IFLA LGBTQ Group Protests Kuala Lumpur Conference Location

As IFLA prepares for its 84th annual World Library and Information Congress, the chosen location—Kuala Lumpur—is sending up red flags because of Malaysia’s track record on civil rights. Since the conference location was announced at the closing session of the 2016 WLIC, IFLA’s LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Users Special Interest Group (SIG), as well as the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), have written open letters to IFLA administration stating their concerns.
As the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) prepares for its 84th annual World Library and Information Congress (WLIC), the chosen location—Kuala Lumpur—is sending up red flags because of Malaysia’s track record on civil rights. Since the conference location was announced at the closing session of the 2016 WLIC, IFLA’s LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Users Special Interest Group (SIG), as well as the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), have written open letters to IFLA administration stating their concerns. Malaysian law prescribes harsh measures for LGBTQ sexual activity, including corporal punishment and up to 20 years imprisonment. The current Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has spoken out publicly against civil rights for LGBTQ people. The conference, which has been hosted in locations from Cape Town, South Africa to Columbus, OH, is scheduled to take place August 24–30, celebrating the theme “Transform Libraries, Transform Societies.” The LGBTQ SIG will not be attending the gathering.


Members of the LGBTQ SIG had originally hoped that the group could be part of a satellite conference outside of Kuala Lumpur. When that option did not materialize, on November 28, 2017 the SIG, coordinated by group convenor Anne Reddacliff, librarian at the State Library of New South Wales, Australia, drafted an open letter to the IFLA Governing Board. “We are writing to express our severe disappointment at the choice to hold WLIC 2018 in Malaysia,” the letter read in part. “It is currently illegal to be gay in Malaysia, meaning that our Special Interest Group, the IFLA LGBTQ Users Special Interest Group, are excluded from participating in WLIC 2018. We are not willing to risk our personal safety to attend the conference.” The letter also referenced IFLA’s commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as called for in its 2017 Development and Access to Information report, produced jointly with the University of Washington Information School’s Technology & Social Change Group. Noting that Goal 10 of the SDGs is “Reduced Inequalities,” the letter stated, “We are dismayed by the choice of a host country where LGBTQ people do not have equal rights and are, in fact, persecuted.” It concluded, “We acknowledge the location for WLIC 2018 cannot be changed but we urge you to choose a location for WLIC2019 that is not prohibitive to LGBTQ people and will allow the IFLA LGBTQ Users Special Interest Group to participate.” The letter was signed by the LGBTQ SIG and an additional 25 SIGs and sections of IFLA: Academic and Research Libraries, Acquisition and Collection Development, Bibliography, Cataloguing, Continued Professional Development and Workplace Learning, Environment, Sustainability and Libraries, Government Information and Official Publications, Indigenous Matters, Latin America and the Caribbean, Law Libraries, Libraries Serving Persons with Print Disabilities, Library and Research Services for Parliaments, Library Services to People with Special Needs, Library Theory and Research, LIS Education in Developing Countries, Literacy and Reading, Metropolitan Libraries, New Professionals, News Media, Preservation and Conservation, Public Libraries, Reference and Information Services, School Libraries, Science and Technology Library, and Women, Information and Libraries. None of these groups plan to boycott the WLIC. The letter from ARL, sent independently of the LGBTQ SIG’s and a month earlier, was addressed to IFLA president Glòria Pérez-Salmerón and also outlined the organization’s concerns with Kuala Lumpur as a conference site. In the letter, ARL president Mary Ann Mavrinac, chair of the ARL Diversity and Inclusion Committee Gerald Beasley, and chair of the ARL Advocacy and Public Policy Committee Ed Van Gemert stated, “We urge the IFLA governing board to consider local legislation and policy in the selection of future sites for the Congress. If IFLA honors its stated core values, then there must be diligence in selecting sites that allow for the safety of all attendees as well as full participation, without fear of reprisal.” The location could pose a problem to attendees who do not identify as LGBTQ as well, ARL noted in a December 6 post on its website. “[T]he Malaysian government endorses and engages in censorship and does not honor confidentiality. Both freedom of expression and respect of confidentiality will be necessary to productive discussions at the upcoming WLIC. The potential dampening effect of censorship and lack of confidentiality should concern all WLIC 2018 participants.” According to the 2016 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report, other human rights problems in Malaysia include “deaths during police apprehension and while in custody; laws allowing detention without trial; caning as a form of punishment imposed by criminal and ‘sharia’ (Islamic law) courts; restrictions on the rights of migrants, including migrant workers, refugees, and victims of human trafficking; official corruption; violence and discrimination against women.” In a second communication with IFLA, ARL also pointed out that an influx of attendees from around the world would benefit Malaysia economically, potentially fueling the country’s leadership to maintain repressive policies. The event is expected to attract 3,000–4,000 delegates from more than 100 countries, and to generate RM 444.4 million ($113.86 million U.S), according to the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau COO Datuk Zulkefli Sharif. "We've expressed our concerns,” Beasley told LJ. “We're very supportive of IFLA, its mission, and its goals. Our hope is that they will take into consideration the safety and security of a diverse and inclusive group of IFLA members who wish to convene in future [WLICs]."


