Voices Loud, Clear and Diverse at the Cutting Edge of Sexuality Research and Activism: Reflections on ILGA2014

10/12/2014

Cheryl OversOvers blog 1 dec 14

The theme of the Annual Global Conference of the International Gay and Lesbian Association conference in Mexico City was ‘decolonising our bodies.’ Five hundred activists, academics and policy makers talked about forms of colonisation and how to identify, resist and defy it. I followed sessions that reflected areas of work of the Sexuality Programme, economic challenges and resiliencies in LGBTI communities and legal aspects of the struggle for LGBTI rights in the global south. I also visited discussions about immigration, digital security and gender identity which are some of the ascendant issues that reflect important shifts in thinking within queer spaces.

The Year of Conchita

I first heard the term SOGI, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, from the UN so I was prejudiced against it. I am disillusioned by social movements and community actions being instrumentalised by institutions and it is often heralded by a new acronym. But at this conference I realised that SOGI is well used which suggests it better describes the conversation than ‘Lesbian and Gay’ plus the various letters that have been added as history has unfolded. I was also surprised to rarely hear ‘queer’ but perhaps that’s because it’s done its job of making way for gender identities to be liberated from the binary idea that there are men and women and that transgenders and intersex people must become one or the other.

For many people their first view of contemporary challenges to binary gender identity was Conchita Wurst, winner of Eurovision 2013. Predictably some people across all sexualities were mystified, having understood the categories gay men, lesbian women and trans people as settled. But here the importance of freeing minds and bodies from binary sexuality and gender categories in the overall aim of decolonisation of queer bodies were discussed throughout the conference. As well as arguments about how and why law, medicine and anthropology should shift away from gender binaries and heteronormativity, gender activists also called for the process to begin in LGBTI communities and ILGA itself. Given the historical context in which inclusion of lesbian, trans and bisexual and intersex peOvers blog 2 dec 14ople in ILGA has itself been an evolution, this process is clearly still underway. The outward signs of this shift were the familiar sites of gender contestation – clothing and bathroom designation. Beards and frocks were all over the place at ILGA 2014 and the two bathrooms became three. But the third bathroom was not marked “T” in reference to binary transpersons.

“It’s not the same to be a gay person with means as it is to be a gay person without means.”

Fundamental human rights to life, freedom of assembly and speech, non-discrimination and access to justice are rightly at the top the SOGI agenda. But in view of the number of people at the conference from middle and low income countries I was surprised at the lack of content on economic rights in the Global South.

Micro Rainbow’s research in Brazil is also an interesting exception. It shows that lesbian, gay and transgendered people are more likely to become and/or remain poor due to the stigma, prejudice and discrimination they face on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBT people who live in poverty in Rio de Janeiro often deal with verbal, physical and sexual violence, and other abuses motivated by homophobia and transphobia. It argued that the lack of social and legal recognition of LGBT people, coupled with heteronormative, exclusionary policies on poverty provide a context that maintains the invisibility and structural marginalization of LGBT people living in poverty. I hope we see more research like this and that it drives demand for redress.

The World Bank provided an opportunity to engage with development policy and it was very well attended by Global South delegates. The Bank has recognised that to fulfil its mission of poverty reduction, sustainable development and shared prosperity the development process must fully respect the dignity, human rights, economies, and cultures of gender and sexual minorities; that gender inequalities and differences expose LGBTI to various forms of risk and that LGBTI communities play a vital role in sustainable and inclusive development. It convened the meeting at ILGA2014 to discuss ways in which LGBTI groups can be involved in the process of ensuring that Bank financed projects avoid negative impacts on sexual and gender minorities and promote gender and SOGIE equality. A consultation with LGBT organisations will be taking place over the coming months to develop policy including a Gender and SOGI Plan/Planning Framework that will inform the appraisals or impact assessments of Bank funded projects. Bank staff were keen to hear suggestions about how to do that. ‘Be very careful not to do harm” was the loudest suggestion and perhaps after that ‘Don’t necessarily believe what our governments tell you about how they treat us.’ The session was convened by Chad Dobson of The Bank Information Centre which is monitoring and critiquing this process.

A recurring idea about the economic consequences of homophobia and gender was that it pushes people into poverty which forces them to sell sex. Thus sex work was uniformly cast as unsatisfactory, tragic or worse. I was musing during a coffee break about the inadequacy of this discourse with a Canadian woman. Sex workers rights were fresh in her mind because of debates in Canada where sex work has recently been further criminalised (see Pivot Legal Society). She was Helen Kennedy and the next day she was elected as Co Secretary General of ILGA which bides well for more visibility for queer sex workers at the next conference.

