Global LGBT Forum

Telling Our Own Stories
Telling Our Own Stories
Klaus Mueller 

“During the 2016 session in Chiang Rai, Thailand, this Forum had given me the idea to organize the first legal Queer Film Festival in Hanoi, Vietnam. We showed 23 films! I think this year, again, the Forum
has given me the energy and resources for the second festival.  That was a pretty nice start for a film festival in my opinion.”

—    Bao Chau Nguyen, Member and Media Manager, Next Generation, Hanoi, Vietnam

Storytelling is a major tool of expressing of who we want to be – and of changing hearts. Increasingly, LGBT lives are portrayed in popular, mainstream culture, often through the lens of heroism or victimhood to reach larger audiences. Still, in many countries, enforced silence and government-sponsored discrimination reject LGBT people as part of the human family.

Our Forum cooperates with and amplifies the work of writers, filmmakers and photographers who portray the complexities of our lives. As declared in our 2013 Salzburg Statement: “Culture and arts are essential to dialogue on political and social change.” Throughout our sessions, we offer our Fellows the opportunity to showcase their work – be that poetry, literature, film, photography or performance – in “Open Forums,” film festivals and photography exhibitions.

As part of our focus on storytelling, we collect, produce and disseminate life stories that portray the diverse and rich realities of LGBT lives today, both in written and multimedia formats, and share them widely on a variety of social media platforms. It is the sharing of stories rather than mere facts and figures that helps to galvanize our supporters and challenge our opponents. Sharing our personal stories energized our belief in the value of an open conversation about our aspirations, challenges and failures. These stories have since been featured in print, radio and online media worldwide.

In this chapter, we profile just some of the different storytellers in our network and share insights into their work.


Benjamin Cantu

Zanele Muholi

Bradley Secker

Laurindo Garcia

Marc Pachter

Laia Ribera

A Global Network of Storytellers

Bao Chau Nguyen

Impromptu LGBT Film Festivals

Benjamin Cantu - “Artists are Important Because They Have a Specific Way of Sensing Social Injustice”
Banjamin Cantu speaking at the third session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum
Benjamin Cantu - “Artists are Important Because They Have a Specific Way of Sensing Social Injustice”
Rachitaa Gupta and Nicole Bogart 

Berlin-based filmmaker, Benjamin Cantu presented an exclusive preview of his documentary film Weil ich bin, wer ich bin / Je suis qui je suis (in English, Because of who I am) in 2015 during the session, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion.

During the conception of the film he worked closely with Forum Chair Klaus Mueller, who connected him with artists in Cambodia, Namibia and Morocco and shared global perspectives that artists at the Forum had raised. The film, profiling artists from regions with little visibility for LGBT individuals, found early support from members of the Forum, some of whom have since shown the film in their local communities. Here, Cantu recounts his journey following eight LGBT artists from all corners of the globe, shedding light on the important role the arts play in human rights activism.

What inspired you to profile other LGBT filmmakers, writers and artists?
I was asked to do a film connected with an exhibition that... would talk about the history of homosexual emancipation subculture and art. My film is not the historical, but the contemporary idea of what LGBT art looks like. I made the documentary film Because of who I am as a commission for a French/German broadcaster, but it soon became a very personal idea of making a film not only about a very broad subject as LGBT artists, but also about my personal relationship to my ex-boyfriend and our endeavor as filmmakers to travel to these artists.

How does art intersect with advancing LGBT human rights?
I think artists, and filmmakers, journalists, writers, are very important in the LGBT movement because they have a very specific way of sensing social, or gender injustice and injustice against LGBT [people]... There is one artist in our film who is a theatre playwright, actor, activist and director, and she really advocates for the oppressed LGBT communities, but [also] for oppressed Palestinians, oppressed women, for historically oppressed characters that she brings back to life and not have us forget them. I really think it’s important to have artists involved in activism and human rights defending because they carve out the world that we live in in a very special way so that we can understand people. And people who are not affected can understand what the world is really about, what we have to focus on.

Who are the artists portrayed in the film?
Ideally we wanted to be very broadly global about which artists we were going to film, but it soon was clear to me that the stories that need to be told are all over the world, but the artists we found happened to be from countries that also face difficult situations – not providing LGBT artists, or LGBT people any space to express themselves. So the friction between these artists from Russia, Morocco, Lebanon, South Africa and Nigeria, was more fruitful for a documentary approach, so we could not only speak about the happy life as an artist, but also how their environment creates this need, urge, political necessity to deal with the reality within their art.

