A Journey Into Uncharted Territory




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Jan 29, 2018
by Klaus Mueller
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A Journey Into Uncharted Territory

Founder and Chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, Dr. Klaus Mueller reflects on the Forum’s origins, its progress – and that of its Fellows’ – and where it is today.

I would like to profoundly thank Salzburg Global Seminar for embracing LGBT equality as a topic of global concern and for wholeheartedly supporting the idea to create the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum five years ago. This has been a journey into uncharted territory, and without Salzburg Global’s expertise in convening global gatherings and catalyzing collaboration, the Forum would not have grown to what it has become today – a network of over 150 Fellows from 70 countries.

Our Origins

The idea seemed right and worthy from the beginning: to help advance LGBT equality worldwide through a global forum of LGBT human rights defenders and supporters from many different countries, backgrounds, and disciplines. But the question remained: was there a need? Seeking answers, and over the course of two years, we dedicated ourselves to understanding how we could best support these efforts before the Forum’s inaugural session in 2013.

I personally first learned about the power of a truly global gathering in 2000 when I participated in a visionary Salzburg Global session, Museums in the 21st Century, chaired by Marc Pachter, of The Smithsonian Institution, which expanded my horizons and fueled my writing on museums. Ten years later, in 2010, Salzburg Global invited me to take on an expanded role and serve as chair for their multi-year initiative on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention to be developed in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for which I serve as the Museum’s European Representative.

This new role inspired and encouraged me to approach Salzburg Global independently in 2011 with the proposal to create a Global LGBT Forum to be jointly developed and hosted at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg Global Seminar’s home.

For the past thirty years, I have been working on issues at the intersection of LGBT human rights, history, memory, and culture, having started as an activist, focusing on the LGBT identity in the 19th century in my doctoral thesis, and later curating exhibitions, and writing and engaging in film productions. In developing the idea for the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, I recognized that in the rapidly globalizing world of the 21st century, LGBT human rights no longer seemed to be defined only by regional histories and cultures (if they ever were in the first place), but that they were increasingly shaped through global conversations, whether progressive or hostile.

Together with Salzburg Global, I conceived the Forum as a safe space to curate a truly global conversation on LGBT equality among diverse leaders from human rights, legal, artistic, and religious backgrounds. Free expressions of sexuality and gender define the societies in which we want to live in the 21st century, and our strength is rooted in our diversity.

In launching the Forum, we were entering new ground – from building new donor partnerships (thank you for your trust!) to curating a genuinely inclusive gathering where all would feel welcome and valued. We invited participants as the individuals they are, not as the representative of the institutions, NGOs or governments with which they are affiliated. In addition to being experts in their respective fields, they also brought their life experiences to our sessions.

Finally, in 2013, it was their voice that answered our original question: They told us that yes, there is a strong need and desire to develop a global, yet personal network – a network of trust that enables us to listen to each other and to join forces through diverse forms of collaboration and support. While communication across borders becomes ever more accessible through the internet, trust needs time.

The Forum is not a conference. It has become a safe space, our retreat, where we come together in person to comprehend the global interconnectedness of LGBT human rights, including progress and challenges. While we come from different places, cultures, histories and generations, we share commonalities in our views and experiences. But the Forum also provides a setting to acknowledge and explore our distinct personal, cultural, economic and religious differences. We come to listen, to learn, and to build connections. As with all Salzburg Global Seminar programs, our Forum strives to be a space where participants are “tough on the issues but kind to each other.”

Our Progress

Over the past five years, we have formed a growing network of expertise. In 2013, we started with participants from 34 countries and set our course with the Statement of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum: Advancing human rights for LGBT people and communities. This framework of principles and priorities continues to guide our intersectional approach and lead themes.

In 2014, the German Federal Foreign Office invited us to Berlin to advise them on strengthening relations between embassies and LGBT human rights groups. In 2015, we returned to Salzburg and started our “Family is…” project with the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, collecting testimonies for our global portrait of families today – ultimately producing over 40 video interviews and a short film Family is...? A Global Conversation, which we released this year.

