One step forward, two steps back? The gaps between LGBTI policy and practice in foreign aid

LGBTI development professionals around the world in different sectors are faced with challenges and safety concerns above and beyond those faced by their peers, due to the gap between headquarters policy and implementation in the field. Photo by: Guillaume Paumier / CC BY

Several international government representatives joined the coalition of LGBTI activists at a hastily convened meeting two weeks ago in the Republic of Benin, across the border from Nigeria.

Their presence and interest alone was an encouraging sign, said Cheikh Traore, who has devoted the majority of his career to mainstreaming gay rights into development frameworks, despite the fact that the meeting was so sensitive it couldn’t be held even underground in Nigeria, where President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill in early January to further criminalize the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

Traore, a consultant, is taking the year to help amplify the voice of a social movement that has thus far failed to sway the loudly pronounced anti-gay government in Nigeria, where LGBTI gatherings alone are now reason for jail time, not to mention same-sex public displays of affection or marriage.

Nigeria doesn’t stand alone. Consensual same-sex conduct is still criminalized in more than 70 countries, with punishment including fines, flogging and imprisonment. For this reason, Traore’s role is often one of the quietest support.

“If LGBT people are perceived as pushing for sanctions, it can increase the risk of stigmatization; the media could say donors are going to cut aid because of gay people,” he said.

Though no donors have yet acted on pulling aid from Nigeria, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, has in the past threatened to withhold aid from governments that refuse to reform legislation banning homosexuality, and temporarily suspended aid to Malawi in 2011 over concerns about its attitude toward gay rights.  

To Traore, this means the world is paying more attention.

“I was part of this incredible moment when suddenly gay rights burst into the development arena,” Traore said of his time at the United Nations Development Program from 2009 to 2012. “It’s personal because I’m African, because Africa is one of the regions that reacted to the international debate on LGBT rights by entrenching its position against them.”

Along with his work, Traore’s own personal life must also often be kept quiet as a Mauritanian-born gay man with more than 15 years of experience as a consultant on sexual diversity, gender and HIV in decidedly anti-gay cultures in more than 25 countries.

Traore’s case is far from unique. LGBTI development professionals around the world — no matter their sector of work — are faced with challenges and safety concerns above and beyond those faced by their peers. And although many donors and aid groups are pushing LGBTI rights and trainings internally, there is often a gap between headquarters policy and implementation in the field, especially in countries like Mauritania and Sudan, where being gay is still punishable by death. Even in the case of inclusive policies and safety measures, every LGBTI aid worker or ally must still judge for themselves how open they want to be in order to function in potentially life-threatening environments.

Donor policy

In the process of embracing LGBTI causes and working with partners in developing countries, many aid groups have begun to reevaluate their own internal policies, establishing internal sexual identity and gender trainings and creating a more welcoming environment for LGBTI staff.

Policies and practices regarding LGBTI staff differ throughout the United Nations system; benefits for same-sex couples depend on the policies of each staff member’s home country. UNAIDS extended benefits to same sex couples in 2011 and is still the only U.N. agency that guarantees this benefit regardless of nationality. U.N. Globe, the association of LGBT U.N. staff, works to promote, among other initiatives, a more inclusive health insurance for transgender staff and a mobility policy that takes into account the added dangers that LGBT staff face.

Other donors haven’t been idle, either. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency has published technical documents to mainstream LGBT rights, and the agency’s policy on LGBT development cooperation is currently under revision, according to its policy support unit. Information on LGBT issues is included in relevant training for the officials of EU institutions, member states, missions, diplomats and field staff. A poster campaign in partnership with the LGBT Network was designed to raise awareness of sexual orientation equality in the workplace and displayed in all offices of the U.K. Department for International Development in 2013, with a focus on valuing diversity and challenging homophobic behavior in the workplace. And like other donors, USAID formally “encourages” its contractors and grantees not to discriminate on the basis of a wide array of personal status categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity. USAID also has a widely recognized internal training program to sensitize LGBTI issues to its employees, although there is no official policy in place regarding LGBT hiring.

