Nine years after first learning of the Coalition of African Lesbians, I was just back from a meeting of sexual rights activists where two CAL members made me reflect, made me laugh, and made me just so glad they were in the room. My reaction isn’t new: that’s basically true each and every time I find myself in spaces where CAL is present.
Just after I rst learned of CAL, I started to figure out that some of the African women I most admired, learned from, thought of as solid colleagues, comrades, mentors and friends, began identifying as members or supporters of CAL. Strong smart women from Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. It was becoming clearer that CAL was a magnet for some amazing people. That remains true, all these years later.
I know CAL members and staff primarily through shared advocacy in global, cross regional and feminist spaces. Many of these “sites” focus on sexual rights, women human rights defenders, and human rights, generally. And through that work, I learn of CAL’s impact and its contributions to regional organizing. Even to domestic organizing. To women’s rights advocacy. To LGBT advocacy. To human rights advocacy. To leadership development. To movement building. To “knowledge production”. CAL is a small team with a big footprint.
One of the characteristics that I appreciate most about CAL is that their members push others to be smart, sensitive and better and more responsible coalition partners. The CAL team won’t silence issues that often pose serious challenges to coalitions. Members name power relations, including the power wielded by those generally seen as powerless: the power of LGBT groups whether in terms of replicating sexism or neo-colonial dynamics of North and South; women’s groups which are sometimes exclusive or even hostile to lesbians and trans people (and those who are “simply” gender non-conforming); and trans groups that sometimes also replicate sexism and articulate an anti- feminist discourse.
These are hard times in gender-related organizing. And CAL isn’t afraid to say this, to address that fact and the ideas above, to help climb out of the morass that our organizing sometimes leaves us in. It’s sometimes a wonderful but complicated morass of social justice activism, and it is also a morass that makes networks like CAL so valuable.
CAL’s commitment to lesbian feminist leadership in the global South pushes those of us based elsewhere to do better work, both on our own and in partnership, so we can collectively move from the quicksand to stable ground. That commitment also puts us all in a better position to make demands of governments and of one another.
CAL’s involvement helps to build a global feminist and sexual rights movement that can meet our collective aspirations and help to answer some of the harder questions we all face: How can we effectively address power imbalances across regions and within our movements? How can we learn to work as equal partners in collaboration with one another – not just in name but in practice? How can we embrace (or even reject) one another’s agendas or tactics when we may not fully understand them? How do we learn from and not alienate one another? How can we be open to learning what feels new and still hold the convictions we know deep down in our activist cells are right? How do we teach, or coach, or mentor, or share, without resting on a dynamic that says, “I know better than you because I’ve been here before?” And how can younger or newer activists be truly open to absorbing what others have learned through similar struggles?
These questions, to my eyes and ears, seem central to CAL’s political vision.
When I am in a room with people representing CAL, I know a few things: there will be a strong feminist voice in the space; the interests of lesbian women, and African lesbian women, will be named; and the politics of the positions will be so much richer than those of “simple” identity LGBT politics. In fact, more often than not, there will be a critique of the politics of identity that actually may have served to bring those very people together.
CAL has made a solid contribution to LGBT politics (not that this is any one thing, of course) across regions by helping to build an analysis of “bodily autonomy” and the politics of states and cultures regulating decision making about our bodies and what we do with them. The boundaries surrounding sexuality and gender expression become more (forgive this word coming) *meaningless*, in that they become less rigid and more uid, and more outside of de nitions of L-G-B or T as we understood them even a few years ago. And it’s simultaneously true that activists build movements / coalitions / networks around these very notions of identity, for better and worse. I think CAL helps tease out the nuances and the challenges inherent in this reality – and also demands respectful discussions about them. The naming of all of these voices and concerns, too, is how movements grow.
As long as there are violent attacks and brutal physical and political acts of discrimination in our “global community”, CAL is a necessary political force: It’s not meaningless that Black lesbian women are attacked and murdered in various countries, just as it is not meaningless that lesbians are sometimes incarcerated in psychiatric institutions or kicked out of schools or denied health care – because they are seen to transgress gender norms, or because they have resisted sexism and misogyny. CAL helps to make these realities visible. But CAL also makes demands for justice and accountability. Together, these are critically valuable and necessary strategies.
Whether in terms of UN venues such as the Human Rights Council, or regional ones, such as the African Commission, CAL as a network engages in smart, focused advocacy. This was true, as well, in discussions leading to the UN International Conference on Population and Development +20 and Beijing +20 reviews. CAL as a network and coalition “works the state game” just as it tries to build and strengthen groups of activists from lots of places and interests. This is no easy feat. Each presents enormous challenges. Really, the goal for all of us in these movements is the one CAL seems to be driven by: learning from and acknowledging women’s/ lesbian/ LGBT/ anti colonial/geo political history – while at the same time making it.
Happy anniversary, CAL! I’m raising a glass of revolutionary love for a toast from across the ocean. And I’m looking forward to learning from and standing alongside you for the next ten years!