MONTREAL -- Organizers call the conference taking place during the four days preceding the Out Games the largest and most important LGBT human rights gathering ever held.
For four days, 1,500 activists from the four corners of the globe scurry around the Palais des Congrès de Montréal from one workshop to another 200 in total from the arcane The Expression Of Identity In The Working Lives Of New Zealand Lesbian Nurses to the crucial The Religious Right Around The World.
But for all the good vibes, there's an underlying challenge at this splendid gathering: how not to get carried away with how far the most fortunate of us have come and recognize that what works here does not always apply elsewhere.
Certainly, it's easy to be moved both by the accomplishments of the big names and the courage of young activists who risk so much. All five plenary sessions are chaired by judges, both gay luminaries such as Edwin Cameron of the South African High Court, appointed by Nelson Mandela and one of the first prominent South Africans to acknowledge he had AIDS, and supportive jurists such as ex-Supreme Court of Canada judge Claire L'Heureux Dubé.
And there are those who, unbeknownst to us, are changing the world in ways many of us do not realize. In this category include Dr. Li Yinhe, described as the "Dr. Kinsey of China." The professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing is China's first sociologist of sex.
Like Kinsey, Li has painstakingly interviewed men who have sex with men and documented their habits and attitudes. Hits on her blog have reached a million a day as the Chinese go through a sexual revolution.
There is no law against homosexuality, but there is much social pressure to get married, an attitude that won't necessarily be shared by generations to come, Li predicts. "Young people are not only the hope of LGBT people, but also the hope of China," she says.
And there are the less famous heroes, such as Slava Bortnik of Belarus, where it's not uncommon for human rights activists of any stripe to be sent off to hard labour and where gay events have been invaded by thugs. It helps when there are foreigners present, he says, because then the police are more likely to provide protection. "Come to Belarus and make a difference," Bortnik urges.
The reality of very different queer worlds is brought home most powerfully on Saturday, when the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization's Arsham Parsi, an exile living in T.O., describes the torture meted out to those arrested for being gay in Iran.
He shares the stage with Scott Long, one of the most respected researchers of global LGBT rights and currently a staffer with Human Rights Watch. Musing on how change might come to one of the world's most homophobic countries, Long says progress will only come with a broader movement for change. "We're not going to see a gay pride parade on the streets of Tehran next year," Long says.
Rather, he advocates a more tentative approach. For example, he recommends activists work for gay/lesbian rights not by using those words but by becoming part of the privacy movements against the oppressive surveillance to which all Iranians are subject. "Learn about civil society groups and support them, but not with the language of LGBT issues," Long advises.
I head from that session to the closing plenary, where former Chretien cabinet minister Martin Cauchon recalls the successful fight for gay marriage before a buoyant crowd that includes Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, sitting in the front row with gay swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewkesbury.
But the real star of the panel is Martina Navratilova, the tennis great and one of the world's most famous out lesbians, who sets flashbulbs going when she steps up to the mic. She won the women's singles title at Wimbledon a record nine times, but her pocketbook took a hit when she courageously came out in 1981, queering many sponsorship opportunities in the process. Despite the monetary price she paid, she describes her decision to come out as the best one she ever made. "Play to win, tell the truth and come out," she tells the adoring crowd.
But judging from what I've learned about the rest of the globe during the past four days, there's more than a little cultural insensitivity in her scenario.
In countries like Pakistan, according to what I heard in one workshop, the first question would be "Come out as what?", since in that culture "gay" describes the male who is penetrated.
Perhaps more seriously, the obsession with coming out runs the risk of making the story of gay emancipation all about us, when there are so many signs here that our fate is intimately related to that of everyone who strives for expressive space safe.
After all, Iran's mullahs can't keep tabs on the online sexual trysts of gay men without the technology that also allows for the monitoring of political activists.
Rather than the right to come out, the best hope for repressed sexual minorities may lie in what Louise Arbour, UN high commissioner for human rights, describes in her speech as the "right to privacy" that forms part of international law. It's commonly understood as "the right to be left alone," she says. But cast in a more positive light, it's the line of demarcation across which the state should not step to police sex or peaceful political activity.
Were the right to privacy an international reality, the more than 80 countries that make it illegal to be gay (seven of them make it an offence punishable by death) could not do so.
It's hard to say whether this human rights conference has been the most important ever held, or merely the biggest. We'll be able to tell in 10 years, by the number of countries that have dropped their anti-gay laws, and by whether the queer movement has toned down its chauvinism about how to change the world.