Those looking for an intellectual rationale for supporting LGBTI rights will find it in these documents and policies. But more immediate concerns plague LGBTI aid workers and allies currently in the field.

“In my view, they haven’t informed the big debate,” Traore said about some of the emerging LGBTI policies pushed within the aid community. “I’m not surprised we aren’t so worried about documents when we’re still dealing with violations and violence.”

Employee safety

There are inherent risks of working in the field, and no employer wants to put its staff in harm’s way. But some LGBTI employees don’t feel comfortable coming out to their employers. So how involved can an organization really be when it comes to their employees’ sexual orientation or gender identity and the sensitive cultures in which they might be working?

Very, according to Chloe Schwenke, vice president of global programs for Freedom House and former Obama administration appointee as USAID’s senior advisor for LGBTI global policy.

“The reality is one of safety,” she said. “You can have all the policies you want, but put a gay man in Iraq and it’s inherently dangerous.”

It’s a moral challenge, she added, and every organization has to make that choice independently about how they handle staff safety concerns and how they define their own work culture.

“We don’t know who is LGBTI unless they tell us, so it’s only for people who are really open about it,” Schwenke said. “We have to trust them to be careful themselves. If they’re closeted or being really discreet, it has to be their responsibility.”

Many employers do get involved, but it ends up being more negative than anything, said Shaun Kirven, who is currently working in the Philippine province of Mindanao and has more than 15 years of experience in human rights, conflict and post-conflict reconstruction around the world.

When a group of young people arrived one month in Colombia to volunteer for the organizations which employed Kirven, the head coordinator asked if he would talk to one of the new volunteers to get him to “tone down mannerisms” and his appearance, as it was not going to be accepted by local communities.

“I didn’t have that conversation with the volunteer,” Kirven remembered. “I had a much longer conversation with my boss. Dress code: fine. Mannerisms: taking things too far.”

These types of experiences — where personal life and personal distinctions become fodder for tension in the workplace or beyond — are shared by LGBTI development professionals around the world.  

Individual discretion

No matter what, each person enters the workplace with a different set of experiences, and the level of discretion when it comes to an LGBTI staff member’s personal life depends on the individual.

“We all take precautions instinctively,” Traore said. “And of course I’m 46, I’m used to making my own decisions about when to come out and when not to come out.”

Traore said he was fortunate to work with other gay people when he was at UNDP headquarters, where colleagues would advise, for example, “You’re going to Egypt? Don’t tell anyone you’re gay. Don’t go to gay bars.”

While he’s taken some calculated risks — and has, in fact, visited a gay bar in Cairo — Traore said this risk-taking depends largely on where someone is from. He grew up in extremely conservative Mauritania and developed his instincts from this upbringing, but “a young European colleague might not have the same sensitivities,” he suggested.

“When you grow up in an environment where you have no rights as a gay person, you’re not likely to push it,” he said.

It’s also important to recognize the inherent difference of being an international development worker in these countries versus a local LGBTI person, noted Ryan Olson, a program advisor for a development firm in Washington and media officer for the International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia.

“Go to these countries, be out, go have fun,” he suggested, “but just because you get to have that experience doesn’t mean that a local LGBT person can as well.”

Internationals in Kenya, for instance, might be able to go to a dance club or hold private parties, and do so in relative obscurity due to their financial means, but the local environment is extremely complex and the experience for a young LGBTI Kenyan would be something completely different.

In-country ownership

A large gap still often exists between an organization’s policies which are set at headquarters and their implementation around the world, Kirven said. The difficulty in creating an LGBTI-friendly work environment lies in that so much development work takes place in LGBTI-unfriendly environments.

