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Why LGBTQI+ services must be intersectional

Expert comment

Written by Emilie Tant, Fiona Samuels

Image credit:Cary Bass-Deschenes / Flickr.

The LGBTQI+ community is made up of many distinct groups from across a broad spectrum of identities. So, why are they so often collapsed into one category? While there is increased awareness and implementation of policies and programming aimed at addressing gender-based violence (GBV), the lived realities, needs and priorities of different groups within the LGBTQI+ community are often not taken into account.

New ODI research from the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion programme brings much-needed nuance to the understanding of LGBTQI+ experiences of stigma, exclusion and marginalisation in Kenya. Launched in partnership with Edge Effect, this report makes the case for an intersectional lens to be the bedrock of gender-based violence service provision. This is important to avoid harmful unintended outcomes which result from blindness to the diversity of experiences among LGBTQI+ people. Violence takes many forms, and the lens of intersectionality allows us to appreciate the varied experiences of different members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Inclusive GBV prevention and support initiatives must be rooted in an intersectional framing to address the needs of those with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. This includes paying attention to whether LGBTQI+ service users belong to a refugee, host or urban migrant population. As ODI research reveals, gender non-conforming people face discrimination both from other refugees and host populations, as well as from other host members of the LGBTQI+ community who perceive them to be benefiting from state resources when they do not.

Intersectionality may be development’s current buzz word, along with urgent calls to decolonise, but as a conceptual tool it is essential to understanding the multiple and overlapping structures of oppression that impact GBV service users. This is none more so true than for the LGBTQI+ community who bear witness to simultaneous experiences of discrimination based on their sex, race and class, sexual orientation or gender-identity, religion, abled-bodiedness, ethnicity and citizenship status.

What is intersectionality, and why is it important?

Living as a person who has been marginalised on the basis of their sex, gender identity or sexuality is not the same for everyone. An intersectional approach offers a counterweight to the tendency to flatten and invisibilise the distinctions between LGBTQI+ experiences.

In discussion of lesbian, gay, transgender (men and women), non-binary, intersex and queer realities, certain sub-populations under the LGBTQI+ umbrella are often conflated. Therefore, some distinct experiences between communities are rendered invisible by lumping them all together.

Instead, an intersectional lens can pull attention towards the differences that exist among these groups. Consultations with LGBTQI+ community representatives during Covid-19 in Kenya revealed that the violence experienced by bisexual men was different in both degree and kind than that experienced by lesbian, bisexual and queer women. It also found, as across most global contexts, that transwomen were subject to the much sharper end of male gender-motivated violence compared with transmen.

Intersectionality is important to development because it lays in relief the true nature of the marginalisation. It reveals that discriminations on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class and citizenship are not separate, but interconnected. It shows that one is not a woman in one moment, a lesbian the next, and then a refugee. One is all of them at the same time.

So, while LGBTQI+ individuals share some common experiences and protection concerns, failing to disaggregate the ways in which violence affects various groups - to differing degrees - will make it difficult for policy, and programming, to offer appropriate services for them.

What does GBV mean for LGBTQI+ communities?

By delving further into the nuance of LGBTQI+ experiences of violence, we begin to appreciate the lived realities of individuals across the community. In Kenya, some particularly discriminated groups (e.g. bisexual people, particularly bisexual men, and gay men and transgender women, according to participants) face greater levels of stigma. They are also more exposed to homophobic discrimination, while others face a higher risk of sexual abuse.

Some healthcare providers even sexually abuse [members of the LGBTQI+ community] in order to give them services. There have been cases of lesbians and intersex persons being sexually assaulted by male healthcare providers who demand sex before offering any service.
Group discussion with trans people,

Stigma manifests through multiple forms and dimensions of violence – from physical, to emotional and psychological, to sexual and institutional. Informants expressed how experiences of being ostracised or ‘disinherited’ by family members are common, often leading to self-isolation and self-censorship (or being silenced). In some contexts, LGBTQI+ people face being ‘outed’ against their will, arson attacks on their property or eviction from their homes (including from refugee camps).

Bisexual persons and transwomen were considered more likely to be subject to forceful ‘correctional sex for conversion,’ due to their greater visibility as gender non-conforming individuals. Whereas, in other cases, participants said that women were often not believed when she says she is a lesbian, which speaks to the more subtle violence that females experience in gaining recognition for their sexual orientation.

Much of this violence is shaped by harmful gendered social norms that form the basis for rigid views on masculinities, femininities and sexuality. This contributes to the widespread internalisation of stigma or ‘self-stigma’ within the LGBTQI+ community, leading to greater levels of mental ill-health and psychosocial distress – as well as self-imposed isolation.

[LGBTQI+ individuals are] abused any time abusers get the opportunity… There is no particular time for this abuse and stigma. It can happen any time.
Group discussion with bisexual people,

This is even more acute in conflict and displacement settings where refugee or migrant LGBTQI+ individuals face multiple layers of discrimination and vulnerability. Lack of labour opportunities often pushes those with least income security into more risky lines of work, such as sex work, where violence or discrimination and threats of blackmail are commonplace.

How can GBV be addressed in Kenya?

GBV services that do exist across Kenya are considered ‘blind to the plight of LGBTQI+ individuals who face double vulnerabilities.’ To ensure that programming and policy are inclusive of the needs and priorities of the different LGBTQI+ communities:

  1. LGBTQI+ people must be included in the creation and implementation of GBV projects. Those with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, expressions and sex characteristics must be involved at all stages of planning and delivery. This includes the monitoring and evaluation aspects of initiatives, especially those serving survivors of gendered sexual violence.
  2. Develop and raise awareness about laws that adequately protect all citizens in Kenya and identify vulnerable and marginalised populations and sub-populations that need extra protection, including members of the LGBTQI+ community. At the same time repeal hostile laws that negatively impact members of the LGBTQI+ community.
  3. Sensitise policymakers to the importance of intersectional approaches to GBV, as well as the need for adequate funding for programmes to provide different services. This will cater for the range of potential GBV-related needs (i.e. emotional, psychosocial, sexual…) to better serve the LGBTQI+ community – particularly refugees or those at greater risk.
  4. Direct donor resources to local LGBTQI+ activists, community organisations, and civil society groups – like the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) who do the important work of advocacy and service-delivery within their local communities and contexts.