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Jul 06, 2016
by Louise Hallman
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Family Is...?

Our families can be those we are born into. They can also be those we form ourselves. Families can be loving and supportive. They can also be oppressive and alienating. Through its new project – “Family Is...” – the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum is documenting the life stories and experiences of LGBT individuals and their families, portraying a more accurate representation of the LGBT community, and building more inclusive societies. EVANGELINA YBO, STEFAN SCHOLZ, ROOI TEVE, RALF KLEINDIEK, KLAUS MUELLER, POPO FAN, MICHAEL HEFLIN, LAURINDO GARCIA and UGYEN TSHERING.

For many people, family is a crucial part of their lives, their identities, and their support systems. But as Klaus Mueller, chair and founder of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, remarked at the opening of the 2015 session: “None of us come from families that were prepared for us.”

Through its new project “Family Is...”, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is examining the importance of family and identifying the specific challenges LGBT communities face regarding family rights, social inclusion, and legal challenges. Launched at the third annual session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, the project uses storytelling as a means of advancing LGBT human rights and equality. 

Over their five days together in Salzburg in June 2015, a diverse gathering of Salzburg Global Fellows opened up about their own personal and professional struggles, forged new friendships, began new collaborations, tested new ideas, and developed a strong sense of global connection. Fellows heard new and unexpected perspectives, and this experience not only furthered the sense of urgency in their respective battles for equality and inclusion, but also made the world feel smaller and adversities more bearable.

One story that was shared with the Fellows came from Joe Wong, a program manager with the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network in Thailand. 

Growing up in a conservative family in Singapore and attending a Catholic all-girls’ school, Wong felt uncomfortable in his body when touched and eventually used duct tape as an attempt to conceal the female parts of his body that he felt shouldn’t have been there. One day, while in an elevator with a close relative and a stranger, the family member noticed the duct tape, humiliating Wong on the spot and demanding an explanation. “In school I was taught not to show emotions. So I let my relative yell at me and tear away the duct tape in the elevator,” he recalls. 

Like many people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, Wong found it hard to tell his family about his issues. However, despite the lack of support, or even the open hostility, he received from some family members, Wong’s father quietly supported him. Wong remembers: “He would put a relevant article or book on my desk. There was no discussion about it, but he helped.”

When Wong decided to transition, he asked his parents to choose his post-transition name “since they gave me my first name.” His father gave him his own English name – which he took to be a sign of his father’s love and acceptance. “He died when I was 21, and I wondered where his tolerance came from. I later discovered that he was gay.”

As the Fellows established with each other and in a series of video interviews made for the project, families can consist of those we are born into as well as those we construct for ourselves. How we define “family” or advocate so-called “traditional family values” can be a form of exclusion and discrimination. 

“The definition of family should be changed,” said Chinese activist Ying Xin. “When we think of family, we often think of love, respect, solidarity. Family may not just be based on the goal of reproducing.”

Saskia Wieringa, a Dutch academic, shared her feelings on family: “My natal family: oppressive; my family of choice: warm, responsible, supportive; my family by marriage: wife and four stepchildren – terrific, exciting.”

Like Wieringa and a number of other Fellows at the session, LGBT people can find themselves estranged from their birth families or face the difficult decision of having to leave them for their own and their family’s safety. Some choose to build their own family of supporters, close friends, and lovers. 

Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and LGBT rights advocate in India added: “Family to me is a community of love that we create by choice, as opposed to just one we are born in to. It is an institution that can be incredibly disempowering – but also unleash power.”

For Wong, family is “realness and togetherness, sticking together despite all the challenges, and just being able to come out of who we are inside. It doesn’t matter if the parents are queer, or the child is queer, we should be able to talk about it.”

By sharing these personal stories, Salzburg Global seeks to challenge misrepresentations of sexual and gender diversity, help understand the similarities and differences, advance the rights of LGBT individuals and their families, and ultimately build stronger, more inclusive societies.

 

New Partnership

The “Family Is...” project is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The Ministry’s support of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum began with its participation in the 2014 session in Berlin, Creating Long-Term Global Networks to Sustain LGBT Human Rights Organizations.

Speaking at the 2015 session, State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek explained why his ministry is supporting the project: “Collaboration with the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is important because family is for most people a crucial part of their lives, of their identities,” he said.

“It is important that we have a very wide interpretation of what family is. Family is whenever people of different generations look after each other. Married or unmarried, with children or not, old and young, same-sex or heterosexual couples. It is a very serious matter of discrimination if we define family as a closed unit.”

While the Christian Democrats, the major coalition partner in the current German government, take a more conservative line (German Chancellor and CDU party leader Angela Merkel has defined marriage as “exclusively between a man and a woman”), the Ministry of Family Affairs – led by the minor coalition partner, the Social Democrats – forges clear changes, both policy-wise and symbolically. The ministry raised the “rainbow” LGBT Pride Flag from its buildings in 2014 during Gay Pride – the first time it had been raised by a German federal ministry.

On his hopes for the project, Kleindiek said: “We learn from the LGBT Forum how discussions in Germany influence them, and how their discussions in other countries influence us in Germany.... I hope we will see in which situations people in different countries are living in Europe, but also in other parts of our world. I am looking forward to the results of this project, and I am very happy that we can support it.”

The project will continue with the ministry’s support for the next session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum that will take place in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in October 2016 and will focus on The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion.

 

Stories Shared 

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum’s “Family Is...” project collects and disseminates authentic stories about experiences and definitions of families. These stories have been captured on film and in print. 

The first “Family Is...” publication features several personal stories from our Fellows, to whom we are indebted for their generosity in sharing their own histories and opinions, and traces the theme of inclusion and family in art and activist projects around the world.

The publication and the full collection of video testimonies and interviews, as well as further information on the “Family Is...” project and more life stories, can be found on the dedicated webpage: lgbt.SalzburgGlobal.org/family-is 

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