Although quite a lot is known about the issues facing LGBTI migrants, refugees and asylum seekers there has been little attention to SOGI issues more generally in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. In the case of outbreaks of illness sexual minorities are often blamOvers blog 3 dec 14ed for causing epidemics or making them worse. Gorma Togbah Kollie from Liberia said this is happening in relation to Ebola for gay, lesbian and transgender communities and people living with HIV in West Africa.

I was unsure if my impression about lack of economic and development content was correct until the European Parliament Co-President Ulrike Lunacek mentioned it as she presented the ‘Go Visible’ award to Galang, an organization of lesbians in the Philippines which Lunacek said stands out because it addresses economic issues. Some years back Susie Jolly wrote an article with the self-explanatory title, “Why is Development Work So Straight?” and other work at the Sexuality Programme of IDS argued that ‘development theory and practice impose reproductive heterosexuality (heteronormativity) both as the only functional form of sex for its policies and as the ruling norm subjective experiences of pleasure, desire, and identity claims.’ It would be useful to ask the converse now -why is LGBTI activism not more focussed on development?

Liberation and the Law

Activists from several countries where homosexuality is illegal spoke about their experience with law reform advocacy and strategic litigation. Stephen Chukwumah from Nigeria was one of several activists that spoke about the strain legal processes place on communities and about the challenge of ensuring that potential benefits are distributed. Others spoke about putting energy into different legal processes. Ian McKnight of J-Flag Jamaica spoke about the impact of intense police liaison and a clear directive by senior police against homophobia in law enforcement. He said that although miracles don’t happen there has been real change. Similar stories came from Fiji. This serves as a reminder that ending police negligence, violence and misbehavior doesn’t have to be complex or long term. A particularly heartening story came from SMUG Uganda. An activist is suing a US evangelical church in a US court for the damage it has caused in his life.

Several delegates spoke about the confounding logic and sheer complexity of law. Some groups have been fortunate to have skilled pro bono lawyers but even then law is a maze. I was pleased to be able to share IDS Sexuality Programme’s contribution to addressing that problem, the Sexuality and Justice Toolkit.

Sonia Correa of Sexuality Policy Watch shared her thoughts about sanctioned sexuality and commented very frankly that while the law reform process must go ahead, anyone who thinks that the law or legal reform will liberate the sexually and gender transgressive is deluded. Sonia Corrêa and Akshay Khanna have recently compiled essays that explore and reflect on the limitations and possibilities of law reform and legal processes.

The technology paradox

Several activists spoke about digital security and the paradox that networked technologies have bought joyful, rich and lifesaving opportunities at the same time as posing serious threats. Governments are increasingly taking a keen interest in the use of this space by dissidents in general and sexual dissidents in particular. Homophobic oppression is thus disguised as fighting terrorism, pornography, trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Another threat is on-line violence which causes both direct harms to targeted individuals and indirect harm by turning people away from activism. However in the context of low income counties lack of access to high speed internet remains the most pressing problem. I was delighted to see Tactical Tech at ILGA 2014. It does great work producing internet tools to help activists overcome some of these problems.

The amazing potential of citizen controlled technology was evident in the films, photography and websites on show at ILGA2014. I managed to see the beautiful photography of Chouf, Tunisia (who also won a Go Visible award); No Easy Walk to Freedom about the Naz Foundation’s challenge to Indian anti sodomy law; three short films about the work of BeLong Ireland with asylum seekers and “The Son I Never Had” about the experience of an intersex person.

Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at The Michael Kirby Institute of Human Rights and Public Health at Monash University Melbourne Australia and is a visiting research fellow at IDS.

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Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces

15/10/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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The emerging LGBT movement in Vietnam: lessons in negotiating legal spaces

23/06/2014

Tu-Anh Hoang

Thirty years ago, before the economic reform which is known as Doi Moi in Vietnam in 1986, it was hard for people who know the politics in Vietnam to imagine or even think about the existence of civil society in the country, let alone a civil society movement. Today the Vietnamese government not only recognises the existence of thousands of registered and unregistered NGOs and groups but also acknowledges the contribution these organisations make to the development of the country. This emergent civil society includes LGTB groups which until the 1990s were invisible.