The LGBTQ SIG’s unanimous decision to boycott the Kuala Lumpur WLIC began with one of the group’s monthly Zoom video conferencing calls. "One of us suggested that we shouldn't go—that if it wasn't going to be safe for everyone in our group then we couldn't take that chance,” recalled Julie Ann Winkelstein, adjunct at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Information Sciences; coeditor of the American Library Association (ALA) Social Responsibilities Round Table newsletter; and co-coordinator of ALA's Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force. The issue was not only one of physical safety, according to group members, but also of mental health for IFLA’s LGBTQ community. The group’s letter received a prompt response from secretary general Gerald Leitner acknowledging their concerns. He assured the signatories that IFLA would do its utmost to ensure the safety of its members at the conference, Winkelstein told LJ. Several members of the LGBTQ SIG noted that they did not feel the choice was a deliberate exclusion, but rather an oversight. "But I think that it speaks to a larger issue,” said Winkelstein. “When you set up a conference you have to consider a lot of different cultures and a lot of different concerns, and it's easy to leave out groups that might be affected by your choice of location.” At a December 2017 meeting, the Governing Board endorsed a statement on “Spreading Library Values through Global Dialogue” in reference to the 2018 WLIC, which included messages about IFLA’s strong stance on fundamental freedoms and Kuala Lumpur’s assurances of “free and open dialogue.” “The World Library and Information Congress offers a unique opportunity to drive progress and empower our members in host countries and their wider regions,” noted Pérez-Salmerón. IFLA “strives to feel like they're making a difference in any country that they go to,” said Winkelstein. But effecting change can be complicated in the face of such different cultural norms. “I think it has that potential, because people come to the IFLA conference and then go back into their communities and their countries and take what they've learned and subtly, maybe, make changes,” she added. “But you are up against the fact that each country has their own culture and their own laws and their own ways of being." (The 2013 WLIC was held in Singapore, which has also been called out for human rights violations. Male same-sex sexual activity is still illegal there.) Leitner offered to provide the LGBTQ SIG opportunities for livestreamed or recorded presentations at the WLIC, but the group has chosen not to participate at all. Instead they are producing a video over the next month in which each participating member will speak for about 30 seconds to explain why they are not attending. The Women in Libraries SIG agreed to show the video at the conference and read a statement. Leitner is supportive of their plans, noted Winkelstein. “But we're still not present.”


For many, issues around IFLA’s choice of Kuala Lumpur as a venue recall North Carolina’s passage of HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, in May 2016. More familiarly known as the Bathroom Bill, HB2 repealed all local GLBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances statewide. Among other provisions, it instituted a policy banning transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that did not correspond to the sex noted on their birth certificates. HB2 was repealed just under a year later, but while the bill was on the books it was the subject of extensive criticism from organizations and individuals nationwide, including library leaders and workers from public, academic, and school libraries and library organizations. These included ALA, ARL, the North Carolina Library Association, and the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), which had scheduled its biennial National Institute for September 2016 in Charlotte. After careful consideration, discussion, and an online poll, the ALSC Board of Directors voted to cancel the meeting. Members who had registered received a full refund, and the organization took what was estimated at the time to be a $10,000 financial hit. But, ALSC president Andrew Medlar told School Library Journal, “While [the decision reflected] ALSC’s core values and envisioned future, this wasn’t just an abstract issue. It very directly and personally affected members and some potential attendees. For me, the most important issue is about respecting members and not putting them in a position where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.” “ALSC did a great job of having, on their blog, the discussion about that and asking people what they thought,” recalled Winkelstein. “I felt like it was really an opportunity for people to look at all viewpoints and be educated.” In the case of IFLA’s choice of venue, she added, “I feel like there's not been a place where people could see the [SIG’s] concerns and then express their opinions about them like ALSC did. It would be great if in the future IFLA could provide a space for conversations like this.” Winkelstein also recalled former ALA president E.J. Josey, who in 1964 authored a resolution forbidding ALA officers and staff from participating in state associations that denied membership to black librarians. “And I feel like that's what we're doing.” However, she added, “Even though we've come up with a plan of what we're going to do, [our absence is] going to make a difference. We won't be in any of those rooms, or in the hallways having those conversations with people. We aren't going to physically be present, and that matters.”
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