Sounding off on the struggles of LGBTI development professionals

    'Don't ask, don't tell': LGBTI workers in global development are challenged by internal policies that seem to sweep their issues under the rug. Photo by: Guillaume Paumier / CC BY

    Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex 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.

    While programmatic support of LGBTI individuals and groups in developing countries is becoming more common and better documented, Devex Assistant Editor Kelli Rogers tackled the story from an angle much less publicized: that of the personal and professional challenges LGBTI development workers face while working in the field, and where internal policy stands to either support the resolution of these issues or sweep them under the rug.

    “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,” Rogers wrote. “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.”

    A story that perhaps hadn’t yet been told from this perspective garnered extensive reader feedback on social media platforms. A stand-up interview with Rogers on her findings prior to publishing the article got more than 500 likes on Facebook, and LGBTI allies around the world grabbed and retweeted the story once it was published, calling it “thoughtful,” “timely,” and “well-informed.” Several followers from the U.N. Globe, the U.N.’s LGBT staff association mentioned in the article for its progressive thinking, thanked Devex for bringing such sensitive issues to the forefront.

    American TV actress Debra Messing also joined the conversation.

    “Great story on what #LGBTprofessionals & allies go thru in fight against poverty & for #humanrights worldwide,” Messing tweeted.

    Messing is an AIDS awareness advocate and an ambassador for Population Services International. She spoke with Devex in 2012 after she wrapped up a visit to Zambia, where she said she “had the great pleasure and privilege of being part of a TV show (“Will & Grace”) that addressed stigma and discrimination head on…”

    This recognition is what LGBTI aid professionals and allies would also like to see more of when it comes to policy.

    Devex member Michael Gabriel commented on the story to share his experience initiating a discussion on the topic of LGBTI rights while working at a nongovernmental organization, lamenting the lack of genuine interest even among members of the senior management who are openly gay.

    He also gave kudos to Cheikh Traore, an African who’s been steadfast in his cause to mainstreaming gay rights into development frameworks and who was featured heavily in Rogers’ article.

    “[T]hank you, Cheikh Traore, you’re a real hero,” Gabriel wrote.

    Gert Ceville-Danielsen said he’s pleased to hear that Traore is actively involved in the cause, as the two used to be colleagues at the United Nations Development Program.

    Ceville-Danielsen shared that he was “in the closet” while working at UNDP Yemen, though many of the staffers knew or suspected it and didn’t come out “partly out of respect, partly because of my own prejudice (as I thought many national colleagues wouldn’t accept it) and partly because I wanted colleagues to get to know me, the colleague, before possibly ‘blocking’ communication or ‘excluding’ me from office discussions.”

    He also feared that government officials would postpone meetings and it could make for a difficult situation to work in.

    “I never had those problems, fortunately, perhaps because I was playing along with ‘a self-imposed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said.

    But he noted as well that it can be easier to be gay than straight in some predominantly Muslim countries as it is frowned up when women pay a visit to men.

    “But this does of course not undermine the difficulties and the trauma experienced by many. I do agree that expats are much better off than national staff, and this is something we need to consider very seriously,” he added. “The point on R&R is also a good one, which our own staff group UN-GLOBE should also look into.”

    What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

    About the author

    • Ma. Eliza Villarino

      Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.

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