Homosexuality though not illegal, used to be seen as social-evil together with other illegal phenomena such as drug use, gamble and prostitution. A HIV epidemic helped make the LGBT community visible and known to the media and public. However, the government’s health risk management approach did not help empower the community to affirm their rights on sexual orientation and identity nor reduce related stigma and discriminations. Much of the public and policy makers still think about homosexuality and transgender as phenomena that affect some (unlucky) individuals and if society keeps a close eye on this, they can control and somehow eliminate these ‘deviants’.

However, in 2012 the VietPride bicycle rally with rainbow flags on the streets in Ha Noi and the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to revise the Marriage and Family Law to take into account same-sex relationship awakened the country. LGBT people are no longer isolated and marginalised groups but have organised and engage successfully with media and policy makers.

As a result of this engagement Vietnam became the first country in Asia to discuss same-sex marriage at the national level. The revised Marriage and Family law that passed on 19 June 2014 does not recognise these rights. This is a setback not just for the movement in Vietnam but also for other groups in the region who had hoped to use the legalisation in Vietnam to open the door in other countries. While this is disappointing it should be seen in perspective of a turbulent political context and process with setbacks and successes. The movement with the LGBT organisations and their supporters is still strong. Their engagement and negotiation abilities are not diminished.

The recent report Negotiating public and legal spaces: the emergence of an LGBT movement in Vietnam – co-authored by researchers from the Institute for Social Development and the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, a local NGO in Hanoi – documents the process of the emergence of the movement.

Three strategies made the engagement and negotiation possible:

Depoliticising the LGBT movement to create space for civil association and engagement
Creating emotion is considered a key term in the mobilisation for both public presentation in VietPride and the legalization of same-sex cohabitation and marriage. Rights for love, for having a family and for pursuing happiness are centred in the arguments of LGBT activists and groups. Instead of criticising sexual politics, slogans and messages are adapted to somehow match with the country development goals regarding equity and well-being. This strategy is criticised by some activists as ‘too safe’ and may hamper the linkage of LGBT movement with other human rights and democracy movement in Vietnam, it is recognised by majority that this is relevant and effective in current Vietnam political context.

Broad rights-based framework on LGBT rather than employing a limited special interest LGBT group framework
The number of organisations and groups working exclusively or focally on same-sex relationship in Vietnam is still modest and most unregistered, which imply the limit in term of legal power. However, this disadvantage is made up of a coalition with other well-established and registered organisations working on gender, domestic violence and sexuality in Vietnam. This linkage is possible through a shared broad framework on gender equity and human rights. This coalition does not only bring more legal power to LGBT movement but also makes it more acceptable to the public and policy makers.

Building positive wholesome images of LGBT
This is a key strategy of the LGBT rights movement in Vietnam. LGBT activists see this as characteristic that distinguishes their movement from the work of HIV. While this strategy seems successful, the positive images and stories of mainly young, healthy, middle-class, university-degree not reflect the wholeness and diversity of LGBT communities.

The strategy of depolitisation might be reconsidered by LGBT groups and their network of partners. What’s important to keep in mind is that this broad rights based network is still there in spite of this setback. The friends of the LGBT activists are still their friends even though their enemies might still be there. The image of LGBT today is also much more positive and diverse than it was a few years ago. LGBT are no longer portrayed as sick social deviants; instead images of young wholesome LGBT are found in the official and on social media. It is likely to be a long process. Vietnamese are probably the world’s experts at thinking strategically, playing a long game and winning unlikely wars. Losing battles along the way is part of this path and will not change the determination of the LGBT movements and their friends for equal rights. In fact it may fuel it.

This blog was written by Tu-Anh Hoang as part of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

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Bridging the gap: strengthening the sexuality and poverty evidence base

11/06/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

One benefit of working on a programme that spans several years is that (if things go to plan) the partnerships that you build and the concrete outputs that emerge can add up to something that mutually reinforces itself in effecting transformative impact and change. Two important moments in the lifespan of our Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme (SPL) over the past few weeks have underscored this potential in a striking fashion.

Our work in the last couple of years has focused on exploring how conceptions of sexuality are coded into the DNA of poverty alleviation policies, in ways that exclude those individuals marginalised as a consequence of their sexuality or gender identity. My colleagues and I co-constructed the focus and methodological approaches of the resultant ‘policy audits’ with our international partners, providing space for partners to turn a forensic eye to often neglected, yet crucial debates they felt needed wrestling with, as well as putting reflexive evaluation at the heart of our working relationships to inform the planning of future activity over the course of our programme.

