An epistolary report on the Building Bridges Program, Amsterdam 2018
Dear Pink Africa,
We have to act. We have to act fast. Lives, our lives are on the line. I have never felt greater urgency than I feel now. I have just returned from Amsterdam and I brought you some words, some dreams.
I was selected to participate in the Building Bridges Program from 31 July to 5 August 2018. Annually, the program seeks to connect activists with inspiration, needs with support, questions with answers, doubt with confirmations and to bring together stories from across the sphere of the protection and promotion of human rights of sexual and gender minorities globally. This year’s theme was ‘LGBT and Religion and how to overcome by building bridges with allies’. I joined 11 other African, Middle Eastern and Northern African activists in the world’s most dynamic rainbow city, Amsterdam.
I had no idea what to expect. This would be my second time in Amsterdam. The first time, in 2011, I was in awe of how packed the parts of the city that I visited were. In some parts of it, everyone seemed to be on the road, walking either to or from somewhere just like the scene from Half of A Yellow Sun after Nsukka fell. But Amsterdam was not at war. It is a lively city, not like Lagos, but in a subtle buzzy kind of way. I took a canal tour and had a burger afterwards. Tales of the Red-Light district and how grand it is reputed to be, always lurking in my thoughts. This time, I came in quite unaware of what would follow.
I arrived at Hotel Casa to find that the pride colours laced the lobby. ‘This is it’ I thought. Super tired, I fell to bed after saying a prayer of thanks for a safe arrival. Shocked to my bones that 9:00pm still had daylight in this part of the world, I dreamt of a week unbound by expectations.
The following day, Tuesday morning, the team converged at the lobby with Bregje, one of the coordinators of the program. After warm introductions, we spent the day with Deborah working on our stories, breaking down our individual walls through physical exercise, games and converstations, listening to each other’s music, sweating, bonding. By lunch time, I felt so bare in the waves of personal histories that surrounded, eyes that I now saw and that saw me too. By the end of the day our stories were out in the open. I was scared. Intimacy had unarmed me. We rounded off with a barbeque dinner hosted by Leisbeth and her family in a beautiful home in the quiet of Muiden.
On Wednesday, we engaged with the story of Amsterdam’s evolution into the Rainbow City, and how it manages to stay this way while striving towards improvement . We engaged with our host organisations and had a physical queer themed tour of Amsterdam by Laurens Buijs. We got to visit the COC office where we had a workshop of parallel session on Religion as a tool for social change. Following this we had dinner at Shakespeare Club where the cutest ‘silver foxes’ concluded a choir rendition. Grrrrr.
After, this we joined the Amsterdam community at the Old Lutheran Church to discuss engaging with allies in faith, family, community and government. Some of us got to share our stories of engagements here. We also got to listen to the stories from other attendees from other parts of the world. It was disarming to learn that being in Amsterdam was not necessarily an insulation from homophobia. It is not. Everyone dreams of growing up and getting out, coming out, being free to be. We reach for the big progressive cities excited in our faith that the everything will be okay. But we scam ourselves by thinking this. Until our homes are free from prejudice, we are not truly free. Our families board the plane with us, make into our dreams. Even when we think we bear the shield of anonymity, it hits us that we are never truly free.
On Thursday, we visited the Amsterdam Rainbow dress bearing all the flags of countries in the world that criminalise same-sex relations, and visited the Mayor’s residence for a pre-pride reception with other activists from all over the world. That evening at Hotel de l’Europe we had the Stories from the Heart event where we told our personal stories from our homes and contexts in the company of members of the Workplace Pride Foundation and Heineken. I told my story here too. Scared to my bones as I was. Activists are humans I got to learn. It is okay to be scared to our bones. It is also okay to feel and to cry.
On Friday, Amnesty International hosted plenary and parallel sessions on activism related themes. I participated in the parallel session on Rapid Response. Here, during a simulated scenario, I was transported to North Africa, where time to think is a luxury that LGBTI rights activists scrape off the volatile moments that make up their day. In a team with my Egyptian and Sudanese colleague, my adrenalin pumped each time we got an update on the simulated scenario. Following this we moved to the Municipality for speed date sessions with an impressive composition of delegates state and non-state LGBTI rights catering institutions. After this we took out time to unwind in preparation for the jewel, the Canal parade, Amsterdam’s Pride celebration.
This Pride celebration was themed ‘Heroes’. Organisation and groups hit the canal with their floats colourfully designed, costumes telling stories of resilience, of pain, of stubbornness. Standing on the harbour, I felt past and future heroes assemble in breezy swirls of affirmation. ‘Ogadinma’ they whispered. ‘Everything will be fine’. I was scared. So scared. My body froze often like someone was watching. Even when my heart knows that my work is important, my body seems to be waving through chilly thickness. Even where and when I did not need to, the guard would not let itself be dropped. It had taken a life of its own. Even my heart confirmed. Being free would never be reality for me personally. I have gotten so used to the mask that freedom felt so new, so prickly, so ‘un-mine’.
The Building Bridges team was hosted on the COC Netherland float. The COC float was colour coded Purple, themed ‘Who Run the World’ and wielding powerful symbols of intersectionality between western feminism and the western queer breakthroughs through the ages, girls!
