Celebrating LGBTQ+ Online Communities: An Interview with Leila Lohman
Every June, the LGBT+ community comes together for a month-long celebration of love, diversity, and acceptance. In honor of Pride Month, we sat down with Leila Lohman, Executive Co-Director at Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Community (EL*C), to discuss the importance of LGBT online communities.
As one of the main driving forces behind EL*C, Leila helps to bring together LGBTQI+ women from across Asia and Europe. However, her work in LGBT rights activism goes as far back as 2006, when she founded Think Out, an LGBT student community in Geneva.
We find out more about Leila’s experience community building, and what led her to this point in her professional career.
Leila: Before answering your questions, I want to thank you for reaching out to interview me. This is a great chance for us to talk about the need for lesbians to be visible in communities at large! As Nataša Sukič, Slovenian lesbian politician and National Assembly Member recently told us: “if you’re not visible, you don’t exist, and if you don’t exist, your problems are not relevant for society.”
Panion: Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background? When did you first get involved with community building?
Leila: My first job, although unpaid, was as a teacher at Geneva’s Liberal Jewish Community Center between the ages of 13 to 19 (I taught history and Hebrew). At the same time, because I was good at Judo, my teacher asked me to join some classes to work with younger judokas. These two experiences shaped my determination to raise awareness against human rights violations and my determination, perseverance, and curiosity in working with others. I might not have been aware at the time how much these two experiences would shape who I am today.
When I started my BA at the University of Geneva, I enquired to see if there was an NGO focused on LGBTQ+ students. After being told no, I decided, along with my girlfriend at the time, to establish exactly that. That’s when my work as a community builder started.
This was close to 15 years ago. From there, the Think Out community was born, which still exists today. Through Think Out, we established ‘Totem,’ a support group for even younger members along with the Geneva Federation of LGBTI Organisations.
These were exciting times! The sense of fulfillment that I got from working within the LGBTQI+ community at the time never left. In fact, it has only developed and increased into more interesting and complex avenues. Since 2017, I have dedicated myself to working on the improvement, visibility, and rights of lesbian, bi, and queer women. The fight is also very personal as I am a lesbian myself!
Panion: What inspired you to start building the Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Community?
Leila: The idea of forming the EL*C came to a group of about 70 lesbian activists in 2016 at the ILGA Europe annual conference, which was held in Cyprus that year. The reasoning for it was that lesbian activists were determined to have their voices heard and to bring their own issues to the decision-making table. At the time, this was not done sufficiently by the LGBTQI+ community at large nor by womens’ rights groups.
In 2016, I was still working for the UNHCR as a Project Officer for a project supporting young refugees around the world (‘Global Refugee Youth Consultations’). I joined the EL*C shortly before its official establishment in the spring of 2017. The project was shared with me by a colleague who was based in Vienna, which is actually where the inaugural conference was going to be held.
Long story short, I became the inaugural EL*C conference coordinator based in Vienna, something that I am still very grateful for to this day. This job was one of the greatest experiences of my life as I was dealing with incredible lesbian, bi, trans, and queer activists on the ground. At the same time, I was working with the international board, which is still made up of some of the greatest lesbian activists in Europe and Central Asia! Since the Vienna conference, which gathered over 500 participants, I’ve stayed with EL*C. First as a volunteer, (up until early 2020) since we had no core funding, and now as one of the Co-Directors.
Panion: The EL*C hosts people from different backgrounds and places across the globe, including Europe and Central Asia. Do you have any tips for community builders managing a multicultural or global community?
Leila: The thing that really fascinates me about lesbian communities, regardless of where they are from, is that we are all in this massive fight against both misogyny and homophobia. Often, this results in a toxic mix giving rise to lesbophobia in our societies.
So, no matter where our community members are based, they are still fighting to access the right to raise a family or to establish themselves as an NGO. Only the context dictates what lesbians are fighting for, but really everywhere we are fighting to be heard and to be visible.
The key to building a successful online community is to keep focused on what unites you. In our case, it is our fight against patriarchy/lesbophobia! And our efforts are urgent, this past week alone, two of my colleagues and EL*C board members and their organizations have been attacked in Ukraine and in Kazakhstan. In both cases, the police sided with the violent right-wing attackers!
Panion: One of the most important elements of your community seems to be your biennial Eurocentralasian Lesbian* conferences. How has Covid impacted your community considering that in-person events weren’t possible, and how have you overcome this problem?
Leila: Like most small NGOs and as lesbians, we were both professionally and personally impacted by the pandemic. In fact, I think we can all agree that apart from a lucky few, the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that were always there but perhaps less obvious pre-coronavirus.
Ironically though, since we were already working as an international network and, for the most part, online, we adapted quite swiftly in terms of moving our events online. A great example of this is our successful Lesbian Visibility Day event held on 26 April 2020, where 250 people signed in to our Zoom webinar.
Since then, we have organized countless online gatherings, and at this point, I must say that I am hoping to go back to at least hybrid events sooner rather than later. In terms of our biennial conferences, we’ve had to postpone the one we were planning for 2021 to 2022 since our goal is to bring 1,000 lesbians together for our next big conference!
In the meantime, the pandemic has also made us shift our work towards projects aimed at supporting lesbian communities. We have developed a small grants project, a survey on the impact of the pandemic on lesbian NGOs and individuals, and finally, we spent months hosting daily online events where we simply invited lesbians to join and share their experiences of the pandemic (in English, French, Spanish, German and Russian).
