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How humanitarians should consider LGBT+ issues in their work

Written by Megan Daigle


As Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT+) History Month comes to a close in the UK, humanitarians should be thinking about how to take a stance against homo-, bi- and transphobia with them into crisis response.

Individuals and groups with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) face a range of complex but often unseen harms in crisis settings. These range from particular protection risks of violence and abuse to exclusion from aid distributions that are based on traditional models of the family, refusal from gender-specific shelters or programming, and denial of their self-identification in registration processes.

Accounting for this reality will mean taking a lead from relevant local organisations. It will also necessitate a long, hard look in the mirror to understand how humanitarians themselves can perpetuate exclusion through heteronormative assumptions.

Humanitarian actors are currently ill equipped to work with LGBT+ groups, which receive scant attention (beyond the odd tokenistic mention) in most humanitarian commitments and guidelines. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Gender handbook and Guidelines for integrating GBV interventions in humanitarian action are both notable exceptions here, but whether and to what extent such high-level policy translates into practice is questionable.

Even without explicit commitments, however, the impetus to act is clear. Mechanisms like the Yogyakarta Principles already set out to protect LGBT+ rights based on existing international human rights commitments, while the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) call to ‘leave no one behind’ and humanitarians’ own commitments to impartiality focus attention on all marginalised groups.

With all of that in mind, what concerns should guide humanitarians in approaching people with diverse SOGIESC in crisis settings?

Pre-crisis marginalisation matters

Across cultures, people with diverse SOGIESC tend to occupy precarious social, political and economic positions – a state of affairs that is only amplified by conflict, forced displacement or other crises. Marginalisation unfolds across all areas of life and compounds over a lifetime. For example, gay, lesbian and gender-diverse people face high rates of rejection from their family homes, which can then lead to lower educational attainment, poorer job prospects and higher rates of poverty over time. This marginality is further complicated by racialisation, disability, poverty, caste or age. In many settings, these groups also confront varying levels of explicit or implicit criminalisation. Indeed, 72 states proscribe same-sex relations or gender identities.

All these factors shape how people with diverse SOGIESC experience crises and what kind of challenges, needs and capacities they present. The kinds of homo-, bi- and transphobic ideas and norms that underpin everyday social exclusion can also be inflamed in crises, leading to scapegoating and opportunistic violence. To reach people with diverse SOGIESC and address their protection needs, humanitarians must therefore be prepared to understand and engage with pre-crisis norms and ideologies.

Invisibility can be key

Social and political invisibility – of people and the problems they face – frequently perpetuates inequalities. This same invisibility, however, can also be a strategic choice. When greater visibility draws threats and violence, the ability to ‘pass’ as straight or cisgender, or to maintain a degree of privacy, can be critical to safety and survival. This means that strategies seeking to ‘shine a light’ on exclusion can be ineffective at best and harmful at worst, as even accidentally outing people can have grave consequences.

People with diverse SOGIESC may not come forward to seek humanitarian actors’ assistance, preferring instead to find what they need through informal networks and contacts. In the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston, for example, Fijians with diverse SOGIESC preferred private safe houses over shelters offered by the government or other relief actors.

This should raise important questions about how to reach and consult with such groups in ways that are ethical and appropriate. Doing it well will mean working in partnership with local LGBTQ+ or diverse SOGIESC organisations to make humanitarian programming safe for everyone. Possibly more importantly, it also means being willing to support more informal and less visible forms of services and assistance that suit these communities’ needs.

Local language and context are critical

Terminology is an important political and practical concern for diverse SOGIESC. In some parts of the world, the umbrella term ‘LGBT’ (and its derivatives like LGBTI, LGBTQ+ and LGBTQIA2S+) is not felt to adequately capture local experiences and identities and is sometimes seen as imposed by Western actors. Some people may self-identify as members of a particular group or identity, while others may be treated as such by those around them based on stereotypes or prejudices, without espousing the terms themselves.

Local terminology may refer to identities or simply practices, and may also bring spiritual or other cultural significance. For example, hijra in South Asia, waria in Indonesia and Malaysia, fa’afafine in Samoa, burrnesha in the Balkan states, two-spirited people among North American First Nations, yan daudu among the Hausa in Nigeria, or practices of bacha posh in Afghanistan.

Respecting how people identify themselves, and understanding their place in wider society, is key to pursuing locally owned, locally led and meaningfully inclusive humanitarian responses. Using appropriate language and cultural knowledge can be the basis for better ways of working. This can inform what needs are assessed and how, who gets counted or registered for assistance, and how that assistance is delivered.

Individuals and groups with diverse SOGIESC groups are agents in their own right and experts on their own needs, challenges and capacities. It is only by taking their lead that humanitarians can help bring about real inclusion.