Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Brenda Cossman portrait

By Sandra Bartlett

“If someone is going to have a WorldPride Human Rights conference, it should be us.”  

That’s how the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto landed the first human rights conference at WorldPride. The Faculty of Law’s Prof. Brenda Cossman, LLB 1986, the Centre’s director and a well-known scholar of family, sexuality, gender and the law, made this convincing pitch to Pride Toronto which is hosting the international event, June 20 to 29. She's co-chairing the conference.


“This fits so perfectly within our mandate in terms of developing community linkages, education and trying to incorporate more of a global perspective into the work that we do here at the Centre.”

That work is unique in Canada because the Bonham Centre offers both an undergraduate program (Major, Minor or Specialist) and an interdisciplinary graduate program in diversity studies. Law students can obtain a Certificate in Sexual Diversity concurrent with their JD degree.

This is the fourth WorldPride festival held to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues on an international level and the first time in North America.

More than 400 activists, educators, policy makers and journalists from 50 countries will spend three days (June 25 – 27) discussing issues such as creating inclusive schools, religion and spirituality, homophobia in the media, violence against the LGBTQ community, as well as taking the pulse of human rights around the world.

“There are some really quite wonderful developments in South America.  There is really interesting trans-action coming out of Asia, and quite successful,” Cossman said.  “And then there are other countries who are currently drawing the line on LGBT rights as somehow representing all things that are Western and evil and introducing increasingly regressive laws, like Russia, like Uganda, like Nigeria.”

The difference today compared to 10 years ago, Cossman said, is that activists are resisting the laws and bringing the world’s attention to them. Cossman said the conference will provide an opportunity for those activists to strategize with people from all over the world.

“One thing we can do is offer a safe space in civil society to have this discussion. It would be hard for this discussion to happen in many places around the world.”

Although the conference is sold out, there will be a public event each day at 4 pm with prominent LGBTQ leaders discussing human rights issues in their country. These include long-time activist Frank Mugisha from Uganda who has received the John F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his work; Judge Monica Mbaru from Kenya; law professor Tamara Adrian of Venezuela; Jamaican Maurice Tomlinson; the former Prime Minister of Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir who was the first openly gay leader of a country, and Russian journalist and author Masha Gessen.

Cossman said for the 100-plus student volunteers it will be a chance to put faces to the issues.

“You might hear a terrible story about how awful Uganda is, but then, here are the real, live Ugandan activists and listen to them tell their stories, not only of resistance but their stories of hope. We just have a lot to learn about the rest of the world.”

Faculty of Law doctoral student and Trudeau Scholar Kyle Kirkup volunteered to help with the conference out of his interest in policing and the LGBT community. As the conference coordinator, Kirkup said it was a great learning experience.

“I am starting to make connections to how the criminal law is used in places around the world to regulate LGBTQ people’s lives.”

And he’s looking forward to meeting people from other countries who are working in the same area.

“A lot of the work I have been doing is Canadian focused. I thought about how my research can benefit from interacting with these folks doing really interesting work in places of the world that we don’t talk that much sometimes.”

Parades, art, dance and music have always been a part of Pride celebrations and this year is no exception with some big names performing.

“The people who are coming to our conference aren’t the same sort of superstars or have the same star power that K.D. Lang or Melissa Etheridge or Tegan and Sara but they ought to,” Cossman said. “These are people engaged in incredibly brave and in courageous struggles in situations that it is from hostile to outright dangerous.”