"We Are Here" is a Love Letter from Our Past

As a compilation of photographs, video, and interviews, “We Are Here” melds together a historic account of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and its long-term effects on the LGBTIQ and lesbian human rights movements.

From journalists and activists to academics and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, the events of the conference are told through their experiences. These personal descriptions of what happened capture the emotion of the event, while emphasizing the impact that it has had in the years since. This impact is monumental.

It can be seen in the excitement of conference attendee Xiaopei He to meet other lesbians, in the motivation that it provided Chinese lesbians to start organizing meetings and sending out newsletters, to the promising future demonstrated by today’s generation of young Chinese LGBTIQ activists.

Grace Poore, Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands for OutRight Action International, formerly known as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), describes her own excitement from attending the conference, saying:

I was involved in meetings leading up to the conference and when I heard the China government suddenly changed the location of the NGO site and moved us 90 minutes away, the whole thing seemed like a deliberate, overt, shameless ploy to split civil society from states, and to minimize civil society interaction with state policy makers. The first day when I got to Beijing, I was like a spoilt tourist -- resenting the level of policing by hotel staff, conference venue staff etc. I had never been in a country context of totalitarianism. But then once I was immersed in the conference, in the energies of thousands and thousands of women, and amidst it all to have a bold, visible, unapologetic lesbian tent, it was pretty soul tingling.

Watching the documentary recently, I felt those shivers all over again to have been part of that historic movement of feminisms in the plural. It was a confluence of many climates literally and metaphorically. For instance, Huairou is/was a resort town and very green and beautiful with good food compared to 1995 Beijing which was grey and boring. I remember the few days of very cold rainy August, the freezing air-conditioned buses transporting groups of us between Huairou and Beijing where the government meetings were taking place, in contrast to the very hot, humid, fired up lesbian tent. It was not just a cerebral experience, it was also a very emotional experience overall.

In the fall of 1994, IGLHRC pushed for sexuality to be on the agenda of the upcoming Beijing conference by putting together a petition that garnered over 6,000 signatures from all over the world (Girard, 2007). This demonstrated that this issue was not just a Western or Northern concept, but one of international importance, as shown in the documentary. They were also the organizational hub for many women’s rights and lesbian activists prior to the conference, which resulted in the inclusion of the lesbian tent at the NGO forum in Huairou (Wilson, 1996). A few months prior to the conference in 1995, IGLHRC published Unspoken Rules: Sexual Orientation and Women’s Human Rights, a documentation of the violations against lesbians’ human rights and showing the need for a movement that addresses the human rights of all women, no matter their sexual orientation (Girard, 2007).

The Beijing conference ultimately opened conversations on homosexuality, lesbianism, and helped further its incorporation in future international discussions. We Are Here shows the increased visibility that was gained in Chinese media and the growing, though still low, acceptance of LGBTIQ people in the Chinese community. This added attention is exactly what the movement needed, as Yiping Cai, a journalist for Women’s Voice during the conference, stated in her interview that, “Debate is welcome, while the worst scenario is when no one talks about it.


Screenshot from "We Are Here"

While ways to move forward are the next steps highlighted in the documentary, it’s also important that we look back. Jean Chong, Program Field Coordinator for OutRight Action International says:

It’s so important for younger activists to learn about what has been before that created what is to come. If we have seen more rights for LGBT persons in our generation, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Though the Beijing Platform for Action, the final document outcome from the conference, did not result in the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the official language, it did apply momentum to a movement in need of awareness and visibility.

It solidified a foundation of activists and leadership within the LGBTIQ community from which we stand today, the shoulders of giants who are proudly saying we are here and we’re not going anywhere.

References

  • Girard, F. (2007). Negotiating Sexual Rights and Sexual Orientation at the UN. In Sex Politics: Reports from the Frontlines (pp. 311-358). Rio De Janeiro: Sexuality Policy Watch.
  • Wilson, A. (1996). Lesbian Visibility and Sexual Rights at Beijing. In SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (pp. 214-218).