Victoria Petitjean- A Human Rights Champion
I have been waiting for a chance to interview Victoria. Basically, Victoria is a real life Leslie Knope living in Paris, France. She’s this passionate, optimistic, and brilliant champion of women’s and LBGTI global rights. We first met two years ago in the U.S. at the United Nations 61st Commission on the Status of Women. Since then, she’s continued to both inspire and affirm me. Victoria, I am so pleased to finally share your story. You are incredible!
Name: Victoria Petitjean
Hometown: Paris, France
How do you identify? Lesbian/queer/tomboy
What do you do? I work as Programme Manager for the Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identities and Expressions (GIN-SSOGIE)
What are your favorite queer resources? Working within the international LGBTI movement, I feel really lucky to be working with colleagues and partners on a daily basis who are true queer inspirations; I am also obsessed with Queer Eye, and loved watching the L word and Orange is the New Black; Ellen de Generes is also a strong inspiration.
What are you reading these days? I’ve just finished Michelle Obama’s autobiography, and I’m starting one of Angela Merkel’s biographies; I read The Economist every week, and Danielle Laporte for daily inspiration
Out of all the crayon colors, which one would you be? Green or Blue
Outside of your family, who was the first person to inspire you? My physics teacher in High School
Describe yourself in 3 words: Passionate. Curious. Over-thinker.
The heart of it:
Tell me about your coming out journey. When did you begin to realize?
It was definitely a process - I probably started to realise when I was 25 years old, after graduating from my Masters; I realised how much I was attracted to women, but I had definitely bottled it in for many many years and it took some time for me to understand, realise that I am a lesbian and what it means; I was living in Brussels at the time, about to move to Cambodia for work, and I would not have had the courage to come out without the love and support from some dear friends at the time; they helped my over-thinking self, frame things, put words on feelings, and they were all so relaxed about it that I think it helped to calm me down! I was so so scared of being judged by my family, and society in general! It all felt really right, and yet, I also had a lot of internalised shame and self-disgust which took years to get rid off.
Did you feel any external pressures that kept you closeted?
It was not a conscious decision to stay inside the closet. I think that growing up, I had no lesbian/LGBTI role models. LGBTI people just did not exist/were not visible in my close community whether it was in my family or my school community. We did not speak about it much. When homosexuality would come up in conversations, in my family, it was this “hush hush” thing, this “dirty” thing. In other words, the few times it came up in conversation, it was never something to celebrate and embrace. I do remember praying to God when I was 10-12 years old “to not make me Gay”. I remember being absolutely terrified. I probably knew then, subconsciously, and just couldn’t face it. I’ve always practiced a lot of sports, including tennis and football. At one point, in my teens, my parents and I briefly discussed me getting into sports management. But my mum said something along the lines “no, sports, especially tennis, are full of lesbians, you can’t”. I didn’t consciously know I was gay at the time, but it did install a deep sense of fear, I remember. I certainly didn’t want to “be one of them”. I know my mum never wanted to hurt me. I think that deep down, she didn’t want me to suffer and be rejected by others.
It was only at 25 years old that I did. I developed feelings for a friend of mine. I had no idea what it all meant, and was ready to bottle it in, but at the time, I lived with one of my closest friends, who is himself gay, and had been out for a number of years. It was during conversations with him, that he helped me voice my feelings, put words on what was going on. I felt incredibly safe with him. And it all began to click inside of me. It felt so so right. And once I began admitting it to myself, I couldn’t keep it inside anymore. It was like this flow, this huge wave inside of me that needed to come out crashing.
I then told most of my family members and friends, rather embarrassingly and awkwardly, despite the deep fear I was feeling. I still had so much shame and self-loathing on a deep level, but I also knew this was my truth. And for the first time in a really long time, I felt true to myself, I felt grounded and centred in this difficult truth.
It will be 10 years this year, since I first came out to myself. And I would say I’m still coming out on a regular basis, to friends of friends, family members, colleagues etc. But it becomes easier. I’m lucky enough to live in a big capital city, in a country where we have obtained a lot of rights. There’s still so much to get done, but Parisian society is so much more opened today than it used to be. Or maybe I’ve just changed! One becomes less concerned about other people’s judgment. You just learn to speak your truth and not care of people’s response. Most of the time :)
What has been your experience living in both Paris & Britain as an LBGTI individual?
As I said earlier, growing up in Paris as a lesbian meant being invisible, to be honest. Maybe it was the area we lived in, the times … I’m not sure, but there were no role models at the time, no out lesbians. I left Paris when I was 18 years old (not out yet) and came back to live here permanently, at age 30. I knew myself more then, and now living here is an easier experience, although I think that accumulated stress from the past is still very much present and I’m learning to letting that go. I know where to go now in the city, where my partner and I feel safe to be out and about in the streets. I think I’ve reclaimed the city as my own, and know which parts I appreciate, and learn to avoid those that I don’t as much.
