Saturday, May 17, 2008

IDAHO: A Brief Interview with Louis-Georges Tin

Today, May 17, is International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), the one day specifically set aside every year to combat the global scourge of homophobia in its many forms. Louis-Georges Tin, an impressive young writer and academic, established IDAHO in 2004, and four years later, May 17 events dedicated to addressing the problem are taking place across the world.

You can learn quite a bit about IDAHO by visiting their site, which includes commentary, links and updates on IDAHO events in various countries on the IDAHO website.

In 2006, I briefly interviewed Tin via email, and here's the bulk of that interview (which I've translated from original French).

AN INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS-GEORGE TIN, FOUNDER OF INTERNATIONAL DAY AGAINST HOMOPHOBIA (IDAHO) - SUMMER 2006 years ago, a young, Black gay French scholar and activist started what has since become one of the most important global efforts against homophobia. May 17, International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), which organizations in over 60 countries now recognize and participate in, was the brainchild of Louis-George Tin (right, Patrick745, a 32-year-old university professor and author who was born in Martinique and now resides in Paris. It grew out of one of Tin's prior projects, the Dictionary of Homophobia, an authoritative compendium he edited which maps the history and theoretical discourses of an issue that remains central to the understanding of the concept of homosexuality. Recently I conducted an email interview with Tin to learn more about IDAHO, other projects he's worked on, and his thoughts about the experiences of Black gays in France.

Q: To start off by telling me some things about yourself. When did your activism in LGBT issues begin?

A: I'm 32 years old, I was born in Martinique, in the French Antilles, where I grew up until the age of 17. My parents, retired today, were both teachers at the Rivière-Salée College, my native town. I studied in Paris, at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and wrote a thesis on French literature. I live in Paris, and am now a university teacher, but the essence of my activism resides in my militant fight against homophobia and racism.

My first militant activities go back to the period when I was a student at the ENS. Despite the unyielding opposition of the school's administration, in 1997 I had created Homonormalités (Homonormalities), a gay and lesbian student organization. We organized parties, film screenings, debates, and conferences. I took my first steps there: I was initiated at that time into gay and lesbian studies and to LGBT militancy.

Q: In 2003, you published the Dictionary of Homophobia. What was your aim with this work?

A: The debates on same-sex couples in France provoked an avalanche of homophobic discourse, and I resolved to respond to this violence through a rational discourse, which attempted to deconstruct what centuries of history had little by little constructed. The essence of my reflection lies in this affirmation: the problem is not homosexuality, it's homophobia. It is an epistemological reversal that is also political.

Out of this arose the idea that led me to edit the Dictionary of Homophobia, a collective work comprising 75 researchers from 15 different countries, and published in 2003 by University Presses of France. For me it was a question for me of exploring homophobia in the world, across well-known theoretical systems (theology, medicine, etc.), recurrent themes (abnormal, proselytization, etc.), implicated institutions (school, army, etc.), famous victims or homophobes (Oscar Wilde, Himmler), and diverse regions of the world. It turned on the idea of a work that was at the same time scientific and militant. Apart from the dictionary form, and the choice of a dedicated editor, it was an issue also of giving the battle against homophobia intellectual and political legitimacy that was still lacking in France.

Q: How would you describe in brief the origins of IDAHO? How did you go forward in creating this World Day of fighting against homophobia?

A: The World Day Against Homophobia is, to be sure, the extension of the Dictionary of Homophobia. For me it's a matter of transforming theoretical reflection into practice, practically stated. I have mobilized international contacts whom I could call upon to launch this idea and to put it into play. In each country, there is one person or a group of people, IDAHO correspondents, charged with disseminating the campaign and coordinating actions, in whatever form they take: debates, shows, film screenings, street presentations, strikes, ceremonies, etc.

The interest in the World Day is precisely what puts the emphasis not on homosexuality, but on homophobia. That's not a big issue, but it changes a lot of things. It's not up to gays and lesbians to justify their homosexuality, it's now up to homophobes to justify their attitude towards them. What's reversed is the charge of the argument. Speaking of homophobia or of homosexuality, it's little bit of speaking of the same thing. But it's saying it in a different manner, and often more effectively.

It's why, in the numerous countries where it would seem impossible to organize a gay pride, it remains possible to organize marches against homophobia. And it's in some of these where this is happening. At the same time, a professor would be able with difficult to bring his students to Gay Pride, but he could by every measure tell them today, it's the Day against Homophobia. Within the framework of our courses in history, literature or biology, we'll be able to speak of this question. In addition, the theme for IDAHO 2007 is "No to homophobia, yes to education." The World Day thus has a pedagogical and political function.

Q: How have people responded in France? How have the government and LGBT organizations responded? Have they welcomed your new effort against this social problem? What was the response among academics? When did other countries and foreign groups join and link to you? Did you contact them? How many countries have become affiliated now with IDAHO?

A: On the whole, the reception has been very positive. All the parties on the right have supported the initiative, and the first minister, who's on the right, has promised to write this Day into the official agenda of the French Republic. Organizations have responded equally well. Since the first year, there have been more than 100 diverse actions in France organized in more than 20 cities across the entire country.

I've established a few contacts everywhere in the world, and the World Day of Battle against Homophobia is today recognized officially in the European Parliament. During the first year, in 2004, it was celebrated in 40 countries, and in 2005, it led to actions in more than 50 countries, from Canada to India, as well as Peru, Ghana, Lebanon, and Russia. Notably, at the time of the World Day in 2004, the first public LGBT rallies ever were organized in Bulgaria, Ivory Coast, and China. Feeling integrated in an international network of solidarity, the activists from these countries have surmounted their reticence, and they have decided to jump over a step on the occasion of the World Day in organizing diverse events which have been very well received. These are historic advances, and we are very happy to have contributed to this dynamic.

