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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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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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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Top PPSC blog posts in 2013

28/12/2013

Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

As we’re approaching the end of 2013 I would like to use the opportunity to highlight the top ten posts of the Participation, Power and Social Change blog, as well as some other interesting posts, that you might have missed.

This year we had an interesting array of posts providing commentary on events around the world, such as political change in Egypt, riots in Brazil, tragedies and revolts in Bangladesh, as well as presentations of outputs from some of our main research programmes and initiatives. Bloggers included researchers from the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change team, some of our partners, working with us on a variety of projects and some students associated with the team through our MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and through our PhD programme.

Welcome to all those that joined our follower-list in 2013. We now have over 450 people following our blog and compared to 2012, we have more than doubled our views, which is excellent news. We hope you have found our posts interesting and even enjoyable. Please feel free to invite others to join our follower-group and find out what we’re up to.

Top 10 blog posts:

1. Participation for Development: Why is this a good time to be alive? By Robert Chambers

2. Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation by Naomi Hossain

3. From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe by Maria Cascant

4. The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality by Stephen Wood

5. Bangladesh is revolting, again by Naomi Hossain

6. Storytelling in Development Practice by Hamsini Ravi

7. Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens? by Mariz Tadros

8. I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care by Naomi Hossain

9. The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique by Alex Shankland

10. Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all by Stephen Wood

Other interesting blogs that you might have missed:

To give a different nuance to our commentary and research, we’ve also introduced some visual blog posts this year, showing videos, photographs and cartoons. Have a look:

Finally, on behalf of the Power, Participation and Social Change Team at IDS, we wish all our readers happy holidays (if you’re celebrating) and a good start into 2014. We will be back with more blog posts in early January.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.


What are the emerging funding challenges for international LGBTI activists and their donors?

17/12/2013

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

We are living through a difficult period in the funding and resourcing of LGBTI groups in the Global South. At a time when public appetite for action has arguably never been higher, budgets are increasingly under threat or actively being cut.  I recently returned from a meeting in Berlin organised by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, which sought to strategise around potential ways to square this circle.

The funding environment within international development is shifting fundamentally and may look very different in ten to fifteen years. Spanish aid funding is being cut drastically, with the impact already filtering through to many Latin American LGBT groups who depend upon it to resource their defence against mobilised evangelical political attack.  Donors are increasingly pulling out of South Africa as it is no longer perceived as a poor country, yet unlike some other thematic aid areas, disappearing LGBTIQ funding is not been replaced by local sources.  This is at a time when gender and sexual violence is at a record high in the country and LGBT protections within the Constitution are under sustained political attack.

What was really promising about Berlin was that there were a lot of the right people in the building: European and US Government officials, senior figures from donor and philanthropic organisations, European and North American LGBT campaign organisations and southern LGBTIQ activists who took the opportunity to make everybody grapple with some of the practical and political dilemmas they face when negotiating with the funding mechanisms available to them.

How funding mechanisms can be improved

Even with available funding, priorities need re-examination. The Global Gaze 2010 report from Funders For LGBTQ Issues shows that whilst there has been a modest increase in international funding for LGBTIQ groups, it isn’t reaching trans groups, who receive a paltry 4.6% of the available funds compared to nearly 84% for LGBTI programming, which (whilst not always) often still remains mainly gay male programming with lip-service inclusion of other groups.

The complexity of grant proposal systems are especially difficult to negotiate by the nascent trans movements that are still growing in maturity and there was a real push from trans activists in the meeting for low-threshold funding from donors, to take a calculated gamble to help seed young organisations. I was particularly struck to see that the vast majority of the miniscule trans support originated from North America, with a noticeable lack of commitment from European donors. I suspect some analysis of why this is the case would be fascinating.

Similarly, there was anecdotal evidence from some speakers that funding proposals submitted that focus exclusively on lesbian themes tend to not get funded, also underscored by the Global Gaze report, which reported a scant 2% of funding going to support lesbian programming. Yet when they packaged the same proposals as LGBT, they were more likely to be successful.

Similarly to HIV/AIDS programming, any funding for those groups conducting strategic litigation is generally de-coupled from any complimentary empowerment work that organisations seek to undertake to back up their campaigns. These same legal cases are expensive and take several years to see through, yet donor funding continues to be short-termist. Even when successful, groups find it a struggle to convince donors to continue funding beyond the headline ‘victory’ to monitor the realities of implementation attempts. Paradoxically, in many cases it is at this point that sustained funding is most necessary.

Fresh thinking and challenging orthodoxies

Throughout the meeting, I sensed a commitment from all sides to make the most of this space to tackle these sticking points and to step outside of orthodoxies in thinking.  From several, there was an appetite to invest real energy in nurturing new sources of global leadership from regions such as Latin America which could transform debates around equality with discriminatory states in ways that avoided accusations of renewed Western imperialism. It came across in debates about southern states being creative in the establishment of community-determined endowments for activism that could survive independently of aid support – adaptation instead of continued financial dependency.

