Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

All Different, All Equal

“All different, all equal" was the theme of the fiftieth-anniversary World Humanist Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), held in the Netherlands this summer. The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association was well represented, with a number of its prominent members taking an active part in several aspects of the congress. Here, three of them – Jim Herrick, Hans Hoekzema and Dean Braithwaite – bring us reports on the main event, the youth conference and the LGBT workshop.

Conference for Diversity

by Jim Herrick

Jim Herrick, George Broadhead, Dean Braithwaite
Jim Herrick, George Broadhead, Dean Braithwaite

Attendance at this fiftieth-anniversary gathering was the largest ever. Representatives from 27 countries took part in the conference, which looked back to the foundation by Julian Huxley, Harold Blackham and Jaap van Prag, and forward to a time when humanism would be a global influence.

Among the themes of the conference were diversity, equality, human rights, multiculturalism, humanist theory and humanist practice. Henk Manschot of the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht said that we still discuss the same topics as 50 years ago: “There is only one difference between now and then and that is ‘human diversity’. Diversity is a matter of attitude and disposition. More trust and solidarity is needed, otherwise fear will rule.” (Am I alone in thinking “humanistics” is an ugly coinage? Perhaps it sounds better in Dutch than English.)

An important event was the launching of the book 50 Years of International Humanism, written by Bert Gazenbeek and Babu Gogineni. The first copy was given to the outgoing Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, who said: “We cannot stop the course of the world. But we can influence its course. What you have been doing in the last fifty years has an influence.”

The main lecture session was on the subject of “Human Diversity, Human Rights and Humanism”. The Dutch Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, Jan Pronk, emphasised that “globalisation needs global values and global ethics”. He highlighted what became a general theme of the conference: that emphasis on individual rights may conflict with rights of the commonality. “Many people have no access to the resources of the world,” he said, adding that we needed “to find a global system of ethics that combines our values with regard to the earth and with regard to people”.

Urvashi Butalia, a writer and founder of a feminist publishing house in India, spoke on violence and women’s rights. Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im, professor of law at Emory University, Atlanta, USA, posed the question, “What do I do as a Muslim? How do I challenge Islamic fundamentalists and how do I challenge Islamic jihad? And equally challenge American exceptionalism as undermining international legality?”

Rob Buitenweg from the University of Humanistics, Utrecht, spoke on human rights. He pointed out: “Many Western countries embrace freedom rights, like freedom of religion, or freedom of association, but some neglect socioeconomic rights, like the right to adequate housing, or to healthcare.”

There was some criticism of the non-humanist beliefs of three of the main speakers – but surely listening to all points of view is a humanist value.

There was an impressive session on humanism in practice in the Netherlands. A video of work in the humanist university – of social work with the old by Humanitas, of the work of a humanist counsellor in the army and of the provision of humanist funerals – gave an insight into potential humanism in action.

The work is impressive, but could it be emulated in Britain to such an extent? Is it better to work for really effective state agencies or to recognise that the need is inexhaustible and further voluntary effort by other independent agencies would be valuable?

In my view the best lecture of the conference was the acceptance speech of the van Praag Award by Dr Adrian van der Staay, the former director of the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands and current holder of the Socrates Chair at the Faculty of History and Art at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam. (Unfortunately, it was misplaced as an after-dinner talk.) He spoke on cultural diversity and the danger of cultural relativism, using ideas to illustrate his theme from Confucius, Herodotus and Gore Vidal.

The conference looked at diversity (“all different, all equal”) and within three and a half days provided it.

In his assessment of the workshop on LGBT rights, Hans Hoekzema, a GALHA member who works for Hivos in a voluntary capacity, looks at diversity and objections to it.

Protect Our Human Rights!

by Hans Hoekzema

Hans Hoekzema
Hans Hoekzema

The workshop on LGBT emancipation heard presentations from Hivos partner organisations in Zimbabwe, Namibia and India and looked at individual experiences of mechanisms of social exclusion.

Whereas world religions clash with each other on several issues, one of the common elements (especially among the monotheistic religions) is their unease with bodily pleasure and their urge to control gender variations by reducing diversity of sexual identities to a polarity of the sexes under the dogma of procreation.

Humanism is one of the few life stances (fortunately not the only one) that positively embrace equality in combination with plurality, as reflected by the title of the IHEU congress, “All different, all equal”. IHEU also has a fair track record of profiling LGBT interests in the context of humanism (there were resolutions in 1982, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1999!).

The current focus on emerging visibility of gays and lesbians in developing countries contradicts the widespread myth that honouring plurality in sexual orientation and gender identities would lead to cultural demise and Western hegemony. LGBT people are indigenous worldwide.