The work has certainly been timely. Linkages between sexuality and poverty have never been more topical, as an appetite for alternative entry points by which Western Governments can engage their Southern peers around sexual equality has increased steadily. Research about to be published by the World Bank by Dr M.V.Lee Badgett is already making headlines in estimating a conservative financial cost to India’s economy of between 0.1% – 0.7% GDP per year as a result of homophobia.

One aspiration of the SPL Programme from its inception has been to redress the historic paucity of evidence to show that sexual minorities suffer a double-bind of prejudice and exclusion from economic security, rather than the aspirational, privileged ‘Pink Rupee’ clichés that are lazily reported in the press. Our approach of linking narratives and personal testimonies from grassroots experience with nuanced policy interventions has hopefully contributed in some small way to a qualitative foundation from which the now-growing quantitative research base has gathered momentum.

Policy-influencing in action: the success of GALANG

Last month GALANG, our partner in the Philippines, convened a national advocacy meeting ‘Policy Audits for Inclusive Development’ in Quezon City, co-sponsored by Mama Cash and IDS. The event allowed space for politicians, policy-makers and civil society actors from across the country to interrogate the role of sexuality across a wide range of policy arenas such as education, disability, housing and health policy. GALANG invited domestic specialists in each field to act as discussants, responding to the common challenges highlighted by each country’s Policy Audit and locating these in policy debates taking place within the Philippines. The resulting richness of dialogue underscored the advantages of brokering South-South collaborations further and clearly spoke to an appetite amongst policy-makers for further evidence to bolster the case for reform.

I could easily have spent this entire blog post rhapsodizing about how impressive the GALANG team were in identifying strategically important participants over a period of several months, of building a programme for their meeting that spoke to the audience’s appetite for practical policy-programming recommendations and the quiet brokering of concrete policy changes and commitments from attendees at the national, regional and local level. Rest assured, both myself and my IDS colleagues have never seen such a seamlessly, pitch perfect exemplar of stakeholder-mapping and policy-influencing in action. Seeing them in action has certainly been a highlight of my work on the Programme.

Going live with the Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit

Hot on the heels of our return from the Philippines, the Sexuality, Law and Poverty Programme undertook a global launch of our new Sexuality and Social Justice toolkit – an interactive platform that synthesizes much of the reflexive, collaborative learning undertaken with partners so far in the Programme. It provides resources that allow donors, policy-makers and activists to follow in the recent footsteps of our Policy Audit authors, providing guides by which they might navigate and structure their own examination of these hidden exclusions within poverty reduction programming, whilst hopefully providing insights that help negotiate and avoid the pitfalls.

By using our experiences working collaboratively on the development of a diverse set of Policy Audits (each employing radically different methodologies and negotiating vastly differing actors and spaces) we are gradually building an archive of case studies that speak to the concrete realities of undertaking this work. Now that we have gone live, we are beginning to gain feedback from our target audiences about the additional resources and practical tools they would find helpful and the site will be supplemented with new material regularly. I’d encourage anyone interested to sign up for ongoing updates and contribute to this ongoing dialogue.

The last two years have involved being part of a collective enterprise to reinforce and strengthen the case for a step-change in how those concerned with the ‘bread and butter’ issues of development consider individuals who experience their sexuality and gender outside of cultural norms. By designing similar interventions that result in multiple outcomes, reach diverse sets of actors and loop around to catalyse each other, I’m hopeful that the second half of the Programme can have an enduring legacy in helping shifting the terms of debate around sexuality from the margins to the heart of poverty eradication.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Tackling Homophobia in Brazilian schools: What more needs to be done?

18/03/2014

Ilana Mountian

In order to tackle homophobia in Brazil, we need to understand it as a structural matter, part of a complex system. The interactions between educational policies against homophobia with other public policies, such as poverty reduction, work, health and others need to be strengthened.

These are the main finding from my recent policy audit that we undertook as part of the DfID-funded Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme to analyse public policies against homophobia and transphobia in the educational system in Brazil. In order to tackle economic and social inequality, it is paramount to understand that the reproduction of inequalities historically impacts on specific groups. In this audit, the focus is on the impacts of homophobia (and transphobia) on poverty; considering the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, class and age.

