May 13, 2012
Courage, Creativity, and Curiosity
What I treasure most about the work I do is that I’m surrounded every day by people who are unquestionably more impressive than I’ll ever be. Their story, their struggle, their triumph is not just an inspiration, but a constant reminder that the world can be a cruel place – and also contain beautiful things.
So today, I want to share a few stories from halfway around the world, and propose how they might inform some decisions we in this room can and will make.
In 2001, a young gay man named Sunil Pant returned home to Nepal, a country in the middle of a violent revolution that would eventually claim nearly 13,000 lives. He had been away for the beginning of the conflict – first, at engineering college in Belarus, then at a short-term job in Japan. In Belarus, above the doors of health clinics across the country, he read “beware of homosexuals;” in Tokyo, he found semi-secret gay bookstores, bars, and cafes – and in them, queer people to talk with.
Back in Kathmandu, he started visiting a dusty park in the middle of the city every night. It was a place where people could congregate in public without the threat of anyone noticing them. They could meet, they could chat, they could cruise.
In his conversations with gays, lesbians, and transgender people he met there, he began to notice patterns: people were kicked out of their families, people were abused by the police, people saw no hope for their lives going forward.
So in September of 2001, while Nepal was distracted by a recent massacre of the royal family, and the world was distracted by the 9/11 attacks, he went to the government to register his country’s first ever LGBT rights organization. The official who took the application was thrilled: “fantastic! We need an organization to convert these people back to heterosexuality!”
That wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, so he rescinded the application, but returned a few days later and filed the same papers with one line different: the organization was dedicated not to rights, but to health outreach and HIV prevention.
It was approved immediately.
Today, eleven years later, the organization, Blue Diamond Society, has nearly a thousand employees; Sunil is the only openly-gay federal-level politician in Asia; and the country has some of the most progressive laws – particularly when it comes to gender identity – the world has ever seen.
Now it’s easy – and perhaps tempting – to sit here half a world away in awe of this vibrant queer human rights movement in the world’s seventeenth poorest country. We can gasp and think “how on earth did they do it?!” In fact, I suspect that exact line of thinking – that awe – explains why I’m living there now, why the Fulbright Commission thought this was a valid project among dozens of applications.
There are plenty of ways to explain it: cultural, historical, political, legal. But after having spent nearly a year day in, day out with the activists responsible for this progress, the message I want to extract and share today is simpler. They did it by acting out courage, creativity, and, to sustain those two admirable pursuits, curiosity.
Two weeks ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning to a friend calling me with news that a transgender sex worker had been murdered. She was taken to the hospital, and died as doctors treated the wound on her forehead.
5 minutes after the phone call, this friend picked me up and carried me across the city on his motorcycle to the police station.
For three hours, members of the queer community, friends of the deceased, her family, and her church pastor pleaded with the police commanders to conduct a thorough investigation. There was yelling, there was crying, there was begging for due process. The police made vague promises, but couched them in comments such as “well if harassment happens from our officers, it’s probably because they don’t really understand what you people are,” and “of course if she was carrying condoms, she would get harassed – she’s a whore.”
The meeting concluded without any tangible progress, the group filed out into the parking lot where an ambulance waited with the casket inside. We walked about half a mile to a deer park near the airport, and watched as her brothers and cousins dug a hole. Over two hundred people gathered to sing, pray, and listen. The pastor delivered the Lord’s Prayer. And friends poured gifts of flowers and small bills into the casket. Some cried; many took photos on cell phones and chatted casually.
What does this say about courage? People, powerful people, people with money - have told the activists in Nepal for years to back off of cases like this: “Stay away from the prostitutes and other people who live on the margins of society because they undermine the cause.” The activists’ response has always been: but they face abuses, human rights violations, and horrendous marginalization. We won’t abandon them to fight instead for LGBT people who have jobs and salaries and security.
In 2006, when the king stepped down and the people’s revolution ended in Nepal, one of the leaders of the revolution reached out to the LGBT community for votes. Once his party was elected and he became a powerful minister, they went back to him with a request of their own: put us in the budget.
He hesitated. No government had ever officially acknowledged this population before. But he was a revolutionary, an ideologue, and a few days later, a pile of dense academic texts appeared on his desk – arguing for him that Marx and Lenin cared about queer human rights. Weeks later, “sexual and gender minorities” was the newest budget line in the fledgling country. Today, they’re using this money to build the first LGBT community center in South Asia.
And finally: curiosity.
Next week, the US Embassy in Kathmandu will co-host a seminar with LGBT organizations to discuss disaster risk reduction considerations for the queer population.
