martha Wash, Deborah Cox, Jonas, Sylvie Desgroseilliers, Diane Dufresne and the incomparable k.d. lang!!! How proud we were to walk into that Olympic stadium with Harsha our sign bearer (a bright, young Sri Lankan Gay man living in Montreal) representing our little island nation. We marched with the contingent of countries who still criminalize homosexuality and we probably got the loudest cheer for being there!
Although I haven’t mentioned much about the Gay Games in Chicago a few weeks before the Out Games, (only because I was not there to share in those wonderful experiences) I must mention here that we are so proud to have sent a team of three for these games. Although they did not fare as well as the girls from the WSG who won many medals (Congratulations team WSG!!) we were just proud to represent our country and our organization. Well done Tami, Amila and Pinto (who made it to the finals of the 100m!).
Next stop Copenhagen!
Picture Gallery (click on the links to view)
Manjula with Louise Arbor
Rosanna and Mark Tewksbury
with the Mayor, the Minister and his wife
with Georgina Beyer
Manjula and Rosanna presenting at workshop
with Martina Navratilova
EG team with Harsha
team EG with Co-Secretary General (ILGA) Philipp Braun