By Antoine Craigwell (New York, NY) - Fresh from an outpost office as the senior specialist for Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, Cary Alan Johnson, newly appointed executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), spoke exclusively with GBMNews.com on Mar 6, 2009 about assuming this position, the challenges it brings, and his expectations for himself and the organization.
GBMNews: Mr. Johnson, good day and thank you for agreeing to spare me the time to share with our readers your thoughts about assuming this new position?
Johnson: I am thrilled. This is an organization I've been involved with since its inception as one of the original members of the Board of Directors, since about 20 years ago, about the time when organizations such as Gay Men of African Descent and the Minority Task Force on AIDS were themselves set up. It was really wonderful for me to have been a leader in Africa, which has been my area of expertise. Now I see myself developing IGLHRC's expertise against homophobia in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and the Caribbean. In the Middle East and Caribbean, we need to identify more with our partners in those regions.
GBMNews: What do you bring to this leadership role?
Johnson: I bring four years working as a staff member, a long involvement as a Board member, and 20 years working in Africa. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa since 1983 and I bring solid experience in LGBT politics.
GBMNews: In your new role, what do you see are some of your expectations?
Johnson: I hope that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements around the world could feel positive about the work of IGLHRC over the years and develop better partnerships with us. My hope is that we could build better partnerships with organizations such as the Jamaican LGBT organization, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays, organizations on the ground, and people who know the cultures. It is only with the people on the ground that IGLHRC can make a meaningful contribution; we can't do it from the outside.
I expect to be busy in this new role.
I recently visited Latin America where I encountered very well developed LGBT and HIV organizations in Argentina and Brazil. But, of concern to me is the types of violations people face in different parts of the world that are different and require different approaches. These underlie the continued violence based on sexual orientation that is promoted by states, families or by non-governmental agencies, or a combination of all three.
GBMNews: Originally you are from New York. How do you feel about returning to your hometown?
Johnson: There's an excitement in the air here in the United States. There are many people looking and waiting for change, and it's exciting to be here to see the manifestation of change. It is exciting to see that Hillary Clinton, who has a strong commitment to LGBT rights, now as the Secretary of State. In South Africa, I was experiencing New York on the Internet and from CNN, but it's great to be here. However, at the same time the financial crisis has already had a severe impact on IGLHRC's funding and maintaining our programs is our biggest challenge. But, it's way too early to tell which programs would be affected by cuts.
GBMNews: What were your thoughts about leaving your office in South Africa?
Johnson: We have a great staff in South Africa. We have superlative activists in Joel Nana, a grassroots activist from Cameroon and from Victor Mukesa, a transgender, from Uganda. We'll be hiring a new head for the office who would be a senior human rights director.
GBMNews: In your position in South Africa, what were some of or one of the moments/ accomplishments you were most proud?
Johnson: When I look back, the original case of the 11 men from the Cameroon who were arrested in May 2005 and released after 13 months in prison. We poured so much into them. These were men who were hanging out in a bar and were arrested. The courts ordered forcible anal examinations to prove they were gay and one of the men who was HIV-positive, died shortly after he was released. We were glad to get a lawyer, Alice Nkom, who took on the cases, because without representation [in Cameroon] a person could spend years in prison without seeing a judge.
GBMNews: What were your disappointments, what did not work, and why?
Johnson: I'm disappointed with mainstream human rights organizations who do not embrace the overall human rights discourse. There were occasions when someone was fired from a job or beaten up and when we went to the mainstream human rights organizations we were rebuffed and told that these cases were not human rights issues. An example is the human rights organization in Rwanda refusing to work on LGBT issues. This is not about color, but opening up their minds to include others, where often it is about religious influence and that homosexuality is un-African.
Johnson whose term of office is contracted for two years, took over from Paula Ettelbrick on Mar 1.