What do you hope for the full release of the film?
I hope either this, or the longer version, will have a long life and we will hopefully show it at LGBT film festivals or LGBT community screenings. I really hope to get in touch with local communities. This is great to have Salzburg as a network of people who now know about this film and to hopefully become partners to show the film in small screenings abroad. I hope they fall in love with the artists we portray, as I did. I really admire these people and I really learned a lot. I hope the spark these artists have given us is transmitted in the film. I hope the names of these artists live on in the minds of the people who see it, and are eager to research and find out more about the work.

Zanele Muholi - “We Don’t Document for Fun”
Zanele Muholi is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in the 2013 session – LGBT and Human Rights: New Challenges, Next Steps.
Zanele Muholi - “We Don’t Document for Fun”
Louise Hallman 

South Africa is the only African country where not only is homosexuality legal, but same-sex couples can also marry and adopt children, and are legally protected under anti-discrimination legislation. However, this masks the horrors faced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender South Africans. Through the medium of photography, one South African “visual activist” aims to show the truth of what it is like to live as a black lesbian in the country.

“I’m a visual activist before I’m a photographer, before I’m an artist,” says award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi.

Despite all the supposed legal protections the LGBT community receives in the increasingly prosperous southern African country, lesbians, especially black lesbians, are frequently subjected to “corrective rape” attacks, where often gangs of men pin down and sexually assault lesbians in attempts to “cure” them of their homosexuality. Some of these attacks have even resulted to the death of their victims. As South Africa struggles to combat its high level of crime, these attacks often go unprosecuted.

Muholi explains why she believes photographing this marginalized group is important: “If I even talk about the work that I’m doing on black lesbians, I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for the younger generation. I’m doing it for the older generation, who were never even given the opportunity to open their mouths.”

As a black lesbian, Muholi sees her work as part of a wider effort to document black history in the post-Apartheid country. “My focus has ever been on black lesbians, on black gays, on black trans-men. And why black specifically is because as black people, they don’t have a tangible history that is captured by us on us,” Muholi explains. “We have people who write our history on our behalf as if we did not exist… I think one has to find ways to re-write the history, for our own great-grandchildren. For them to know that we were once here and for them to understand fully the resistance and other struggles that we still encounter…“It’s sort of like capturing the visual presence, which then becomes a visual history… To say, yes we are here.”

Muholi’s photographs often capture intimate moments between lovers. But she has also been working with her photography collective to document the abuses South Africa’s lesbians suffer – and the funerals held for the victims. When speaking with Muholi, her anger at the atrocities committed against South African lesbians is glaringly apparent. As a member of the community, these are issues that she feels personally – not as a neutral observer. “We don’t document for fun, or just because we have powers and cameras. With my team, I have a collective calling; we document all of these atrocities because we want the world to know that we have a situation at hand.”

Just as the oppressive regime of apartheid was ended in South Africa in 1994, Muholi hopes to see the end of the persecution of the LGBT community in her country, and believes photography can be a tactic in doing so, bringing the plight of her community to the attention of the wider national and international consciousness.

“We call upon those with powers to agitate with us, just like the people who worked with activists in South Africa to end apartheid and I think the same strategies could be used,” she says – angry yet optimistic.

Bradley Secker - “It’s About Collecting The Stories. It’s About Not Letting Them Be Lost”
Bradley Secker - “It’s About Collecting The Stories. It’s About Not Letting Them Be Lost”
Nicole Bogart 

British photojournalist Bradley Secker has been based in Istanbul, Turkey, for the last five and a half years documenting the consequences of social, political and military actions from an individual’s perspective. One of his long-term projects – titled Kütmaan, an Arabic word for the act of hiding or concealing something – documents the plight of LGBT asylum seekers in the Middle East.  

Why did you begin photographing LGBT people?
Nobody assigned me to do this work; it was purely done for personal motivation back in 2010. I had been to Syria in 2008 and decided to go back in 2010 with a professional focus on for documenting the situation for gay Iraqi men who had to flee from Iraq and ended up in Damascus and other parts of Syria. There was no editorial interest at that time, unfortunately. It was very difficult to get that story into the media’s realm.

I moved to Turkey in late 2011, which is when I started documenting the plight of Iranian LGBT [people] in Turkey, and, more recently, the Syrians and Iraqis who were displaced for a second time from Iraq to Syria and then to Turkey.

As a gay man, how do these stories affect you personally?
The stories I hear and the things I see do affect me. Inevitably. I try to keep it as professional as possible and try not to get emotional because it can also trigger someone [else]. It’s probably not good for them, to re-traumatize them, and it can also be difficult for me to hear, but it’s way more important to be more cautious about the person I’m interviewing.