Their invisibility in many parts of the world reflects the limited public space allowed to them and lack of recognition for a grouping whose sexual orientation and lifestyle do not match the “norm”. Their position in society is an indicator of human rights and civil society in general.

If the differences between LGBT identities and those of heterosexual society – with its emphasis on families and social conventions – are to be honoured, then space must be allowed for LGBT people to identify themselves in. Notwithstanding the current focus on the challenges faced by LGBT people in developing countries, it’s clear that similar challenges have been met – or are to be met – all over the world.

Sociohistoric development in various parts of the globe shows that public recognition of plurality in sexual orientation and gender identities is a valuable contribution to the wellbeing of humankind. To humanists within the global village, it is important to have effective networking between LGBT movements and their leading lights on the one hand, and the movers and shakers in civil society on the other.

The workshop called on IHEU to urge its member organisation and other NGOs to work in coalition with existing organisations in promoting and protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people’s human rights. It also asked IHEU to promote awareness of barriers and forms of discrimination that the LGBT community faces in taking part in everyday life.

Information and education materials promoting equality and human rights should also be provided, and efforts should be made to stimulate the development of positive images of LGBT people and their lifestyles as role models for others, including young people.

IHEU was also urged to institute policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and act on those policies in all aspects of its work, as specified in the resolution adopted at the 1999 congress and general assembly in Mumbia, India, and reiterated at the 2002 congress.

Is the UK humanist movement becoming an irrelevance to the young? Dean Braithwaite, who represented GALHA at the 2002 International Humanist Youth Conference, sounds a warning.

Time to Wise Up

by Dean Braithwaite

The event I attended was organised by the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO, pronounced “eye-hay-yo”) – the youth section of the IHEU – and was attended by fifty people representing some sixteen countries from Asia, Western and Eastern Europe and America.

There should have been several representatives from African countries but, in the event, they were unable to attend because of the refusal of the Dutch authorities to grant them visas. One wonders whether, now that the Netherlands has moved away from its long tradition of left-of-centre governments, this is a sign of things to come.

The youth conference was held over four days at the Bunnik Youth Hostel and the University of Humanist Studies, Utrecht. There were also plenary sessions at the Leeuwenhorst conference centre, Noordwijkerhout, and this enabled the youth conference to dovetail into the IHEU World Humanist Congress, which was held there later that week. All in all, it was a very useful and enjoyable – if somewhat exhausting – time, and I’d like to take this opportunity to extend a big thank you to the main organiser, Gea Meijers, for all her hard work at the youth conference and for her commitment to IHEYO. IHEYO’s conference report can be found at

For environmental reasons I preferred to travel by train, but the journey from West Wales to my destination just outside Utrecht took eighteen hours. (It took as long to get from my home in Pembrokeshire to London as it did from London to Amsterdam!) With just enough time to freshen up before dinner, I attended the opening two-hour session that same evening – and any thoughts I may have had that this was going to be a holiday were well and truly dispelled! We started with the usual getting-to-know-you session. As the only youth-conference delegate representing a gay organisation, I was more than a little apprehensive about the sort of reception I would get, but, in the event, there was no problem, which is, of course, as it should be.

Like the first night, the conference consisted of a very tightly packed schedule. During the week, delegates were given the opportunity to outline the state of the humanist movement, in relation to youth activities, within their own countries. One major plus for me was meeting up with two other delegates from the UK – Lucy Jane Paterson (British Humanist Association) and Mark Sperry (National Secular Society).

Very early on we decided to give a joint presentation, discussing our three organisations, how they differed from, and their relationship to, each other. As we listened to the other presentations and spoke to fellow delegates during the conference, it soon became obvious to the three of us that Britain is lagging way behind the rest of Europe in its humanist youth activity. Rather depressingly, I fear that the UK humanist movement is in grave danger of becoming totally irrelevant to young people and is well on the way to becoming, like the proverbial dinosaur, extinct.

Other countries have distinct youth organisations, which could be the way forward for the humanist movement in the UK. The danger with this course, though, is that, as well as being schismatic, youth groups are more fragile and, by their very nature, potentially more transient. However, it has to be understood that what is currently on offer from the British humanist movement is just not appealing to most young people.

It remains to be seen whether the revelation of this sad state of affairs spurs the mainstream humanist movement in Britain to modernise and, therefore, become more attractive to young people. If it can rise to this challenge, then its long-term survival and growth will be assured. If not, then we are destined to witness the ignominious spectacle of a vehemently vociferous humanist movement with very few members.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Monday, 2008-03-31
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