I moved out of Paris at 18 years old, to go to the UK for my university years. I was not out yet. And I had some serious internalised lesbophobia. I remember not wanting to play in the football team at Bath University (despite the fact I had grown up playing practically every day) for fear of “being with lesbians”. Looking back, I’m pretty ashamed of this thought (!!) And it’s not like anyone of my university mates ever said anything lesbophobic, not that I recall. Britain did not feel particularly homophobic. It was probably old stuff, internalised from growing up. And I was definitely not at a time in my Life when I was ready to come out. And now when I visit the UK - I mostly go back to London and Oxford - these feel like incredibly friendly places!
Has your identity impacted your professional life?
150% :) I’ve always had a focus on international politics, policy, human rights and gender. In parallel to coming out, I realised how the fields of human rights and women’s rights were very heteronormative. So I focused a little more on LGBTI rights and mainstreaming them in the international policy process.
Girl, yes. Let’s talk about global LGBTI culture & politics. Tell my everything.
One aspect of my current job which I particularly appreciate is that I get exposure to new cultures all the time. There is no one LGBTI culture - every country and region has its own history, its own understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). To some, LGBTI rights is empowering, to others, it feels misplaced and imposed on them. Because they have their own culture, their own perception of SOGIE and human rights. Never think you know it all. Always stay humble and curious.
Let’s talk about your current position with Global Interfaith Network. What are some of the projects you are taking on?
I’m not sure there is a typical day work day at Global Interfaith Network (GIN). One of the benefits of working for a relatively young and small NGO (despite the fact that we are global!) is that my tasks are really varied - from programmatic work, to fundraising, administrative work, membership relations, research etc. I feel grateful to be getting such a rich experience. I also work from home, so there is lots of skyping with the rest of my team, in Johannesburg, involved and coffee/walk breaks with my dog
One of the projects which I’m leading on is on reclaiming family and traditional values in high-level political fora including the UN. We run regional seminars, inviting theologians, researchers and activists to talk about the reality of families in their regional context as well as inclusive readings of religious texts (from different faith backgrounds). And we are working on bringing all this knowledge back into the UN space, to show how much families are complex and varied, all over the world (and not just the heterosexual, capitalistic family which right-wing groups are talking about). It’s an exciting project! Getting the chance to really get my hands into some serious topics, and then working on the UN advocacy part … it’s all I love to do!
And before that you worked for the Women’s Worldwide Web. What was your role there?
I was working as a researcher and communications officer. I helped build the communication strategy of the organization, including on social media. W4 is an online platform which seeks to fundraise for women-led projects all over the world; topics range from health to entrepreneurship and micro-finance. The team there was astounding and I love working with them for several months.
In parallel, I was a volunteer on the Board of an LGBT organization in France, and the two experiences together were incredibly enriching!
You also have a background with the United Nations! What did you do
I was interning at the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for a few months working on the first UN report focusing on SOGIE-based violence in schools and education sector responses to it. I helped mainly on the editorial aspect of the report, and mostly on the 2-day conference during which we invited over 200 delegates, UN representatives and civil society organisations to see the launch of the report, with Ministers of Education signing a Call to Action to fight this type of violence and bullying.
I loved every second of this experience, from the colleagues I had to being able to work within the UN system. It was really enriching!
You worked for some incredible organizations! Above everything else, what accomplishment stands out above the rest?
I’m really proud of the people I have been able to work with and for, whether it has been at GIN, W4, UNESCO or at the NGO Strey Khmer in Cambodia for instance, I’m proud of getting such amazing experiences and really following my passion in my career. It has not all been an easy breeze. But I know that these experiences have enriched me so much, thanks to the people I have been able to meet and the countries/cultures visited. I feel proud and grateful.
What advice would you give readers who are looking to follow your footsteps and get involved in women’s and LGBTI rights?
Be curious, learn, ask questions, volunteer, help others, and when it gets tough, just keep going, surround yourself with people who believe in you.
How did you and your partner meet?
The first memories I have of my partner are of us sitting together on the school bus, going to football practice, when we were 7 years old
How has your community responded to you both?
We’re totally accepted! Our families and friends are happy for us! Things were really difficult with my mum particularly for a while, but she changed radically over the years. I’m grateful.
What are your favorite things about your relationship?
That we keep growing, as individuals and as a couple. We’re really different on many levels, and she really pushes me outside of my comfort zone, especially socially, which I’m really grateful about. She’s definitely helped me to come out of my shell more. My partner is someone who always seeks adventures, is extremely understanding of people. She’s definitely one of my role models.
What are your hopes for the future?
To keep growing as independent individuals and nourishing our relationship. That we keep affirming each other. And that we grow into being an affirmed lesbian couple, absolutely comfortable in our surroundings.