“If we are not named in the document, if we are not considered in the future of urbanism, we will continue to die.”
Ellen Woodsworth was speaking to an audience of nearly 40 youths who were sitting inside a college classroom in Quito, Ecuador earlier this week. She was part of a small contingent of queer and trans rights advocates from Vancouver, Canada who traveled to the alpine capital city to bring their community-crafted Queer Declaration to the UN Habitat conference.
Occurring only once every 20 years, the conference is the international community's effort to shape the global city, and to answer a question that is at once basic, and complicated: Who, precisely, has a right to the city?
Quito welcomed 45000 people from the far-flung corners of the world to try to answer exactly this question, and develop a blueprint for a New Urban Agenda, a 23-page document that fails to mention the LGBTI community, who are experiencing some of the highest rates of violence in the world. In the U.S. alone, for example, at least 23 transgendered people have been murdered this year alone, believed to be a historic high.
Hence, Woodsworth and her cadre wrote their own manifesto, traveling nearly 5000 miles to this city nestled betwixt the Andean mountains, to raise the issue of queer and trans rights at the global colloquium.
The Importance of Language
“Queer and trans youth, especially queer and trans youth of color, face the brunt of violence in cities,” explained Cicely-Belle Blain, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver and youth worker at Qmunity, a queer support organization based in Vancouver, at the UN Habitat’s YoutHab panel Saturday titled ‘LGBTI and Cities: A Youth Declaration for Habitat III’. “If you don’t include LGBTI-inclusive language in the document, violence (against this group) will continue.”
Blain was involved in the community consultation and drafting of the Queer Declaration, which is also posted as an online petition for the global community to endorse, and which includes a number of recommendations.
During the drafting of the Declaration over the summer, Blain spoke of the specific elements that the New Urban Agenda needs to include to help queer and trans people in often hostile urban environments.
“...We spoke with a representative from UN Women about how much of the language around gender within the UN focused only on women’s health; something that excludes those who are trans or gender non-conforming,” they wrote. “The UN (also) does not provide space to include conversations about youth mental health, sexuality, relationships.”
At Tuesday’s Canada-and-U.S.-led event at the conference titled “Inclusion Of LGBTI In The Domestic Implementation Of The New Urban Agenda”, Woodsworth told the crowd why the Queer Declaration was explicitly vital.
“We decided to draw up a Queer Declaration to express the serious situation of LGBTQ people all over the world who face death, imprisonment, lack of housing, jobs, and basic human rights as reasons why we should be explicitly included in the text,” she said.
Present on the panel of the event was Danilo Manzano, an activist from the organization Esquel, based in Quito.
“A few days ago I got asked why the LGBT community wants to be included in the New Urban Agenda,” Manzano reflected with a dry laugh. “The thing you need to remember is: we are normal too.”
Earlier, at Saturday’s event, Manzano spoke of this advocacy. “We go to the streets to talk to people, to show ourselves, to show we’re real.”
From Canada to the UN
While the Queer Declaration has made it’s way to the international arena, it began as a much smaller venture.
Once it was drafted by a small contingent of community groups in Vancouver, it was sent to organizations across the country. As it began to garner attention elsewhere in Canada, it was adopted as an ‘official’ Canadian document by Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Canada's chief delegate at UN Habitat 3.
Woodsworth, Blain and others involved in drafting the Queer Declaration were then invited to join Canada's delegation to Quito.
In the weeks prior to the conference, the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, and Uruguay, along with Argentina and Colombia, endorsed the group's recommendations.
The Belarus-Backed Opposition
But once in Quito, the Queer Declaration hit a wall.
For months, a coalition of three member states—Canada, the European Union and Mexico—made repeated calls for the New Urban Agenda to acknowledge the LGBTI community. Nothing took.
The main barrier, surprisingly enough, is the tiny nation of Belarus, which is one of the most vocal members of a coalition of 17 other countries–including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh–that opposes LGBTI rights.
The coalition, which goes by the Orwellian moniker, the Group of Friends for Family, says it wants to "reaffirm that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society".
‘Homonationalism’ in the Western-led Promotion of LGBTI Rights Around the World
With Canada and the United States leading the efforts to draft a more inclusive New Urban Agenda, those countries racial and nationalistic fault lines have impacted the struggle for LGBTI rights.
The academic Jasbir K. Puar first coined the term “homonationalism” in her 2007 book “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.” That describes a contradiction wherein “liberal politics incorporate certain queer subjects into the fold of the (Western) nation-state” to justify racist and xenophobic positions and policies, especially against migrants and those in the Global South, who are posited as necessarily homophobic.
A good example of this is the LGBTI community in the U.S. lobbying the Obama administration to reverse a ban on gays in the military, allowing openly gay soldier to fight on behalf of Imperialism.
At Tuesday’s event, Blain acknowledged Canada’s commitment to LGBTI rights, but as someone who identifies as both Black and transgender, Blain noted as well the country's racism.
“But there are countries where homosexuality is illegal, (and I live) in a country where gay marriage has been legal for over a decade,” Blain said.
In the end, the group did not achieve what they were looking for. But in defeat, Blain says the global LBGTI community took a giant step forward.
“It’s weird that a document a bunch of Vancouver queers wrote in (a) community center is being debated by the United Nations at a conference of over 45,000 attendees. Progress is slow and the bureaucracy is real but I am confident we are on a pathway to global implementation of safety for queer and trans folks in urban environments.”