Collecting the stories is time consuming… often putting myself in a place where I don’t feel that safe and I feel quite vulnerable. But I put that aside and concentrate on documenting the people that face much greater risks, and continue to.

[But] it makes me optimistic that LGBT people are strong and united and will always come together wherever they are in the world. They will form a community; they will find each other. It’s quite incredible and I really find that inspiring. At the same time, it’s incredibly negative, in terms of what they are fleeing from and the conditions in a lot of countries. Now, in the recent past, and what looks like the considerable future, it’s not really getting much better. It’s a mixture of optimism, happiness and complete anger and madness at the whole thing.

What sort of impact do you hope your work will have?
I’m not a big believer that photojournalism can change the world. I don’t think it’s that profound. Purely and simply I think the work I’m doing will just illustrate and educate people.

But together, as a more cohesive body of work, I hope it would stand as a documentation of the situation in general in the MENA region and Turkey for this period that I’m covering it. I really don’t think it’s going to change anything politically [or] socially. It’s about collecting the stories. It’s about not letting them be lost.

Laurindo Garcia - Using Social Media as a Loudspeaker for Activism
Laurindo Garcia is a three-time Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in sessions in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in Salzburg and Thailand.
Laurindo Garcia - Using Social Media as a Loudspeaker for Activism
Nicole Bogart 

Social media has changed the nature of how we share stories; its viral nature allows activists to spread messages further than ever before. Filipino LGBT activist Laurindo Garcia recognized this innate power in its early stages. In 2011, he founded the B-Change Group, an organization dedicated to promoting social change through technology. Today, operating out of three cities globally, the B-Change Group works with small-to-medium non-profit and other organizations to help harness the power of social media.

“We need to try to find ways to build up [social media advocacy] capabilities among activists, because we live in a world where advocacy organizations don’t have cash, they don’t have resources and they are working in incredibly challenging environments,” explains Garcia, a multi-time Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum.

At the Forum, Garcia, a highly-regarded expert in media and communications, also shared his life experiences of living openly with HIV: “I’m openly HIV+. It’s been a long journey for me to understand my place as an HIV+ gay, Asian male in the world and I’ve been learning how to do that over the last 12 years.”

He focuses his work in social justice, diversity and health for marginalized groups, especially the LGBT community and those living with HIV. These groups face great challenges when navigating the murky waters of online activism, often subjected to rampant harassment, “trolling” and even death threats when spreading their message on social media. These threats are amplified when advocating for groups in countries where homosexuality is criminalized, as discussed by Fellows from countries such as Uganda, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Laurindo Garcia on health and access to health for LGBT people

During the fifth session of the Forum, Garcia called on participants to conceptualize a social media campaign aimed at creating online conversations surrounding LGBT families. The exercise was designed to demonstrate the unique way in which activists can tell stories using new media types; but Garcia noted it also provided an opportunity to shed light on social media’s implications, something “we are still grappling with,” the activist says.

“The reason why I jumped at the opportunity to run a session at the Forum on social media is to try to build resilience and knowledge about how to do it well and approach it with method, a greater understanding of what can work and what might be some of the risks along the way,” he explains. “[Activists] have taken to technology – and that’s a great thing – but they are often exposed to many risks. Opportunities like being [at the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum] offer a way to talk about it and impart new skills, but really help provide a space where people can be sharing how they have identified solutions to problems they have been facing, what didn’t work and hopefully through that exchange they are better at solving it themselves.”

Garcia’s work has proven effective for several organizations. In 2013 and 2014, B-Change partnered with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance to train community organizations on effective social media practices for promoting HIV testing in Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. In 2016, the group assisted six community-based HIV organizations in Thailand to use social media tools to direct clients to healthcare providers. Through a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), B-Change also aided research investigating the effectiveness of using social media to address discrimination against LGBT people in Asia.

Garcia is now working on building a mobile app called “Be” that allows LGBT people, women, those with disabilities and other minorities to rate public spaces on their level of inclusiveness.

“Be is the only app where diverse women, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and other groups can come together towards a common goal,” explains Garcia.

“With Be you can find inclusive cafés, clinics, retail outlets, health and social support services, entertainment establishments and other places nearby at the tap of a button. You can filter your search according to your individual needs. Rate and share places so that your friend and others in the community can benefit from your experience. Give feedback to place owners so that they learn how to improve the way they serve you.

“Our vision is that Be will help diverse groups take the lead in shaping inclusive cities of the future.”
Inclusion was a key theme of the fourth session of the Forum – The Many Faces of LGBT Inclusion – held in Thailand in 2016. Speaking at that session, Garcia reflected on the Forum as a “community of trust” and a “safe space for other activists and individuals to come together,” saying: “The stories that are shared here are in good hands, amongst like-minded individuals as well, and we will take care of each other.”

