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Finding home

While – to many Filipinos – a home is often associated with a physical structure, Justin Francis Bionat writes that for many LGBT people, it is also “an abstract term that extends beyond the edifice to that feeling of safety, of belonging and even of self-perseverance.”

To many Filipinos, a home is a physical structure consisting of four walls and a roof. It is a place where there’s a cozy bed for one to lie down at night, and where – when morning comes – one can have something to eat… perhaps, to exemplify the common tao’s penchant for modest living, some dried fish with rice.

But home is also an abstract term that extends beyond the edifice to that feeling of safety, of belonging and even of self-perseverance.

And here for me, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum turned out to be a figurative home as it gathered activists from 65 countries across seven continents.

Marking its 75th year as the Salzburg Global Seminar (and the 5th year of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum), this year’s gathering was themed, simply, “Home”. It was a very fitting theme, if I might say so myself.

On a global scale, we continue to be always faced with the struggle of belonging; I’d say especially for many LGBT people. Many are still forced out of their (physical) homes and even countries. There are in fact countries where being LGBT means going through a public beating, getting several shots to the head and chest, or be disowned by family members. Many of our LGBT brothers and sisters have no choice but to leave everything behind; leave the lives and loved ones that they may have considered to be family, their home.

And so the search for another home happens, giving flesh to one of the major arguments made during the forum that “it’s a human instinct to find a safe space.”

Take Danny Ramadan, as an example, who packed all his bags and left Syria when he felt his safety there was compromised. After leaving everything behind, he found a new home in Canada, where he ended up working to help others like him to provide asylum – again, a home – to other Syrian refugees. He recently published a book, “The Clothesline Swing”.

There’s an activist from Bangladesh who found himself leaving his home after hearing that two of his close friends (and also LGBT activists) were murdered by extremists in their locality. He headed back to his country eventually, though this time to work even harder help others like him find their home by protecting LGBT human rights.

I must admit that I am luckier than others since there is no imminent threat to my life as an LGBT activist in the Philippines. So I found myself in a dilemma. Sitting amid 33 other activists, lawyers, filmmakers, artists and probably the queerest crowd I have ever found myself being part of, I was forced to ask myself: “What is ‘home’ for me as an LGBT activist in the Philippines?”

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It lingered in my subconscious throughout my five-day experience in the Salzburg Global Seminar. Walking in the grounds of the Schloss Leopoldskron, the very thought of home seemed so intense, so important, and yet so… diverse to many. To me before, being home meant being with my mother and father together at the dinner table. But it has now expanded to include the love and safety that I feel in the arms of my loving boyfriend, Art Leonil.

“Justin, what is home for you?” I asked myself over and over again, even in seemingly inconsequential events, like while having a cup of coffee and three pieces of those wild berry biscuits they served for us during teatime.

On the fourth day of the conference, I found myself still with an ambiguous understanding of home. And on that day, I had short conversations with two fellows, at different times: Ahba Bhaiya from India and Estela Gonzalez from Mexico. Two women in their own fields of activism and with equally inspiring stories of their own. But what – to my surprise – particularly lingered with me was their encouragement; no long inspiring quotations; merely “Good job!” and “Keep it up!”

Their words sounded like some mother’s comforting words when you are troubled; like a quick boost of motivation when you feel that all is lost. They mattered even more because these words came from activists who fight not just for themselves but for the most marginalized and oppressed sectors in society. That these people are from countries where LGBT people are treated perhaps (And arguably – Ed) worse than in the Philippines mattered; a reality in countries like Lebanon, Russia, Suriname, Argentina and Uganda. Yes, the Philippines had its share of hate crimes, anti-gay legislation, et cetera, but we’ve no law that allows the killing of people who engage in anal sex/sodomy or be in same-sex relationships. I personally believe that the people there, in these contexts, who experience these hardships, are toughened by these experiences. And yet the spirit of activism pushes them to work even harder.

And these people are now home. Salzburg Global Seminar is now home for them. Where they can share personal experiences and not be judged. A home where sexual orientation and gender identity did not matter when one’s dancing to Rihanna’s songs at the Bierstube. A home where a 20-year-old LGBT Filipino activist was able to connect with over 65 countries across the world and have a network of support in this continued movement for equality.

Clare Shine, Salzburg global VP and chief program officer, said that the Salzburg Global Seminar is a “connective tissue which runs through (our) commitment to the protection of human rights.” She asks that all “be tough on the issues but kind on each other.”

The same was shared by many others.

Yuli Rustinawati from Indonesia, one of the founders of Arus Pelangi, said that she still believes that in being collectively, one finds home “where you feel safe, secure, love, togetherness, sharing and learning and growing up together.

BaoChau Nguyen, the youngest member of the group at 19, and a filmmaker from Vietnam, agreed with the essence of connecting. Because in this particular context, he said, “we don’t care about what organization you belong to; here we care about who you are. I (am) touched about that. I feel like I’m lucky staying as friends with the people I meet.”

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But for some – like Klaus Mueller – the very notion of home merges the physical with the figurative, since finding home for many LGBT, he said, means finding an actual physical space that is safe, but where “we can always contact and support each other”.

Perhaps a reminder that even within LGBT ‘homes’ there’s divisiveness, Palitha Bandara of Positive Hopes Alliance from Sri Langka noted that – at least where he came from – “transgender people… have a little bit more acceptance because (they follow the) gender binary after their surgery. They become either man or a women so people accept them. After surgery, they prefer to call themselves female (for transwomen); they don’t like being called ‘third gender’, like, for example, in their passport.” This is a personal choice, of course; and yet it affects the overall LGBT struggle in his country, and “there is a little bit of difficulty in solving that.”

But that conversation with Palitha is exactly what such gatherings is for: To learn and grow from the experiences of the individuals in various own countries.

Salzburg Global Seminar is a collective body that not only advocates for LGBT human rights but likewise builds communities that are safe, inclusive and sustaining. And to a young Filipino man who always felt that home is a place that cocoons him inside a comfortable – albeit conservative – environment, the Salzburg Global Seminar showed another concept of what home is, as a safe space for a global conversation on LGBT issues. I have found another home here; and this is one home that I will never really leave.

The author (fourth from left) with other LGBT activists from other parts of the world.

Justin is a proud Ilonggo, as much as he is a proud LGBT advocate for the youth. A political science student from West Visayas State University, he is the founder of The Student Advocates for Gender Equality (SAGE) Network. At 19 years old, Justin has already given SOGIE, HIV and AIDS, and human rights talks and lectures. He is also a Department of Health HIV and AIDS VCT counselor; and a volunteer and member of Youth Voices Count - Asia, a youth initiative led by young MSM and transgender women. As an advocate, he believes that "only when a brave few will raise the rainbow flag can the LGBT movement really reach its pinnacle."


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