This all came out of curiosity. We’ve seen LGBT people suffer in the wake of disasters. In Haiti after the earthquake, in an effort to empower women, some food aid was distributed to women only, which left out households that didn’t contain women. In Pakistan’s recent floods, transgender people were denied entry to relief camps because their appearance didn’t match that on their ID cards.
But beyond being concerned about protecting themselves post-disaster situations, networks of LGBT people in Nepal want to know how, through empowerment and recognition, they can be a resource for other marginalized communities. For example, since the LGBT community has been so successful in working on both visible policy and an invisible grassroots, how can they help people living with HIV access medication and health care if an earthquake destroys thousands of miles of roads and bridges?
These are the questions they are asking. This is curiosity.
And when work, activism, exploration driven by these ideas, it can free us from the traps of competitive progress.
Because whether it’s on a university campus or in the city you move to for your first job, or in a faraway country where you find yourself at the wise old age of 26, it’s not about fighting over who is the most oppressed group, who suffers the most at the whims of the powerful. It’s about identifying the structures of oppression that hurt our communities - and uniting to erode and eradicate them.
It’s not easy; just observe and it seems as if ranking and marking others is in human DNA.
I hear it in fancy restaurants in Kathmandu – when wealthy, Western-educated high-caste gay men deride the local LGBT rights movement for focusing too much on “low class trans people.”
We see it in the Wall Street firms that promote themselves as being open and “gay-friendly,” then implement policies harmful enough to ignite thousands of occupiers against their greed.
And we see it here at Duke – when admissions promotes the University as “need-blind” but still asks all applicants to check a box on the application if they want to be considered for financial aid.
Sure, we have to be courageous. But courage is not enough – courage can cause tunnel vision. Be creative. But creativity is not enough – creativity can cause irrelevant actions. Combine these, and be curious – ask what’s next, and what we might not be doing well enough, for ourselves and for our fellow citizens.
Duke has this energy, this tradition. And while it might be overlooked for traditions of basketball-inspired bonfires or Rhodes Scholars, the impassioned social activism emanating from this campus can be felt around the world.
Take, for example, Tico Almeida, who as a junior in 1997 started a small organization called Students Against Sweatshops. Within seven months of forming SAS, Duke became the first university in the country to adopt a code of conduct that required a process for monitoring apparel manufacturers. This swept the nation. Almeida is now the president of Freedom to Work, which is leading the way toward ending employment discrimination against LGBT people in America.
Or how about Raphael Lemkin. Trained as a lawyer, Lemkin started his American teaching career at Duke Law School in 1941. But when he wasn’t lecturing law students, Lemkin was holed up in his office working on perhaps one of the most important inventions of the 20th century: a new word. You see, dozens of members of Lemkin’s family had been killed in the Holocaust, and he’d read the stories of other mass killings until he decided there was no word that adequately described or incriminated such atrocity. So he set out to create one. Seven years later a UN convention was introduced and a new term entered conversations about mass killings around the world: genocide.
These are just a few examples – and I don’t mention them to intimidate you. But regardless of what we all do with and for our own rights, we have to remain courageous and creative (and even critical of our moves) or we’ll fall into the trap of ranking oppression instead of eroding it, of in-fighting instead of learning from our peers.
Our group, if I may call it that – we have something to offer.
After all, the discrimination and structural oppression we face is triggered by everything from our outermost expression – how we dress, act, speak – to our innermost feelings and identities and, to be blunt, what’s inside our underwear – or what other people think ought to be there. And this constellation of ways of being a person – check boxes in some situations, poetry in others – makes us into individuals, groups, and citizens of societies, cultures, and countries.
But at the core of making it all better is an inquisitiveness, a curiosity, a willingness to engage with the ideas of others who face the same structures of oppression that we do, and also to go beyond that which is similar to our experience and see where we might contribute to structures that, while having nothing to do with us, in fact oppress others.
In many ways it’s been a great year for us. We have a president in office who has done more for our community than any before; Hillary Clinton has decided to make her legacy as Secretary of State the fight for LGBT rights around the world; the United Nations published its first report on LGBT rights; and, a little closer to home, I’ve been told you all cleaned up at the student awards ceremony on Wednesday night.
For years and years, the LGBT population - and the rights movement we’ve built - has suffered at the hands of people who can’t imagine being us. How can we do better than that?
There are plenty of ways to get involved. You’ll find the one that’s right for you.
And given the history of the institution you’re graduating from, I’m confident you won’t go narrowly or unquestioningly into a movement so full of potential to change the world.