Panion: How important is it to belong to an LGBTQ+ community as a lesbian? What are the top benefits?
Leila: The LGBTQ+ community is something very precious historically, and it continues to be for the newer generations. Celebrating pride each year in June is a great way to foster this sense of community and to show support as an ally. Being a part of the community is precious because it offers a space where people with similar life experiences can be together, imagine a queerer future, and create coping mechanisms for living in a predominantly heteropatriarchal society.
That being said, apart from the genuineness of the LGBTIQ community as a whole, history shows that lesbians and other subgroups of the community, at times, will take a side step to focus on readdressing particular issues that they face. This is also why you see trans, intersex, and lesbian activists forming collectives because, although they are all part of the wider community, each sub-group experiences particular issues that few others can help resolve.
In general, though, I would say that the coolest benefit of being a part of the lesbian community is seeing the incredible richness of it. As women who have had to navigate this world in such a contrary way to what is expected, it is only normal that at the end of the day, when you take a closer look, lesbians are simply the most badass people in the world!
Panion: Do you have a favorite community moment? Any unique stories that you can recall?
Leila: Sure, I’ll give you the most recent memory, because there are so many, especially during our big conferences, where everyone is so alert and present.
Recently, we met in Montenegro for some meetings, and it so happened that we all started getting our period at the same time! There were about 6-7 of us, it was quite amazing. I remember a colleague saying, “no wonder guys prefer keeping women apart and divided, because when they come together, even their bodies start syncing, beyond their minds”. I thought she had summarized the situation quite well. In our case, coming together as a small community gave rise to this transcendental experience, which itself reinforced our spiritual bond.
Panion: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced managing an LGBTQ+ community, and how did you overcome them?
Leila: The answer to this question might really depend on who you’re asking. For me, the biggest challenge is twofold: making sure that personal agendas don’t interfere with the wider community’s agenda, and also ensuring that you are flexible enough as an organization to bring forward all types of different experiences lesbians face in different contexts where we operate.
Since EL*C is a relatively new network, the work is ongoing, and we are learning as we are going while trying to take inspiration from other international lesbian movements.
Panion: What are your top 3 recommendations for community managers that want to create an inspiring and diverse community?
Leila: My top three recommendations would be (to be taken with a grain of salt):
- Set your rallying cry apart from others (do things differently).
- Be unapologetic about defending your cause and requesting a seat at the table.
- Have good follow-up skills (you’ll need them to follow up with journalists etc.).
Panion: The Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Community is really involved in Lesbian Activism and encouraging societal change. What is the best piece of advice you could give to people hoping to build an online community around a social cause?
Leila: My best piece of advice is to go ahead, when possible, and establish a group, a collective, or an NGO, and don’t be afraid to fail! Most importantly, don’t wait for others to do it for you. Two follow-up pieces of advice to this are: make sure to surround yourself with amazing people because no battle has ever been won alone, and set clear and strategic goals every year and for the next five years.
Panion: How can Panion, as a community-building platform, be an ally for diverse communities and communities that center around important social causes? What excites you about what we are building?
Leila: In general, I think Panion has several advantages, which make it an attractive platform to connect with:
- You are an inspiring and human-sized group with a badass woman at the helm!
- These days, with concerns over security and privacy growing around the GAFAMs, people are looking for competitive alternatives.
- You go the extra mile and make it easier for people to create connections around common interests.
In terms of allyship, there are multiple steps a company can take regardless of its size. These include internal steps (at HR, staff level) as well as external steps, like marking key dates important to different communities. For the lesbian community, this would entail celebrating Lesbian Visibility Day (26 April) and International Lesbian Day (8 October). In terms of the platform itself, you could invite lesbian influencers to sign up. Since the platform includes event organizing options, this seems to be such a great idea for lesbian groups to organize and network! Online harassment and/or censorship is such a big issue for LBQT activists that any type of safe digital space you can offer will be a huge relief.
Panion: What does the future hold for the Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Community? Do you have any goals or milestones that you are hoping to achieve in 2021?
Leila: We do have a few key goals for 2021! The biggest, without a doubt, will be securing a big grant from the European Commission to enable us to work with additional human and financial resources. Mind you, underfunding of lesbian movements is a recurring negative cycle which we really hope to break, for ourselves at EL*C but also for the wider lesbian communities and groups.
We are also expecting shortly to release our survey on the impact of the pandemic on lesbian groups and individuals (June 2021). In October, I’m excited to announce that we will be organizing our first lesbian arts festival entitled ‘Lesbiennale.’ The festival will take place online from the 8th to the 10th of October, mainly with some in-person events organized in Brussels. Look out for our call for artistic proposals, which we should be releasing in the coming weeks!
Meanwhile, our efforts to rally more individuals and NGO members to join the EL*C network continue. We’d love it if lesbians on Panion also became our members to help us ultimately reach our goal of having 1 million members!
With 15 years of experience working with LGBT online communities, Leila Lohman knows what it takes to build inclusive communities around an essential social cause, and we are thankful that she has shared her thoughts with us today. At Panion, we believe community can be a cornerstone for inclusivity and important social change. Everybody needs a place where they feel safe, respected, celebrated, and, most importantly, comfortable expressing who they truly are.