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Trudeau Scholar looks at how LGBTI rights advocacy influences public opinion in sub-Saharan Africa

Photo of: Erin Alyward

Erin Aylward is applying her background in international development to explore the influence of global advocacy and diplomacy of LGBTQ rights on public opinion and political action in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Erin Aylward sports a neoprene brace on her knee and a slight limp. The Trudeau Scholar and U of T PhD student in political science and women and gender studies recently tore a ligament playing rugby. Pointing to the brace, she laughs that it only took one game this year for her to injure herself.

Aylward’s humility — along with her infectious determination and appetite for adventure — have infused an impressive career so far. At twenty-six, she has the kind of resume you’d expect from an international NGO veteran.

The St. John’s native had a political awakening as an undergraduate in political science at Memorial University, volunteering for organizations in Ecuador and Nicaragua. Her international purview led her to found the Global Citizenship Initiative to lobby Newfoundland’s Department of Education to promote active citizenship and a greater awareness of global issues in its high school curriculum.

As a master’s student at the University of Ottawa, writing on perspectives of leadership among young people in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Aylward got involved with Northern Youth Abroad, an organization that fosters leadership skills and a sense of community and identity by involving Inuit youth in cultural exchanges in other countries, including Botswana and Guatemala.

With her MA in hand, Aylward focused on issues around gender, sexuality and equality, working first with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and later with Oxfam. She convinced EWB to make her their first gender advisor by funding it with a grant from Montreal’s Pathy Family Foundation. EWB has since made gender advisor a permanent position. “It unfolded in a way that just seemed like it had to happen,” Aylward says.

After extensive training with EWB, Aylward spent seven months in Ghana helping a group of Ghanaians to promote equality and raise awareness about issues facing women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) individuals. At Oxfam, she organized an international delegation of LGBTQ activists at Toronto’s 2013 World Pride event. She might have continued with Oxfam but, when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council awarded her a scholarship to pursue a PhD, she says she could not turn down the opportunity.

At U of T, Aylward plans to use case studies and quantitative data to consider how global advocacy and diplomacy around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex (LGBTI) rights influences public opinion and political action in sub-Saharan Africa. She wants to ask, “In what contexts and with what strategies have LGBTI human rights been secured, when have we seen a backlash, and what are the implications?” Aylward wonders how the answers could both inform the strategies of grassroots activists and help redefine Western policies aimed at helping LGBTI communities.

A lot of international work on LGBTI issues assumes that the goal of securing rights can be achieved by discussing rights and rights violations, but, drawing on her experience, Aylward suspects this overlooks a simple truth. “What shifts the scales a lot of the time,” Aylward thinks, is “enabling people to actually see LGBTI people as people, not criminals.” Meaningful change happens, that is, when people recognize an LGBTI cousin, child or neighbour as a good person struggling under oppression.

Asked how she has already managed to accomplish so much, Aylward immediately credits the people she has worked with. The secret to her success, she says, is to “surround herself with allies” and mentors to take on social problems. She seems to be good at finding them. And as Aylward prepares for a month of volunteer work at the Sexual Rights Center in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe later this summer, there is no sign of her injured knee or anything else slowing her down.