We have analysed key aspects of public policies in education and sexuality in Brazil, which have been designed as part of the wider programme Brazil Without Homophobia (BWH – Programa Brasil sem Homofobia), launched in 2004. The analysis was based on a number of policy material, previous research on the theme, interviews with educators and professionals working directly with the programmes for education without homophobia, interviews with transsexual women and travestis and participation in meetings with transsexual people, educators and policy makers.

While the BWH was an important initiative towards tackling homophobia in Brazil, the analysis shows that there was a range of obstacles that hindered the implementation and access to policies against prejudice and violence. Multi-sector policies operating in an integrated manner were lacking in this context.

To put this into context we highlighted the broad social background and educational issues facing students in Brazil, the high levels of homophobic violence in Brazilian society, how religious discourses operate in politics and everyday struggles for equality, as well as the need for better coordination and implementation of educational initiatives.

What more needs to be done?

In our audit report we have highlighted the following recommendations for ensuring that policies to tackle homophobia have the maximum impact:

  • Homophobia (as well as sexism, racism, classism, discrimination against those with disabilities and others) should be considered as a structural matter.
  • A clearly supported strategy is needed against homophobia and sexism in educational policies and the national curriculum.
  • There is a need to articulate and strengthen the intersectionality between educational policies against homophobia with other public policies, such as poverty reduction, work, health and others.
  • Long-term policies against homophobia should be developed.
  • There is a need to acknowledge and develop strategies to tackle local resistance -e.g. from religious fundamentalist people to policy implementation.
  • Resources are required to support staff promoting equality (information, workshops, protection from abuse, permanent forums).

Initiatives against homophobia and sexism in schools need to be further developed and be part of a wider agenda to tackle homophobic violence and discrimination. Building upon our research, it is fundamental that policies that consider sexuality and gender in Brazil, beyond stereotypical understandings, are developed – and that they also consider the intersections with race, class, age, disability and other factors. These policies have to work as an integrated and coordinated multi-sectoral strategy in order to overcome exclusion, social inequality and poverty. Further investigation is needed into the ability of LGBT individuals and families who live in extreme poverty to access social welfare provisions, like the Bolsa Familia.

Only when homophobia – and other forms of discrimination – are seen as a structural issue of inequality will we see real improvements for tackling homophobia in Brazil.

Ilana Mountian is a post-doctoral researcher at the Universidade de São Paolo.

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The Development Prison: escaping gender, LGBT and sexuality silos

04/03/2014

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a live Guardian Development panel discussion on sexuality and development issues. It was a fascinating experience, bringing a rich set of mainly Southern voices to bear on a wide-ranging set of topics.

What became apparent throughout the discussions were that two issues are beginning to gain traction amongst those operating within this field: the risk that many facets of sexuality advocacy may be drowned out due to a focus upon LGBT rights and the retreat into a silo mentality by those working on gender and sexuality.

In these past few weeks, the frenetic pace of sexual rights activism has cranked up a notch – the obvious homophobic developments in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, but also continual attacks on abortion, sex workers rights and women’s bodily autonomy. For those active in these movements, the sheer intensity of keeping up with and showing solidarity is a strain in itself, making it incredibly difficult to look outside of our backyards into the concerns of others outside our narrow area of expertise.

Considering the current climate, it isn’t surprising that minds currently race immediately to global LGBT rights when we talk about sexuality and development. The Ugandan Anti-Pornography Bill passed in December 2013, which risks criminalising women wearing mini-skirts or dressing in an ‘immoral’ way, received much less coverage or international condemnation than the reviled Anti-Gay Bill passed last month.

As a gay man, working to amplify the voices of LGBTI colleagues working in the Global South is an essential part of what gets me up to work in the morning, but sexuality is much broader than that. That is why the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme works hard to build intersections and alliances between very different groups, convening conversations that broaden people’s conception of sexuality and it’s relevance over many seemingly unconnected areas of the development world.

Limitations of LGBT identity politics

LGBT is a particularly Western term that whilst makes sense for a lot of people globally, can also fail to speak to the realities of people’s lives in many contexts. We need to problematise it, whilst hanging on to it for where it is politically useful or speaks to peoples experiences. Where development interventions use this framing as a mechanism by which citizens access rights or services, we run the risk of imposing an identity politics upon cultures that could be incredibly unhelpful to some.

The other note of caution is that LGBT rights are a particularly trendy topic at the moment with media attention and (in some cases) development funding available right now to engage with it. The wheel will turn, Governments will change and priorities shift – and unless LGBT movements for progressive change build common cause across these debates to identify allies – the funding and energy will eventually shift in other directions, potentially to less aligned beneficiaries.

