Paying a Visit to the Council of Europe
Well, that was a very interesting and informative experience. It had been in my agenda for quite some weeks, but, for a long time, it was not clear exactly what I was going to do in Strasbourg for the European Forum on 22 and 23 April. It is probably illustrative of ordinary European Forum members like me trying to find their way into the wonderful world of the larger and more important European institutions that, in the long run, can be helpful for the cause of LGBT Christians/believers. I was invited by our project coordinator Florin Buhuceanu as a member of the Political Advocacy Working Group of the Forum.
Becoming an INGO
Our first visit, accompanied by Robert Simon, member of David et Jonathan, was to Madame Eleni Tsetsekou, head of the LGBT (or: SOGI) Unit of the Council of Europe (mainly supported by the Dutch and the Finnish government). After our first attempt to become a member of the so called “INGO Conference” of the Council of Europe last year had failed, we decided to consult Madame Tsetsekou. The European Forum applied again in the beginning of April and the support and recommendation of the LGBT Unit is important. The work within the INGO Conference seems to be hard, because more than 400 NGOs have participatory status, but to be acknowledged as a member of this Conference would mean a great deal for the Forum. We would then have an official status within the Council of Europe, which would create a more effective platform for our Christian LGBT voice to be heard in the ongoing debate on human rights in general and LGBT rights, specifically. Skipping the second visit for now, our last meeting was with Nigel Warner, the advisor to the Council of Europe for ILGA Europe. Nigel has been participating in all LGBT efforts around the Council of Europe for 18 years already and obviously has a lot of knowledge of all the do’s and dont's of beginning organisations like the European Forum. Nigel is committed to the importance of raising all the questions that have to do with (organised) religion and that have so much—mostly negative—impact on the lives of Christian and non-Christian LGBTs, mainly in South, Eastern and Central Europe. We were happy to learn that Nigel is also supportive of our effort to find a position within the institutions of the Council of Europe and that he would like to recommend us. Apart from that, he advised all the member groups of the Forum to find out, if helpful, who is their country’s member in the Parliamentary Assembly (MEP) of the Council of Europe, as to see if a group of interest can be built, in which we can share our specific Christian LGBT experiences and convictions. MEPs need to know directly of our experiences as to be supportive of our cause and goals as far as our “public lives” are concerned. I am very happy with the coalition that has been developing for a few years now between secular and Christian/religious LGBT groups and organisations, as we all strive to be respected as equals, whether it is in civil life or in church. And as organised religion is playing such a negative role, it is good to combine our strength to resist any development that infringes our possibility to participate fully and equally as members of society and as the members of our churches. Our voice is a voice that is needed to be heard next to all the religious voices that are traditional, conservative and repressive in the end.
Our second visit, also paid to Madame Tsetsekou, this time accompanied by her advisor Yuri de Boer, was to explore a first opportunity to bring together representatives of several organisations just to brainstorm about LGBT rights and religious freedom. One of the key topics could be the debate on hate speech. The meeting can be a beginning of a platform of organisations, who are all stakeholders in the ongoing effort to balance the position of religious people and institutions on the one hand and human rights on the other hand. Both the LGBT Unit of the Council of Europe are committed to organize the meeting, hopefully at the end of June. One of the participants, I am positive about, could and should be ENORB, the European Network Organization on Religion and Belief. Human rights, and LGBT rights specifically, are on their agenda. It is hopeful that in this organisation representatives of all the world religions participate and that they want to pursue the rights of LGBTs, even though this creates some internal tensions now and again. Only last month, ILGA Europe and ENORB decided to produce a common declaration. I am looking forward to this document of a religious and a LGBT orientated organisation.
Purely coincidental, Florin and I were also the spectators of the debate on the position of transgenders that was going on the Parliamentary Assembly on 22 April. The debate was on this resolution that was adopted, gladly. It is a huge step forward in the European perspective on transgenders in all the domains of their public life (work, health care, education etc.). The speech of Madame De Sutter, MEP from Belgium and a transwoman herself, was very moving (I could hardly hold my tears) and was met with a big applause. I was surprised with all the support in the Assembly, praising the work done behind the resolution. Sadly, the only speaking opponent, the MEP from Moldova, Mr. Ghiletchi, himself a Baptist minister, was so embarrassing for all believers who want to emphasise that every human being is a child of God, whether cisgender or transgender, and needs to be graciously invited to participate as a dignified member of both society and church. What can we do to convince our opponents that we are no threat to society or to church, but that we have so much to offer in our ongoing pilgrimage through life? For the European Forum, to be inside the Council of Europe and be able to just walk up to them and shake their hands, might be a very good first step …
O yes, do try to come to Strasbourg someday. It is a beautiful city, in all respects!