There have been some positive changes for people with diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) in laws and social acceptance throughout the world. Despite these advancements, there are still 70+ countries that criminalise people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people remains controversial and divided. Many sexual and gender minorities are thrown out of their homes, bullied at school, ostracised by their communities, terminated from employment, have insecure housing, and are dismissed from health care centres. This is all before a humanitarian crisis.
Increasingly research reports and LGBTIQ+ activists and diverse SOGIESC crisis affected people themselves are advocating for the right to participation in humanitarian decision making processes, and to some degree, humanitarian institutions are hearing this call to action: “commitments have been made to ‘new ways of working’ to meaningfully engage in a broad array of actors involved in and affected by humanitarian action.” However, people with diverse SOGIESC are often systematically excluded from humanitarian action. Furthermore, when advocating for the inclusion of people with diverse SOGIESC, we must centre the voices of those that are most affected by the exclusion. They’ve lived through the humanitarian crises, are impacted by the recovery responses, and therefore many have much needed experience and expertise to contribute.
Nothing About Us, Without Us
The mantra ‘nothing about us without us’ became well-known through the work of disability rights activist James I. Charlton in the 1990’s. The statement itself is rich in meaning: ‘about us’ reminds us of how often minorities (as in the sense of being of minor consequence, not numerical minority) are spoken for by those in positions of power who know ‘what’s best’. This silences minorities voices and can distort our understanding of their needs and strengths. ‘without us’ is a cry for inclusion – not through token representation, but direct participation, ‘nothing’ clarifies that minorities should always govern their own lives—without exception.
This exclusion has consequences; consequences that the humanitarian sector is only beginning to understand. The impacts of the exclusion of people with diverse SOGIESC, and the interaction between exclusion in the wake of disasters and pre-existing discrimination, is increasingly recorded. For instance, Pincha first recorded the exclusion of the Aravani community following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami; IGLHRC and SEROvie detailed the experiences of the diverse SOGIESC community following the catastrophic 2010 Haitian earth quake response in a briefing note, reporting that “in too many instances, commitments to even recognize marginalized groups turned out to be mainly rhetorical or were plagued by major challenges.” LGBTIQ+ people were reported to have a lack of access to housing, food and were targeted for arbitrary arrest and detention; similar experiences during the 2013 Super Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda crisis have been documented by Oxfam and the Humanitarian country team and Edge Effect explored the experiences (and exclusion) of sexual and gender minorities during and following 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston in their Down By The River report. These experiences of exclusion are just the tip of the iceberg.
The everyday pre-emergency marginalisation, violence and discrimination that LGBTIQ+ people experience impacts the ability of people with diverse SOGIESC to cope during emergencies and recover afterwards. For many LGBTIQ+ people, ‘build back better’ is just a pie-in-the-sky dream. The exclusion that people with diverse SOGIESC experience during emergencies reinforces the pre-existing discrimination and continues a vicious cycle of violence and exclusion—and violates humanitarian protection principals.
Diverse SOGIESC Organisations and Activists on the Frontline
While research shows that humanitarian actors exclude LGBTIQ+ people during humanitarian response, we also see LGBTIQ+ people on the frontline as emergency responders with strength and resilience supporting their vulnerable and marginalised diverse communities. In humanitarian response, it is everyday LGBTIQ+ people who are #reallifeheroes.
During the Nepal Earthquake in 2015, LGBTIQ+ people were excluded from the camps, and Blue Diamond created their own LGBTIQ+ community camps, they also built community kitchens for food distribution. When TC Gita caused widespread destruction in 2018 throughout Tonga, it was the Tonga Leitis Association that found ways to distribute food, clothing, fresh water and find safe spaces for their community members to shelter. Lesgrip in the Philippines – a lesbian network collected canned good, candles, matches, clothes and fresh water and distributed these essentials to their communities.
But allowing people with diverse SOGIESC crisis affected communities to participate in humanitarian decision making processes isn’t just because they have shown that they are often response experts. It is also about right to dignity, to be treated with respect and to ‘have a say in the decisions that affect their lives’. This is a part of the Core Humanitarian Standards.
There are a growing number of humanitarian organisations showing their commitment to engaging LGBTIQ+ Civil Society Organisations, and diverse SOGIESC inclusion in emergency response. However, there has been little progress on enabling direct and meaningful participation by (rather than occasional token consultation of) diverse SOGIESC crisis affected communities in humanitarian response and recovery processes. Further, the many frameworks, processes, mechanisms, guidelines and initiatives have not dealt with the heteronormativity, cisnormativity, gender binarism and endosexism that is inherent in the many aid mechanisms, reinforcing the existing power dynamics and a top down approach favoured by the humanitarian system.
To ensure accountability to LGBTIQ+ crisis affected communities, Humanitarian actors must:
Share the power: Power must be acknowledged before it can be shared. Humanitarian actors and organisations ‘have the power’ when it comes to diverse SOGIESC inclusion and protection—humanitarian actors decide who gets resources, where resources go and how resources are distributed (and more!). Diverse SOGIESC people and communities must be centred in these decision-making processes to ensure they are able to safely and equitably access emergency relief. Diverse SOGIESC people and communities should be deeply involved in planning processes, and should be considered joint partners in planning and implementation.
Prioritise Relationships: Key humanitarian documents recognise the centrality of local responders including the 1991 General Assembly Resolution 146/82. The 1994 Red Cross Code of Conduct, the 2007 Principals of Partnership – A Statement of Commitment, endorsed by the Global Humanitarian Platform. But the inclusion and participation of people with diverse SOGIESC is not possible without relationships, social connections and trust amongst humanitarian actors and the local LGBTIQ+ CSOs. Solid relationships and trust pave the way for conversations where we can together confront the barriers to diverse SOGIESC participation and the challenges of the discrimination LGBTIQ+ communities face, to provide adequate response and relief to those LGBTIQ+ people who live with and through humanitarian crises.
Use Participatory Methods: Participatory approaches aren’t about relaying information, or giving presentations, or consulting ‘local’ partners in capital cities away from LGBTIQ+ crisis affected communities.Participatory approaches are about moving from a system of exclusion, to a system that partners with local diverse SOGIESC community membersto utilise the lived expertise of the LGBTIQ+ communities. Humanitarian actors and responders can learn a lot from the personal knowledge about the vulnerabilities and needs of the diverse SOGIEC communities through direct first-hand involvement in the everyday experiences of those communities.
Build Capacity and Capabilities: After a history of discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation, and sometimes criminalisation, many LGBTIQ+ crisis affected communities may require support and encouragement to adopt new ways of working with humanitarian actors and organisations. It may be the first time they have their voices heard. You can use shared principals of collaboration and co-operation while remembering everyone has something to teach and something to learn.
To ensure accountability to LGBTIQ+ crisis affected communities, creative participatory methods are necessary. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, nor a set of check boxes to tick. Instead, there are a series of principals that can be applied in different ways with different communities. The humanitarian system is being challenged to focus on meaningful and effective participation of LGBTIQ+ people in decision making processes, and to address the attitudinal and structural barriers to create a participation revolution.