Laurindo Garcia on Salzburg Global LGBT Forum as a safe place

Marc Pachter - “History Is A Construct. A Lot Happened, But What Do We Remember From It?”
Marc Pachter is a multi-time Fellow and faculty member of Salzburg Global Seminar, and has attended the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum three times in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Marc Pachter - “History Is A Construct. A Lot Happened, But What Do We Remember From It?”
Heather Jaber and Nicole Bogart 

Though we often accept records of history as fact, much of our understanding of that history is indeed constructed; for all that we consider to be significant, there are other events, movements and even whole groups of people that we leave out. Through his work as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Marc Pachter noticed America’s LGBT history had fallen victim to this fate.

During his tenure at the Gallery in Washington, DC, Pachter was tasked with signifying achievement in American culture. “This used to be very easy… White men on horses, usually generals or Presidents,” he explains. “True history began with thinking of race and gender in general. But... the road was still stopping short of LGBT questions – also part of the reveal of what a culture really is.”

Pachter, a multi-time Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, was involved in introducing the controversial HIDE/SEEK exhibition to the National Portrait Gallery in which homosexuality was depicted as a core theme in the work of many American artists. He believes national museums play an important role in signaling a growing consensus within society to discuss the history of LGBT communities. Moreover, including those exhibitions acknowledge that LGBT rights and visibility are not new issues – they have always existed in history.

As explained on the Gallery’s website, the exhibition (developed by a team under his successor), which ran from October 2010 to November 2011, was “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. HIDE/SEEK considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art-especially abstraction- were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”

“It boils down to invisibility; history is a construct; lots happened, but what do we remember from it?” Pachter says. “And that we chose as a nation not to think about it says a lot. The history was always there… People that were not known as gay were living their lives. The nation needed to say: our history telling is incomplete.

“We already knew that about race; we already knew that about women… but we needed to think this way [about queer history]. It felt both revolutionary and, happily, in the end ordinary to do this.”
The exhibition demonstrated that many Americans – although certainly not all – were indeed ready to learn about the nation’s queer history. There was controversy: one work was in fact removed due to political pressure, leading to protests. But the exhibition as a whole remained and the Smithsonian has now embraced the collecting and telling of LGBT history.

Marc Pachter on history as a construct: What do we remember from it?

The Power of Theater
Danish Sheikh performs a "Shakesqueer" monologue at the Open Forum of the fourth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum
The Power of Theater
Nicole Bogart 

Eager to use the arts to discuss women’s issues, in 2011 Salvadorian theatre actress Laia Ribera Cañénguez set out to write a play summarizing debates within lesbian and feminist issues. The play – AFUERA – was first performed by Guatemalan lesbian theatre company Siluetas in front of a small crowd in Guatemala and saw great success. The play was later performed across Central and South America to audiences ranging from incarcerated women to indigenous groups.

Speaking at the 2013 inaugural session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, Ribera explained:
“It was a very difficult process where we spent five months discussing, trying things, getting people to see small sketches. It was sometimes very frustrating. But in the end we ended up with a piece in which we talk about a lot of different issues, some of them like lesbophobia and the role that the church place in the control and oppression of sexualities, the binary system of gender identities, and other questions in our community that are more intimate, about lesbian relationships and the problems we have there; about our fear of loneliness.

“We have had a lot of lessons taken from the play. One of them – for me the most important – is how we can do political activism without losing the joy, without seeing that we are sacrificing ourselves, and also to use art to find other ways to express ourselves.”

Also recognizing the power of theatre, lawyer and keen amateur dramatist, Danish Sheikh, draws inspiration from a man widely regarded as the greatest playwright in history, William Shakespeare. Sheikh attended the Forum in 2015 and 2016, where he not only shared his legal expertise but also performed Shakespearean monologues during the Open Forum. He was struck by the contemporary take on love and sexuality in Shakespeare plays such as Measure For Measure, in which fornication is prohibited, drawing similarities to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by the British empire during colonial rule, which criminalized homosexuality in the country. This fascination with Shakespeare’s work led the lawyer to perform adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, focusing on the intersection of love and law, in a popular Bangalore park, later adapting the plays to star queer characters.

“I was always confused by the idea of love in Midsummer Night’s Dream where a love potion makes Helena fall in love with Demetrius. Later, I realized that Shakespeare was saying how irrational the idea of love can be. It is an important point because of how law tries to regulate love (with Section 377) and how it comes up short,” he explained to the Times of India.

Laia Ribera Cañénguez on LGBT awareness through theater

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