Mala Kumar is working to address the added risks of the LGBTQI community when working as expats in information communication technology. Photo by: Personal collection

In November 2014, I wrote an op-ed that appeared on the front page of The Advocate about why I quit my job with the United Nations.

The piece started a revolution, at least within myself. The outpouring of support and empathy for my words alerted me that my frustration at having to constantly compromise my queer identity for my career and career for my queer identity was something with which a lot of people could relate in the world of international development.

Those of us who dedicate our lives to economic empowerment, poverty reduction and world peace already face so many obstacles; why should our sexual orientation or gender identity be added to the list?

This past April, I sat down with about 25 LGBTQI people and allies working in international development. Together, we represented several agencies of the United Nations, high profile international NGOs, the biggest foundations in the world and academic institutions.

Surprisingly, most major international development organizations do very little to introduce the ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity minorities among their own staff. As a result, those of us who come from relatively tolerant lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex environments must re-enter the closet when working in most country offices.

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

Like the issue of women’s rights, LGBTQI rights are thus hindered in international development. How can you ask a person who treats female family members and colleagues terribly to implement a project to help women? Likewise, how are international development agendas supposed to advocate for LGBTQI stakeholders if LGBTQI staff aren’t even generally accepted? How can the idea of LGBTQI stakeholders be incorporated if we as staff aren’t protected and free to express that part of our identity?

The majority of the people present at the meeting in April work in the same space of development, called information communication technology for development, or ICT4D.

We specialize in how information technology can better international development solutions. With our specialization come certain added risks in being queer. On one hand, LGBTQI people within international development are the most likely to connect with, advocate for and befriend local online queer community. Yet, if we aren’t careful in how we split our personal and professional online personas, we put ourselves at risk, as our local (and international) ICT4D colleagues are the most likely to actually find us online.

If our colleagues are homophobic, finding “evidence” to out us can be both easy to find and easy to disseminate. Not only does this compromise our safety, it could compromise entire operations if we are working with a government or local organizations that are less than welcoming to LGBTQI people.

In an unfortunate coincidence, queer ICT4D practitioners are also put at a distinct disadvantage with the location of many of our global ICT4D hubs. Uganda, Kenya, Kosovo, Nigeria, Indonesia and Ethiopia are all home to some of the most fascinating ICT4D projects in the world; they’re also home to some of the most extreme treatment of LGBTQI people.

This same problem extends to the greater international development community. Many of the countries with the greatest need for development and humanitarian efforts have the toughest laws for LGBTQI people. Though the treatment of international staff and locals often differ, there is no doubt that LGBTQI people — and those perceived as LGBTQI —working in these regions take on a lot of added risk.

In our meeting, we highlighted a number of key questions. What do international organizations need to do to make their LGBTQI staff and stakeholders safe? What is the role of the Internet, and what is the responsibility of tech companies that control our privacy and visibility? Further, as projected by The World Bank in a recent article, LGBTQI people are likely overrepresented in the bottom 40 percent of the world’s wealth.

Therefore, we must ask what are the links between LGBTQI populations and programmatic areas of international development? How does being LGBTQI change a person’s access to clean water, to food security, to public health services and to education? What does being in a conflict zone mean for someone who is LGBTQI? How can technology make it better?

Fortunately, there are moves we can make to better the situation. In our full meeting summary, we enumerated organizations that are mainstreaming LGBTQI inclusion. Many tech companies and organizations, such as Google, believe in our underlying principles of safety and equality for LGBTQI people. If engaged properly, these organizations could build capacity of local organizations helping LGBTQI people around the world.

There are also a number of initiatives, such as GAYd Worker, that are documenting the experiences of LGBTQI staff in the field.

Enumerating what each of us can do to better the situation is a challenging task, as everyone must assess their capacity and position to advocate for LGBTQI rights on their own terms.

Undoubtedly, one of the key takeaways from our meeting is simply acknowledging both the struggle and complexities intertwined with race, religion, region, sex and gender is a great first step. Especially within the U.N. system, addressing the inherent imbalances and safety concerns with varying contract modalities and duty stations was another major concern. Further, steering funding towards dedicated studies, papers, programs, projects and outreach on LGBTQI rights is needed throughout the international development and humanitarian landscape.

We broke into a lot of important discussions in our two hours together. Several of us have created an informal working group looking at these issues from both staff and stakeholder points of view, including creating standards of best practices. We’re currently seeking funding to work on a few projects, and have engaged Google, the Leitner Center of Fordham Law School and the U.N. If you have ideas for funding possibilities or would like to get involved, please reach out to me.

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About the author

  • Malakumar biophoto fullsize

    Mala Kumar

    Mala Kumar is a global development professional with a focus on information and communication technologies as well as the author of the novel, "The Paths of Marriage." She has worked for several agencies of the United Nations, including the World Food Program and UNICEF. Mala is currently based in New York City.