In 2016, our first meeting in Asia took us to the small city of Chiang Rai, Thailand, to listen to and learn from a new generation of Asian leaders. This last year we gathered again at Schloss Leopoldskron with the focus on “Home” and refugees, collecting testimonies and strengthening our sense of a global community that has grown with each session.

As a network, we have developed the global perspectives that guide us year-round. It has been a steep learning curve, reacting to both crisis and progress, and little did we know how we would be challenged and changed in the process. The Forum’s meetings are not easy: there is both risk and comfort in bringing people from very different contexts together and striving to deepen understanding and trust. We increasingly recognize that LGBT rights as a concept expresses the aspiration and hope of a common cause even as our struggles are distinct. Sharing personal stories helps us to understand each other’s needs and worlds more fully.

Many Forum members are exceptionally strong leaders, bold activists and visionary artists and thinkers. Yet for some, it was the first time in their lives that they found a community where they felt they could share their personal story with others.

So many shared stories come to mind. We have been deeply moved by the strength of our two Ethiopian friends, Noël and Negede, who joined the Forum anonymously in 2015, and returned in 2017 as asylum seekers in Austria to build a new life. We were proud when Kasha Nabagesera from Uganda, who has come to all Forum sessions since 2013, appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. We were inspired by the amazing photographers, film directors and writers who introduced us to the realities of LGBT lives around the globe: of indigenous trans communities in the Venezuelan jungle, of a Filipino mother/filmmaker and her daughter, of LGBT families in Cambodia and of transgender communities in Mongolia. They showed us that one fiercely independent voice can make these lives – our lives – visible. More and more, we help each other with our projects and find ways to share them with larger audiences.

Fundamental human rights concern us all. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum brings together queer and straight, representing gender in many expressions, in short: people with overlapping, changing identities. Whether homo-, bi- or heterosexual, cis-, inter- or transgender, our diverse backgrounds and lives are connected by our shared interest to advance LGBT equality globally.

Since the Forum was launched in 2013, the world has witnessed the journey of communities and nations towards recognition of LGBT human rights and celebrated significant progress. Yet in many countries, we have been confronted with backlashes and many governments still legitimize and sponsor violence against LGBT citizens through legal discrimination, condoned police violence and hate speech. Our Forum has therefore expanded to build larger networks of support with government partners, international bodies and human rights and cultural organizations. Increasingly we are approached as a trusted facilitator for global conversations.


Being part of an emerging global community has changed us. Salzburg Global Seminar has become our home and itself has been changed in the process. Celebrating our fifth anniversary in the same year that Salzburg Global marks its 70th anniversary, the Forum is fully integrated within the major global programs in which Salzburg Global is engaged. All Salzburg Global’s staff have gone the proverbial extra mile, again and again, to help us reach our goals; enabled and guided by vice presidents Clare Shine and Benjamin Glahn, and with support from Salzburg Global president Stephen Salyer and former chief program officer and senior advisor Edward Mortimer.

With 2017 being a year of retrospection for Salzburg Global Seminar, we too looked back and unearthed untold stories that were shared at our fifth session this summer. This was archaeology of a different kind – a “Queering of the Schloss,” an acknowledgment that LGBT people have contributed to the history of Salzburg Global and to the earlier history of Schloss Leopoldskron in the time of Max Reinhardt, its pre-war owner and co-founder of the Salzburg Festival.

We learned about early beginnings, important voices, surprising guests. One discovery was made by anthropologist Saskia Wieringa in 2013, who realized that the statues in Schloss Leopoldskron’s Chinese Room were of the East Asian transgender deity Guanyin – a feature overlooked for almost a century. Her presence gave us an early sense of belonging as a protective deity for our endeavor. 
Historically, we know that LGBT-related stories were often suppressed or omitted. Our desire for a more inclusive and humane future also fuels our desire to reintegrate LGBT lives into a fuller understanding of our history.

Both our history and our future have to be written by ourselves. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is a fluid network that fully trusts its Fellows’ imagination and leadership to advance LGBT equality globally. As with other histories of prejudice, we know that homo- and transphobia will not disappear, but we hope they will in many places have less tragic consequences.

Klaus Mueller on why now is the time to create a Global LGBT Forum

Klaus Mueller on how the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has grown

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