‘JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED’

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We are encircled by silhouettes of a woman, her blank body inscribed with a fight for justice. Buyisiwe is a survivor of sexual assault, but now she is a victim of a court system that continues to fail women.

There are thirty-one figures lining the walls, each cut-out a silent witness to five years of court delays, to a broader struggle for legal protection, safety and freedom. We’ve heard this before, but seeing it as a visual narrative transforms its message into a visceral experience. Suddenly this is not just the story of one woman; it is impossible not to reflect on the battles waged on our own bodies every day, on the lived realities of violence and control, of silencing and invisibility.

Being in the same space as the figures makes the horror of this collective story palpable. It is this power – the power of the visual, of reclaiming space – that we are thinking about and putting into practice today. The exclusion of lesbian and bisexual women, gender-nonconforming people and other marginalised communities from the public sphere is a significant manifestation of hetero-patriarchal control. But we can –and we must – fight back. By taking control of public spaces and forcing the broader community to engage with our demands, we are able to destabilise hegemonic discourses that continue to oppress us.

This morning we have the pleasure of working with our allies at the One in Nine Campaign, who will be teaching us about visual messaging and campaigning-building. Formed in 2006 as a response to the Jacob Zuma rape case, One in Nine quickly recognised the intense power of visual activism. After a series of successful actions, the organisation established its own art studio and soon after began sharing their art skills with others in the movement.

How does all of this relate to CAL’s sub-regional sexual rights advocacy plan? Developing and implementing a targeted advocacy plan, particularly one within a hostile regional context, requires very careful planning and conceptualisation. Of course, one cannot build a campaign without a demand, and one cannot decide a demand without a problem. Having thought critically over the last few days about our individual countries and then the region more broadly, delegates have identified the key challenge to which the campaign will speak: ‘the lack of freedom, self-ownership and control of our bodies’. Using the skills learnt in today’s art for activism workshop will be vital for formulating a central message around which to build the campaign.

Right now our members and partners are busy learning about three visual mediums: T-shirts, banners and film. All of these can be powerful tools for our activism, both within countries and regionally. Rather than describing the participant’s beautiful creations, we will be sharing some pictures of the finished products as well as the creative process.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

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The unbearable silence of being (queer)

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From the moment we are born, the people around us – particularly those with power – try to convince us that ‘silence is golden’. It’s most extreme expression may well be the old maxim that ‘good girls should be seen but not heard’. As activists, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can have our voices heard. But as today’s discussion showed again and again, there are also silences that we need to overcome within our own lives and within our own communities.

For the last few hours we’ve been trying to unpack the key challenges we’re facing. As we know, there is no shortage of problems: overcoming invisibility, gaining full control over our bodies, accessing our reproductive rights, becoming informed about sexual health, to name a few. But some of the richest discussions to emerge today related to the more subtle struggles we face.

A lot of the time it’s easy to identify the way that patriarchal power plays out in society. But power also works in insidious ways; within our own bodies, within our relationships, communities and movements, we often absorb and replicate destructive hierarchical power structures. Even the most politically aware of us make assumptions about others’ lives or bodies; often, especially when the bedroom door closes, we find ourselves falling into traditional gender roles. The desire to label and describe is strong – who among us isn’t shaped by the culture in which we exist? – but this can also lead us to inscribe our own and others’ bodies with ways of being that may be damaging or limiting.

On the flipside, labels can be powerful: they help to raise visibility and are often important for movement-building. So how do we negotiate this dilemma? We’re still nowhere close to the answers, but having open dialogue is the best place to start. And here at the workshop there is certainly a lot of ground being covered.

These conversations are vital. We must start challenging ourselves to think about the position of trans*, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in our movements; about how we can constructively talk about our own bodies; about how we can effectively challenge traditional notions of gender; about how we can positively construct new ways of thinking and being.

At the heart of all of these questions is the notion of silence: we cannot smash patriarchy until we end the silence, and we cannot end the silence until we recognise power in our own lives. People’s unwillingness to recognise and interrogate issues of HIV/AIDS or to acknowledge intimate-partner violence within lesbian or gender-nonconforming relationships undermines broader moves to battle oppression and stigma.

We are lucky to be having some of these conversations here and now, and we’re looking forward to sharing some of these discussions with you. But even more, we’d love to hear what you think. How are these silences affecting your life? What forms of power are being ignored within our activist movements? How do you feel about labels?

Stay tuned for updates on these exciting conversations.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).