On Wednesday 25th May 2016, I attended a fascinating and thought-provoking evening organised by the Commonwealth Foundation and hosted by Doughty Street Chambers near London’s Gray’s Inn. The event was delivered in partnership with Commonwealth Writers (the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation), the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, the Human Dignity Trust, and Cassava Republic Press.
Entitled “What is Narrative, Anyway?” three distinguished writers were brought together to discuss the power of stories to disrupt political narrative in often oppressive cultural and socio-political environments[NU1] .
In this instance, poet Dean Atta, South African writer and journalist Mark Gevisser and Nigerian writer Olumide Papoola, chaired by the BBC’s Razia Iqbal, explored how the LGBT voice is heard across the Commonwealth via “an alternative narrative”.
With 43 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries still criminalising homosexuality, it is a hugely significant issue. Homophobic activity and violence is not only rife in many countries, it is also institutionalised through law. This cannot be acceptable.
An impressive group of writers
The readers were impressive. Each read a short extract from their recent work but what was particularly stimulating was the discussion on the environment in which the works were created.
Dean Atta’s poetry is always engaging, energising and ultimately positive. Part of his recent work (Atta was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List in 2012) has been reading his poetry to audiences abroad. He articulately described his unease at being asked to read his work in Jamaica but received wide – and warmly felt – applause from the audience when he said that by reading and expressing ideas it was possible to challenge – and change – ways people think without necessarily being overly provocative or assertive. Gay people are nothing special, he said, they just happen to be gay. We share a common humanity.
Olumide Papoola’s insights into life in Nigeria were fascinating. She revealed that in some African societies homosexuality is not accepted as a fact of nature but that people try to rationalise it as a means of making money or as consequence of some other external “deviant” factor. There was laughter from the audience when Papoola revealed that her father was only able to reconcile himself to her homosexuality by saying it was because her mother was German… Amusing, yes, but highly indicative of the social order. Both she and Dean Atta talked about the mental and emotional health problems brought about by suppressing or hiding homosexuality – by not ‘coming out’.
Mark Gevisser brought a journalist’s sharp eye to the inconsistencies of how LGBT people are treated in different countries in Africa; I could have listened to his analysis, reflection and cold assessment all day long – his knowledge was compelling and infectious. His reading from his forthcoming work on gender identity around the world was fascinating; I was particularly interested in his portrayal of real events – but using fictionalised names – which showed how gay folk need to conceal their lives from others in order to get by and live their lives in Kenya and Uganda.
A legacy to be overcome in time?
There can be no doubt that the historic legacy of an imperial Christian system has in no small way contributed to what in many Commonwealth countries is a legal system that continues to criminalise homosexuality. Judging from the evidence of this evening, the law continues to be the instrument of state oppression when states choose to use it and to felonise LGBT people.
Yet what emerged from this thought-provoking and inspiring evening is that creative social change continues whether above ground or below. It is the nature of humanity, and the way we are with each other, to live “around” the law rather than to be contained within it. There is real hope that sharing stories, experiences, and a common bond of humanity will bring about change to the systems. The evening also revealed that there is no shortage of lawyers who are ready and willing to challenge the status quo – often at no small risk to themselves. I wish them every success in these ambitions against often intractable forces both in terms of local society, political systems and legislature.
Empires have fallen. Now, in time, the infrastructure of these modern empires will fall too. Legal systems designed around a Christian/feudal legacy of social codes and land ownership for small countries in Western Europe have now been changed and moderated beyond comprehension in their countries of origin. It is ironic that, despite the end of Empire, an archaic and intransigent system can still prevail in re-born countries trying to shed the yoke of an inglorious past.
Hope – but still significant obstacles.
There is hope. I was unaware, for example, that while Nigeria criminalises homosexuality today, far more ancient Nigerian culture welcomed it and transgender people were recognised as part of the cultural fabric of the land. The discussion also revealed that humanity’s love for each other enables, even in the most frightening and oppressive environments, tolerance within communities where people can flourish and blossom into who they really are.
Equally, while some countries think they can show themselves as “LGBT Friendly”, people on the ground know differently. There was particular audience reaction to what one member described as Israeli “pinkwashing”: portraying itself as a gay-friendly beacon in a near-mediaeval Middle East when, in fact, life for gay people there is significantly more complex – and especially so for doubly persecuted Palestinians.
It remains important to shine the light and show the inconsistencies in order to bring forth change. And this was, in no small way, a key reason for this evening: to bring about change by having an open conversation, through art, through writing, through the sharing of ideas. An alternative narrative to that told by states themselves.
An excellent evening – advance the arguments
“What is Narrative Anyway?” provided a stimulating and thought-provoking environment for people to come together, hear the progress being made worldwide for LGBT folk, and to learn that there still so much more to be done.
However, invigorated by what I had learned, I felt the event demanded greater exposure than perhaps it achieved. The speakers and chair were superb, and the event was well attended, yet I couldn’t help but feel that it deserved to be taken to a bigger audience.
Equally, there was a book launch at the event – Safe House – Exercises in Creative Nonfiction, published by event partner Cassava Republic Press – which I felt should have been better represented and more tied into the theme of the evening. Yet sales seemed to be doing well from what I could see.
But these are small criticisms and perhaps I was too energised and excited by what was being said, not least by the way discussion flourished around the different contributions made by writing and social activism and the long-term impact they can have upon changes to the law.
Alas I am impatient. I fully respect the threats faced by LGBT people around the world and the need for careful sensitivity to achieve progress. But I wanted this story to be told to a greater audience – even though what was delivered was just about right.
Yet change must come, and this evening left me feeling that in time it will.