Whilst less glamorous, the meeting also wrestled with the difficulties in measuring and mapping the amount of aid funding made available for LGBTIQ issues by Governments and donors and how this data might help multiple donors operating in the same country-context communicate more effectively, make more informed funding decisions and support partner LGBT organisations to develop their longer-term campaign strategies. It is a double-edged sword however, as whilst that transparency could mobilise the public in support of aid budgets under threat, the data would provide a very discernable target for opponents of equality to coalesce around.

Bringing research to the table

On behalf of IDS and our partner organisations, I presented some of the principal findings generated within the Sexuality theme of the Institute’s DFID-funded Accountable Grant, examining the disconnect between sexual minorities and poverty alleviation policies. The findings are outlined in case studies from India, the Philippines and South Africa. The ability of this project to allow organisations to identify a priority issue relevant to their contexts and use the research process and collaboration with IDS to help increase their own evidence base appeared to strike a chord with the audience. Many southern activists identified capacity-building in research methods as essential moving forward. There was support for developing a more robust research agenda for donors based on the needs of LGBTIQ stakeholder groups, as well as an appetite to explore the poverty angle further as a way of conducting different conversations and expanding entry points for interventions.

One example of this was using poverty alleviation as a method of conducting dialogue with faith-based NGOs. In fact, there have already been some interesting developments in this area, with the ARCUS Foundation reporting that their fascinating Global Religions programme has begun supporting pro-LGBT Christian and Muslim faith leaders in Africa and Middle East, amongst other regions. It is an area I’d be keen for the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme to explore further.

Whilst the meeting provided space for a diverse set of actors to step outside of their institutional roles and recognise their common aspirations for social justice for LGBTI communities, it also gave us space to highlight where our priorities differed. As one of the NGO participants summarised “We want to spend more. They want to spend better”.  Ensuring the practical outputs that resulting from this meeting address both of these essential drivers will be crucial to building credibility and good faith on both sides that delivers for LGBTIQ communities on what remains heavily-contested political terrain.

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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Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all

06/11/2013

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

Can I confess something? I’ve been a sexual rights activist for many years and am deeply immersed in the research undertaken by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, yet still I sometimes struggle to explain to the uninitiated what ‘heteronormativity’ means and why it is an incredibly important concept for those of us working in international development. It is a slippery concept to grasp hold of and gain an understanding of, but I feel it needs dragging out of academic spaces into the realities of our everyday lives.

Simply put, heteronormativity is a term that describes a fixed assumption in society that people fall into two distinct genders, each with natural roles and behaviours – and the subtle and unspoken ways in which how the world is organised on these lines to the exclusion of any other way of conceiving of it. These very specific understandings of ‘natural’ sexuality or gender roles are quietly written into the fabric of our institutions and relationships in ways that can be exclusionary, limiting and discriminatory.

Why is unmasking heteronormativity useful?

The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has consistently argued that the heteronormative nature of much of the development industry impacts upon people’s experiences of their sexuality and that sexual rights remain integral to central development concerns such as poverty and well being. The norms and ideologies that underpin and shape development policies and funding priorities are rarely interrogated because for most people, they remain innocuous and common sense. This neglect can therefore result in ineffective policies that fail to reach those most in need and can in many cases actively constrain their rights.

As a consequence, the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has just launched an online guide to heteronormativity on ELDIS to encourage a greater focus on the perils of ignoring heteronormativity in development interventions.

My colleagues Kate Hawkins, Georgina Aboud and myself have brought together a concise guide to the concept, its usefulness for development thinking and the ways in which it impacts upon gender, LGBT rights, economic justice, health care, human rights and law. We’ve also collected some key publications together on the topic for those wanting to explore it further, alongside research materials that show how it has proved useful in the field.

How we’ve used it in IDS work recently?

As part of the current theme of work around sexuality and poverty that IDS and a number of our partners are leading for DFID, we have had cause to use a critique of heteronormativity as a methodological lens to examine how poverty alleviation policies in a variety of areas such as education, housing, disability and family law are shaped by restrictive norms around sexuality and gender identity. It has enabled us to clearly view the hidden assumptions, the silences, exclusions and discriminatory practice that ensure that these policies remain ineffective in bringing marginalised communities out of economic poverty.

We hope that this new ‘unpacking/unmasking heteronormativity’ resource guide goes some way towards helping you and your networks identify ways in which normative assumptions around sexuality and gender can be identified and addressed in your context too. If you can think of ways in which we can make it even more useful, please don’t hesitate to contact me to give your feedback.

Stephen Wood is a researcher 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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