Dr Felicity Daly reflects on the first Global Feminist LBQ Women’s* Conference, which took place last month in Cape Town, South Africa.

If it seems surprising that there hasn’t been a global conference such as this before perhaps it is a measure of the invisibility and silencing of lesbian, bisexual or queer (LBQ) women* in many spaces, including within women’s movements and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (LGBT+) activism. This conference sought to overcome a scarcity of opportunities to recognise, celebrate and affirm LBQ women; consider the diversity of our experiences; and learn from one another’s activism. The priority was to centre women* whose sexuality is marginalised with an asterisk representing inclusion of trans and intersex people who identify as women as well as incorporating gender non-conforming and non-binary people.

More than 500 women represented 111 countries and 11 global regions with plenaries providing a platform for LBQ leaders from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific to share insights, successes and strategies from organising in their contexts. The two-day event offered some 50 workshops, panels and other sessions, including films, which in one way or another echoed the themes leading, healing and transforming.

Many of the delegates are leaders of organisations and they reflected on maintaining accountability, integrity and transparency in their leadership as they demand change from outside. The conference encouraged open conversations and healthy debates and interrogation of what we demand from ourselves as feminists and leaders. We were asked not only to ‘call out’ any objectionable behaviour but to ‘call in’ those we have differences with and engender gentle and respectful communication.

Given that most LBQ women experience multiple intersecting forms of oppression, violence and trauma over the course of their lives as well as through their activism, there was a tangible emphasis on healing. The conference opened with a cleansing ritual performed by a sangoma, or traditional healer, who intoned names of women through the ages to present day who have died because they asserted their sexual autonomy. A dedicated room served as a wellness lab where women could seek support, take part in meditation, express themselves through art, or simply rest. Some participants suggested the need to provide other ways to release the anger and stress they face doing their work in contexts where they face significant resistance. One woman stated that rather than a room with sofas, blankets and yoga mats she would prefer a box where she could scream and throw objects against a wall to shatter them.

Feminists have been calling for transformation for decades and currently face a backlash, the rise of authoritarianism and reassertion of white supremacy all while contending with a climate crisis that will require systemic changes. We were asked to reflect on the state of our movements and realise that transformation is impossible without embracing diversity. Many acknowledged that making spaces for women* more diverse is complex and has led to uncomfortable confrontations. Some older activists lamented a lack of intergenerational dialogue around these tensions. Nevertheless, there were opportunities for delegates to actively engage with scenarios exploring managing different perspectives without perpetuating the violence and conflict that we are fighting against outside our movements.

One of the values of the conference was to ‘ground the space in the land we hold it on’ and the South African delegates helped us to do so beautifully, particularly by breaking into impromptu call and response songs that are a legacy of their organising during the struggle for democracy. Holding the conference in South Africa allowed many delegates to express themselves more freely than they can in their countries.

The leader of the host organisation, Cape Town’s Triangle Project, shared these words: ‘Cape Town has not been welcoming of black, queer, lesbian and trans people’s lives, our spirits and our bodies…we have always been of this place, of these peoples, of this land. I still want to welcome you, even if I am not welcome. I want you to remember that on these streets, on this land, with these people, you are safe…we have never stopped fighting back.’

As a researcher for Strong in Diversity, Bold on Inclusion, a new project which aims to improve socio-economic inclusion and enhance well-being among LGBT+ Africans, with specific attention to the barriers that lesbian, bisexual and trans women face, the perspectives shared by African women resisting patriarchy and heterosexism are grounding. The Global Feminist LBQ Women’s* Conference was a precious opportunity to build bridges, coalesce, express solidarity, strategise and to celebrate the beauty in our diversity. It may have been a first but there is a high level of commitment to reconvene women* across LBQ and other identities who are forging feminist responses to the challenges of our time.

Dr Felicity Daly is a researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. She is also an adjunct fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at LaTrobe University, and a member of the Research Advisory Board of Open for Business. Her research and advocacy have focused on: realising the right to health and enhancing well-being; advancing women’s rights, particularly of sexual minority women, and promoting their autonomy and sexual health; and the inclusion of those marginalised based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics in economic and social development.