It took the EU some time to put together its LGBTI toolkit, Kirven said, and a lot of this policy is not only Brussels-driven, written and approved, but also remains in Brussels unless a specific country office feels particularly strongly about LGBTI rights.

Kirven said he is currently in heated discussions with the leaders of a Philippine-based human rights institution who have stated they will only employ “real men” for human rights investigation work and won’t accept effeminate behavior, a statement coming from a human rights organization funded with EU and UNDP money, both of which are equal opportunity employers.

Juliana Cano, a human rights worker from Colombia currently based in the Philippines, has worked for organizations that call themselves “progressive,” she said, and many are to the point of having policy around employment for LGBTI individuals.

“Yet you don’t find any transgender people hired by these organizations, for example,” she said.

In fact, the trans population is largely nonexistent in development. Especially if in evident transition, a trans person won’t find the medical or psychological support they need in the field, and stigma remains strong.

“Even here [in Washington, D.C.], my trans friends have trouble getting a job,” said Schwenke, who is herself an openly transsexual woman. The transgender movement is young, she said, and while the gay community has received funding in response to the HIV/AIDS endemic, the lesbian and trans communities are still largely unrecognized and underfunded.  

So just because donors are making outward statements and instating non-discriminatory hiring policies doesn’t mean there isn’t also a need for more internal assessment.

Traore said he joined the United Nations at a time when the organization was still “struggling with the “implementation of entitlement policies for same-sex couples.” His short-lived experience within U.N. Globe showed him how complex it was for colleagues to know their rights in the midst of a fast-changing policy environment.

Kirven would like to see less surprise from colleagues when someone identifies as anything but heterosexual.

“It wasn’t until I outed myself that people actually recognized there was a possibility that someone they employed would be gay,” he said.

Although he said he’s past taking offense, he hopes people can put an end to the assumption that everyone in a meeting will be heterosexual. Or that everyone in a meeting is cisgendered, meaning they identify as their birth gender.

The failure to network

Schwenke, Traore, Cano and Kirven all feel comfortable — in the right contexts — being vocal about their sexuality and using their experiences to shape LGBTI rights progress. But not everyone does – for good reason; the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy many organizations still seem to be pursuing can also stall the formation of networks for LGBTI individuals to connect with others.

Jeffrey Frankens, a young aid worker now based in Jordan, didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian while he worked in Cairo, and was fearful of backlash after sharing that he was gay with his colleagues.

“It’s so incredibly hard to break into this industry as a recent grad, and I didn’t know whether my sexuality could negatively impact people’s perception of me,” he said, adding that feeling he had to hide his personal life further compounded challenges like isolation and culture shock.  

Cano, who says she has “been out forever,” said she still often doesn’t feel comfortable coming out to new international peers she may be working alongside.

Though the network for gay men to find communities abroad is the most established — “there is traffic online everywhere,” according to Kirven — the lesbian community in development suffers from a lack of established networks online or otherwise, Cano said.

It often takes lots of time — and luck. Cano found lesbian peers only after an acquaintance in Afghanistan met a Filipino lesbian and connected the two.

Frankens has since founded a website and started a LinkedIn group “to provide an opportunity for LGBT aid and development workers to come together, have fellowship and network with each other.”

Where sexuality meets job decisions

It’s not just policy. Because career decisions for LGBTI staff may come down to the overall job environment, benefits and potential work/life balance, HR departments are advised to think along the lines of: This person is the person we want for the job, so how are we going to keep them and keep them active, happy staff members?

For Kirven, his sexuality plays a central role in where he accepts work, as he finds there is still an especially clear need to make the distinction between his work life and private life.  

“One of the things that I will look at when I’m applying for a job is whether I will be able to draw that line,” he said.

During one post in Colombia, coworkers needed to share living quarters, Kirven said, noting that this should be an area of consideration when placing LGBTI staff.

“I had straight male colleagues that, even though you can tell they’re trying to push forward, they don’t feel comfortable sharing a bedroom or bathroom with a gay man,” Kirven remembered.