Placing LGBT at the centre of sexuality issues also poses political problems for others within the field. There is a sense that it is creating discord amongst development professionals who work upon it by shutting down wider debate on issues around sex education, reproductive and sex work by association, where the assumption is given that sexuality is code for LGBT equality.

Consequently, conservative voices are using this a defensive position to argue against efforts to reform other crucial areas of sexual rights, such as education, access to services or spousal consent laws. More nuanced strategising between social movements is needed to avoid these attempts to divide and conquer.

Breaking the glass walls dividing gender and sexuality

Rightly, with equality for women and girls so far away from being a reality in many (if not all) parts of the world, there can be an understandable concern that bringing sexuality, including LGBTI people, into conversations around gender equality will mean hard choices around resources and that women will be the losers in that debate.

The cold reality is that these divisions may be due to NGOs being dependent on bilateral or international funding, so the silo mentalities we are witnessing could be a scramble to differentiate oneself for limited resources. As I’ve written recently, even within the fledgling LGBTI aid industry, there are unhealthy hierarchies of priority between groups that mitigate against collaboration.

Yet within gender research and advocacy, an essentialist, binary view of gender can still hold sway, ignoring the reality that oppression of sexual minorities very often stems from a visceral dislike of those who trouble their world-view of immutable gender roles. Within the development world, it often remains unspoken amongst donor agencies and practitioners that aid should be focussed on the ‘deserving poor’, those whose lives and choices do not challenge dominant moral codes. For all the focus upon conservative voices blocking progressive change in aid recipient countries, the mirror is rarely held up to confront the instances of judgemental and heteronormative behaviour from development professionals.

Consequently, gender work often focuses upon the empowerment of particular groups of heterosexual women, rendering invisible those who don’t subscribe to specific gender scripts, ignores the transformative possibilities of working with men, let alone transgender and gender-variant people. We need to re-open dialogue amongst those working on gender about the possibilities for deepened alliances and challenge some of these unspoken undercurrents and exclusions.

What can be done?

Voices need to be heard from NGOs on the ground to engage in and influence the evolving strategies of funding organisations, governments and philanthropic donors. Collectively, we need to ensure that mechanisms for support are developed in a way that discourages silo thinking, encourages self-reflexivity around gender identity and sexuality and places intersectionality front and centre. I’ve spoken to senior staff within funding agencies who bemoan the lack of lobbying coming from the grassroots – it doesn’t hurt to remember that we are not just recipients, we are key stakeholders they need and want to listen to.

IDS strives to ensure that our Sexuality and Development Programme avoids some of these problems by placing intersectionality at the heart of what we do:  building projects, alliances and campaigns that make those connections central to the process as well as the outcome. In much the same way as gender mainstreaming has sought to assess the impact of public policy upon women and men and catalyse fresh collaborations, we also seek to identify fresh entry points for sexuality engagement in issues such as housing, social insurance, education and poverty.

To point to specifics, our current DFID-funded programme on the links between sexuality and poverty has produced a synthesis report written by Kate Hawkins, myself and our partners, published this week, which gives an excellent snapshot of how consideration of gender and sexuality within the production of poverty-reduction policies are intimately connected.

Colleagues across IDS recently held a major meeting called “Undressing Patriarchy” which brought together development practitioners, activists, policymakers and researchers working across gender justice, feminist movements, men’s movements, LGBTI and sex worker groups to take time to re-interrogate what patriarchy means for our movements and activisms and to identify bridging activities we can take forward to tackle it.

At a time when resources are scarce, where gender and sexual rights movements are struggling to respond to fast moving and at times dangerous political contexts, it is a lot to ask for an investment in engagement with what many view as tangential issues. Yet at their core, gender, sexuality and LGBTI activists are part of a wider movement to safeguard pluralism and human rights and it is only through making common cause can we ensure that these issues remain firmly at the centre of mainstream social and policy agendas.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Signposting fresh entry points into international sexual rights advocacy

03/02/2014

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

For those that know me well, the beginning of a new year is usually heralded with an explosion of life-planning energy that leaves others dizzy, a spring in my step and a renewed sense of direction. This year is no different, yet as we endure continual assaults upon global sexual and gender rights, I  have tried harder to build clarity as to where I might put my research efforts during 2014.