In a recent press release Matt Foreman, the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has declared that his organization was ready to conduct the 2007 IDAHO campaign in the United States, which seemed excellent news.

Q: What do you foresee as the future of this important day? What do your thoughts about it in relation to the battle against homophobia around the world?

A: Right now, our principal project concerns the IDAHO resolution which will be proposed to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations: it would permit the decriminalization of homosexuality, which remains a "crime" or an "offense" in 75 states in the world. The resolution is supported by organizations such as the European Association for the Defense of Human Rights, the European Parliament Gay and Lesbian Intergroup, the International Union of Socialist Youth, the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organisation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Federation of Spanish Homosexual Associations, and by personalities such as Jack Lang (former French minister of culture), Michael Cashman (Eurodeputy), Sophie In't Veld (Eurodeputy), Edmund White (American writer), among others.

This campaign benefits from a favorable precedent: the matter of Nicholas Toonen v. Australia, which would became jurisprudence. In effect, on April 4, 1994, the Human Rights Commission ruled in favor of M. Toonen, who had been condemned for homosexual relations in Tasmania. The commission judged that the Tasmanian law contravened the fundamental liberties guaranteed by international conventions, notably in terms of the respect to private life; after that, the legislation had to evolve in Tasmania. Given this history, the aim is to extend this UN jurisprudence to other countries in the world which still penalize homosexuality.

This battle will be led to the UN, and the international petition which accompanies it will be signable on our site beginning in the month of November. I sincerely believe that this campaign can be led with success. I also believe that it's a fundamental battle for liberty, and I'm ready to get involved to the very end.

Q: I know that last fall you also founded an organization to link all the black associations in France, the Representative Council of Black Associations [Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires – CRAN], which held its first convention earlier this year, bringing together more than 2000 people from across France. How did CRAN begin?

A: CRAN was launched in November 2005. It brings together more than a thousand organizations across France. An incredible thing, to consider that until then, there didn't exist a federation bringing together Black organizations in this country. Black people didn't know how to make ourselves heard, and no one hardly wanted to hear us, so it was really necessary to acknowledge it. It's in order to right this situation that we created CRAN, for which I am in effect the spokesperson.

Q: What are the goals of the black network that you founded? How do you think this network can affect or change the situation of racism in France? What's currently happening with CRAN?

A: Certain of our claims concern the past, and others the future. For what's in the past, it's an issue of facilitating a better knowledge of colonization, of slavery, of immigration, a great many subjects that the French know nothing about, and don't want to know. The celebration of Napoleon continues, the "national hero," and what's ignored actively is that he also reestablished slavery. 2 French out of 3 continue to think that colonization was a good thing. The contribution of African troops during the Second World War is always ignored and since then, people still refuse to pay the basic pension to the survivors of the former soldiers!

With regard to the future, it's a question of fighting against discrimination, whose racial characteristic is largely hidden in France. Whether it concerns employment, lodgings, or school, there is no program for equal opportunities, for positive discrimination, and it's not really known how many Blacks there are in the country, because ethnic statistics are forbidden. France wants to see itself as the country of the Rights of Man, but this clever propaganda need not create an illusion. France pretends to be blind on race, but above all she's blind on racism!

Q: In the US, there are black LGBT people for whom "gay" culture in general (one speaks of "mainstream gay culture") is alienating. They see it as a "white" thing. Thus, they've formed a parallel black gay culture, with different language, a style and practice well sustained by African-American experience. How would you describe the life of black gays in France? Are they well integrated? Are they visible or invisible, and is it an issue of the problem of racism in general? How should one speak of this situation? Are there black LGBT groups in France? How do they relate to black groups in general?

A: One cannot truly say that there's a Black LGBT community in France. French Black people come from countries in Africa where homosexuality is penalized, or from the Outre-mer [non-continental] departments, where homosexuality is completely taboo. That hardly permits the development of any sort of black queer culture. That said, in 2004, I founded An Nou Allé, the Association of Black homosexuals in France. It's a little organization, but it engages in political lobbying to denounce social homophobia in the Antilles and Africa, and to denounce at the same time the passivity, even the complicity of the French authorities in certain cases.

Q: Now, one sees the current riots [2006] and those of last year in the banlieue, and one supposes that racial and ethnic inequalities, in a system that speaks of a society without divisions of identity and differences, a system so to speak "neutral" with regard to race and sexuality, are central to the problem. But in your life and career, you've represented this nexus and defied the idea that one cannot speak of differences. You've experienced racism, right? Can you tell me a little more about this idea?

A: Some examples? Unfortunately, I have some to give you. I will begin with the first in my university career. Being at the ENS, I wanted to do my masters on Black literature, Senghor or Césaire for example. I asked my tutorial leader for advice. In order to not influence me too much, she decided to consult all her colleagues and ultimately give me their collective response. A week later, she came back to me saying: "All my colleagues are in agreement with me. If you work on this subject, it's professional suicide. The better thing would be to work on a more classical subject, and when you are around 40 or 50 years old, only when you have your post at the Sorbonne, will you be able to do what you like!"

The worst is that this is the position of the social politics of the French university; she was right. Well, then take gay and lesbian studies. When I published the Dictionary of Homophobia, the reactions I encountered were very harsh, and my university career has simply been stopped. I'll pass on telling you all the details, but yes, it's true. This work, it was veritable "professional suicide" as I'd been told. But I regret nothing. I know that often stuns people here in France. Nevertheless, that's how it is. But I didn't drop my fists. I continue the battle… More than ever before!

Copyright © John Keene, 2006-2008

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