He knew when he accepted his current position monitoring the military ceasefire in Mindanao that those he’d be working with would hail from countries where there are still draconian legal frameworks to prohibit same-sex activity.

But Kirven said the EU recognizes the need for consultants to have a private life and he is able to rent his own house.

“Had I been confined to living in a barracks situation, then I probably would not have accepted the job,” he said.

In Iraq, where staff was provided rest and relaxation, Kirven’s employer would pay for the nearest destination out of country, but his female colleagues didn’t feel that Jordan or Lebanon were environments they wanted to relax in, and the same went for the lesbian and gay staff.

“Do your R&R programs need to recognize that while it might be OK for a man to go on R&R to Beirut, it’s not ideal for women or someone from the LGBT community?” he asked.

In organizations that don’t have policies yet, start talking about the issue, advised Cano. In one of the organizations she worked for, they held open conversations with the staff about LGBTI rights.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know what LGBT means,” she said.

But there are also more personal considerations that can play a role in aid workers’ job decisions. Cano remembered one of her assignments in the Middle East.

“The first thing when I went to Syria, I thought: ‘This is going to be a year of celibacy,’” she said. “There’s that consideration — that I’m going to spend that time just focused on work and not on anything else because it’s a country where I probably won’t meet anyone.”

The same went for Iraq, where Cano didn’t tell anyone, local or international, of her sexuality because she didn’t feel it was culturally appropriate.

Policy perspective

It’s not all bad news. At an international level, governments and NGOs have lobbied hard over the last decade for LGBTI rights to be considered as fundamental human rights, though not all of it can be openly publicized. Relations with local governments are critical for implementers, so, along with safety concerns, many are hesitant to engage in overt advocacy that could jeopardize funding or damage fragile relationships.

Latin America is one region of policy progress, especially Brazil and Argentina, Olson said. The English-speaking Caribbean is another area that has seen increased discussion. While Kenya still criminalizes homosexuality, its new constitution has left room for advancement. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has so far not signed an anti-gay law passed by parliament that would enforce life imprisonment for homosexual acts after international donors threatened to pull support; a gay rights group was recently allowed airtime on the radio there, a sign of more open conversation if not progress, Traore said.

Now, there is so much money pouring into Nigeria for LGBTI activists that the community isn’t really prepared to handle it, he suggested.

In this case, as in other sensitive scenarios around the world, the support has been largely under the radar.

LGBTI work is often unpublicized for good reason. There are already burgeoning movements around the world, but as donors come in, they must be cognizant of sometimes hostile local political environments, Schwenke said.

Not only this, but donors and their implementing partners must also be careful of importing a “Western LGBTI attitude” when host communities might not identify in the same way. Sometimes, the best way to assist may be to remain in the background and be ready to do something when a group needs help or wishes to be better seen or heard.

“One might jump to conclusion that it’s a lack of coordination, but sometimes you don’t want to shout from the rooftops about LGBT work,” said Randal Mason, director of strategic partnerships at IREX, an international nonprofit committed to international education, professional training and technical assistance.

There are pockets of activity, he said, such as the U.S. embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, working to support LGBTI leadership training. But not all of these efforts have the desired effect. In 2011, for instance, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan held a pride celebration; when word got out, protests turned violent.

So there’s a fine line — one that LGBTI aid workers and allies will continue to push forward carefully.

“It’s important to recognize that donors and development has actually ignored LGBT issues for a long time,” Traore said. “How can we repair that?”

In order to add momentum to the social movement, Schwenke would like to see more LGBTI individuals in senior management roles of major institutions as role models of what can be accomplished and strong voices of what needs to happen next.

The debate has become mainstream, Traore said, and even slow progress is a good thing. But action must follow.

“Let them ban gay marriage,” he said of the Nigerian government. “That’s another battle. We are fighting right now just for the right to gather.”

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.