Accepting the limits of the AIDS and Human Rights approaches

I reported last month in my report from a Berlin meeting examining the emerging challenges for LGBTI NGOs and donors operating in the Global South, that traditionally-funded routes for engagement such as HIV/AIDS prevention work and human rights advocacy continue to be structured in short-termist ways which mitigate against community investment and capacity building. These spaces remain crucial whilst the majority of LGBTI funding continues to be made available via these mechanisms,  but with the future of these modest resources under threat, new entry points for research and advocacy must be identified that can potentially create tangible improvements in the lives of those with non-normative sexualities.

In their synthesis report, “Sexuality and the Law: Case studies from Cambodia, Egypt, Nepal an South Africa” published this week, my IDS colleague Dr Linda Waldman and Monash University’s Cheryl Overs speak to this need to move into unfamiliar spaces and conversations about sexuality. Their conclusions encourage researchers, activists and donors to:

“Elevate the profile of sexuality across all sectors of international development. This involves developing a multi-pronged approach that encourages donors, their partners in governments, and civil society actors to acknowledge and identify the scope for addressing a range of sexuality issues. These include building recognition of the relevance of sexuality in relation to human rights, development, public health, governance, law and policy, and establishing greater awareness in all sectors within international development and in bilateral and multilateral agencies and sectors.”

However, as those of us who have attempted it can attest, moving into unfamiliar political terrain contains it’s own set of challenges. Communicating your policy aspirations into language that makes sense to audiences uninterested in sexuality requires real nuance and evidence of common investment in the drivers underpinning the efforts of those working within these arenas.

Intersectionality – engaging the unusual suspects

Whilst intersectional analyses of multiple forms of discrimination have been popular for the last quarter century, I’ve noticed a discernible upturn in interest in the political alliances made possible by sexual rights advocates building common cause alongside feminist activists, those fighting for disability rights, anti-racists, sex workers and progressive faith organisations. For those of us working on the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, we have been actively facilitating these connections through our Sida-funded Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, particularly around work on

The wider question is HOW we can make these alliances sticky and effective?The right-wing has been adept in engaging with certain elements of the feminist movement to curtail the autonomy of sex workers – those of us supporting progressive movements need to learn how to do the same. Breaking artificial divisions amongst the sexual rights movement, such as blindly using LGBT as a term when issues cut across the sexual spectrum and are conceived more fluidly elsewhere in the world, remains a good starting point.

Poverty alleviation as a founding principle of sexuality and development work

The DFID-funded programme of research examining sexuality and poverty that I manage is moving into a new phase, with our final policy audits and synthesis published this month. A series of new case studies commissioned with partners for this year will examine how individuals marginalised from poverty alleviation policies as a consequence of their sexual and gender identities are building up innovative strategies to create sustainable livelihoods from the grassroots.

As I touched upon in my Berlin report, there is a widespread appetite to examine this area further amongst LGBT activists and donor organisations. With austerity measures still high on the political agenda, broadening the debate around sexual rights to encompass arguments that LGBT exclusion results in ineffective poverty alleviation strategies (and consequently representing bad value for money) can also speak to the priorities of centre-right governments who would not ordinarily view these otherwise as useful interventions.

The reality for many of our partners is that their communities obtaining a measure of financial independence is just as important to them as it is to their heterosexual neighbours, much more than sexier media-friendly issues like same-sex marriage. In my view, it remains the foundation upon which all development interventions around sexuality should be built.

How social media is shaping sexual minority communities 

Over the last year or so I have been fascinated (some might argue obsessed) with the possibilities of Twitter and other social media platforms in reaching fresh audiences, engaging in participatory, bottom-up debate and gathering confidential research data from populations such as trans communities that might be otherwise difficult to access in the Global South. It has fundamentally transformed my own connections, understanding and dialogue with the communities we aim to partner with.

Yet talking to my gay peers, I can sense how the ‘Grindr’ generation’s experiences of gay social media in Europe and North America are radically reshaping our sense of community and identity. How is this translating into the experience of sexual minorities in those regions such as South East Asia, which have also seen a rapid increase in the use of mobile technology?  Do these shifts have implications for the way these individuals experience community, conduct their activism, mediate their sexual relationships or even facilitate their economic empowerment? How can the opportunities of this technology be harnessed for progressive ends?

For me, these are some of the really exciting questions and spaces I’m keen to throw myself into in the coming months. I suspect I may have just written my own professional research manifesto for the rest of this year…

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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