I was far away from home with my future as a Nigerian lawyer mentally sprawled ahead of me -each day of my visibility as a queer person eroding chances of my having an ordinary life. Being here at this pride got me to reflect on this. I had made this decision in the feat of anger. I would constantly need to remind myself that in spite of my now subsiding anger and increasing fear this decision was still valid. I could tell no one that I was afraid. Men should be strong, ‘unafraid’. But ‘Ogadinma’ they whispered. ‘Everything will be fine’.
It would be my first time in a pride parade since the last one cost me my heart. I was going to march in this one for everyone who would love to but cannot. Before the parade kicked off we stalled in line with other floats from other organization. They were so many I lost count. It was as though the ancestors had their own float, the air was heavy with a strange kind of validation, a force, a message.
Munya teased me about my fondness of silver foxes and we all laughed, while I bowed in coyness. They were here. The presence of silver foxes always thaw me. The more I see older persons celebrate pride, the more secure I feel that there is a future. I have seen bitterness, spite and fear but silver foxes…they make staying worth it. Strutting, laughing, being in all their shades of grey and glory. I love. I love. I love that pride called everyone, it belonged to everyone.
I saw people of all ages and races dressed and ready. Sexy, sleek and queer. Everything will be fine, they lived up to this day. They are here. A beautiful young man dressed in his underwear in a neighbouring float, bare chested, soaked from his dark curly hair to Caucasian skin, leaned over to me, and flipped my sleeve another pleat up further revealing my bulging upper arm. ‘Show them!’ he said, winking at me. Munya nudged. I blushed in Igbo. I was ready.
Shortly after the parade began, the separate floats spacing out then filing into a procession. Each floating with a different music and dance routines. The COC float launched with Beyoncé’s ‘Who runs the world!’. Bridge after bridge spectators of all races, and ages and classes and styles crowding the sides walks, story building, bridges would cheer and wave and sing along, take photos. They would laugh along, dance along, spray us in affirmation from their water gun, wink, flirt, point, hi-5. In my feat of excitement, I lost count of the number of bridges we passed. But across every bridge I could spot someone who looked Nigerian, a heterosexual couple and their kids waving, a granny in pink and glitter. I could spot stories that have watched the world evolve. I could spot people who had travelled to share in this victory that Amsterdam is, and may be for a long time.
Hours of sailing and sailing through the dam rid me of memories of the intense week. I forgot that Amsterdam’s sun stayed up too long and suddenly it was midnight. I forgot that I often slept in my shoes and was mostly grumpy for the first hour of being awake. I forgot that I missed home and was often not quite sure which tram to get on when I was by myself.
But that night in bed, I lay awake restless to my bones, having celebrated a pride so far from my home. Was this my pride enough? Could this be my pride some day? I so badly wanted it to be. Although I had danced my heart out, I still had work to do. We still have to do. Lives are still on the line. The law back home is hectic and everyone is so scared. Worse, prejudice understands fear, and waters it, make it spread itself, pushes us into our silos. This fear makes us understand that the law is only a flake on the thick mass that culture is. In Amsterdam I learned that once we push pack at the prejudice by emerging from our silos, building bridges and making contact with those who can open up to us we can touch hearts and change attitudes and shift cultures. Once culture is shifted the law has no choice. Progressive cultural waves often precede progressive legal reforms.
In Amsterdam, progressive cultural waves are not an event or string of events. These waves are machines like the COC and stubborn spikes like Borris, subcultures rising from oblivion to become warmth continuously infecting and reinventing the norm (whatever it is) starting small, in coffee shops, among high school students, at bars, in hearts when they are not prepared to resist. Machines that are more proactive than reactive in their approach to change. Machines that make falling in love with diversity an option, gives it a chance because it is human hand that waves, it is a human hear that beats. Yet safe, conscious and constantly evolving letting everyone walk, grow, learn.
In Amsterdam machines like this started small and began cultural waves that have through time and hard work moved diversity from being a disruption to becoming the main event of the day. I have never seen Pride take centre stage in a city the way it did in Amsterdam. I have never seen love, validation, unity and respect breath among us the way it did.
On my way back to South Africa, I pondered deeply if Amsterdam’s Pride could be mine one day. Is it possible? Ogadinma? Will everything be fine? Most of us did not get to Amsterdam. But can the magic that is acceptance truly spread to everyone everywhere? Will the Rainbow dress ever be a rainbow ever reflect the truth if all the flags were taken off. The law, whatever it says, is ordinarily is not everything. Is my home ready for Pride? I do not know. But I believe. I need to believe.
So, I want to remember the story this way from the several phenomenal Dutch treats to the English ‘magicness,’ the Moroccan sexiness, the Sudanese charm and the Lebanese friendliness, the Israeli calmness, and the Egyptian’s resilience, the Algerian’s warmness, the Burundian’s playfulness and the Tunisian’s firmness, the Cameroonian sweetness, the Turkish delightfulness and the Zimbabwean’s doggedness. The several dreams and lives that I have connected with and will learn from through time.
In all these Pink Africa, I have held unto the faith of what if it all works out. What if it happens?
We have to act. We have to act fast. Lives, our lives are on the line. I have never felt greater urgency than I feel now. Our ‘battles’- or journeys - are as much with the courts and the state as they are with the hearts in our families, classrooms, workplaces and communities. When the heart shifts culture will. When culture shifts the people will. When the people shift the law will and it won’t even know when it does.
I am here, Pink Africa. Part of you. Unrepentant of my private naughtiness as I wade through work and will, doing my part, becoming a hero.