Objections to LGBTI+ inclusion in humanitarian work
by Elodie Leroy Le Moigne, Senior Risk & Safeguarding Advisor
Part 2 of a 3-part series on LGBTI+ safety and security. Click here to read part 1: Can LGBTI+ in the aid sector really bring their 'whole selves' to work?
As a security professional in the humanitarian sector, I have worked in the world’s most volatile environments as well as in plush headquarter offices. I’ve worked for both big and small NGOs and for major UN humanitarian agencies. Throughout my career, I’ve heard the same objections to LGBTI+ inclusion in every workplace and every duty station. I’ve also worked with colleagues who are working tirelessly to overcome these objections.
Objection 1: “If we keep having to adapt our security processes to all these groups – LGBTI, women, national staff, different ethnicities, disabilities then we won’t have time to do normal security.”
This objection gets to the heart of the matter. Many security managers believe that there is a ‘normal’ person for whom they are providing security. That approach views security as a solar system with the ‘normal people’ being the sun, the big thing for which security is supposed to work, and then the ‘others’ rotating around those for whom the system was designed. But security designed for one person, or one group, is valid only for that particular person or group. And, we can’t all be white, middle-aged, Swiss men. Moreover, if a part of the workforce of an organization is unsafe, it weakens the safety and security of the entire organization. A better way to view security is as an ecosystem where everything is linked. If one part is insecure then we are all insecure.
Objection 2: “LGBTI+ inclusion is a western issue for international staff coming America or Europe. We don’t need to deploy LTBTI+ individuals to deliver good services.”
This objection highlights that, for many, diversity in humanitarian response is still a nice-to-have rather than a necessity. Humanitarian and development organisations say they value diversity, but we need to honestly ask ourselves whether we believe diversity to be a strength or a weakness. If it’s a strength, then is it a strength everywhere? All the time? Or only in certain places and at certain times?
I believe that it’s the former and that we need diversity because it is efficient – because it brings to our challenges a plurality of backgrounds, ideas, thought, skills and experiences. It allows us to see a problem and devise holistic solutions. Diversity is the only way we can claim to represent beneficiaries or advocate for them. Diversity is not just how we do humanitarian work – it is the work. Dismissing LGBTI+ staff as unnecessary in certain places or at certain times is harmful. It is harmful to them, it is harmful to their colleagues and ultimately it’s harmful to the communities we seek to serve.
Objection 3: “There are no LGBTI in the places where we’re working and we don’t want to impose our norms or get involved in politics.”
LGBTI+ individuals are everywhere. In every country of the world. In areas where laws or communities are supportive LGBTI+ will be more visible. Where laws are restrictive, discriminatory or harmful then LGBTI+ individuals and communities hide. They don’t magically disappear. There are LGBTI+ personnel in every organisation, mission, and among our beneficiaries no matter where we are working. If you can’t see them it’s either because you haven’t looked or they are hiding to survive. People are very efficient at hiding when their survival is at stake. There won’t be any visible indicators that your 50-year-old, Congolese father of three is gay. Nor your unmarried Iraqi colleague who is trying desperately to emigrate. Transgender people will be even more invisible but just because we don’t recognise them as LGBTI+ doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
We tend to bring our own preconceptions to this topic based on our bias and lack of knowledge. We tend to think of LGBTI+ staff being white and coming from high income countries. We also believe that other countries will be more dangerous and repressive. Across the African continent, same sex intercourse and transvestism existed prior to the colonization and was not forbidden until colonialism. In Haiti, the Vaudou religion was very tolerant to homosexual and transgender prior to the island evangelization. There are many LGBTI+ NGOs actively working in countries with repressive homosexuality legislation and cultural repression – like Uganda (SMUG) Tunisia (SHAMS) Kenya (Galck) Turkey (lambdaistenbul) Bangladesh (sahwprova). Visit the IGLA website to see more. Saying that we are imposing our western ideas about LGBTI+ is offensive to everything these organisations are working toward.
Objection 4: “LGBTI+ isn’t something people here talk about. It’s going to be hard and unpleasant.”
Raising any topic that is taboo, stigmatized or controversial is always hard. Think of women’s gender equality, female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war, and modern slavery. At some point, none of these topics were acceptable to speak about – even within humanitarian organisations. We are all people steeped in our cultures and, like at family dinners, we want to keep the peace. We avoid politics, religion and sexuality. But it is only by raising the topics that we can make progress and we must do this expecting the reaction to be poor, to be misinformed, to be difficult. But it must begin – and it must begin everywhere that we work.
When a problem is hard it drives us back to our fundamentals, our humanitarian principles. These are the grounding for difficult things and can bring everyone in the discussion back to common ground.
Humanitarian aid workers are educated people, they are accustomed to cultural diversity and we should trust that they are able to have this conversation. We need to explain why helping people on the basis of their needs alone includes people without regard for their sexuality and gender identity just as we help people regardless of their political affiliations or religious beliefs.
All of these objections can be overcome but we are going to have to start the conversation rather than keeping them hidden or treating them as insurmountable obstacles.