Homophobia and Development: Addressing LGBT Discrimination in the Post-2015 Agenda

Ed note. This is a special guest post from Jacob TobiaJacob is currently working as the human rights intern for the United Nations Foundation. He is a junior at Duke University, where he is a Point Foundation Scholar and is pursuing a major in human rights advocacy.

In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals—a set of 8 goals that have been guiding the international development agenda and channeling billions of dollars in development aid since 2000—are set to expire, and the world will have the monumental task of re-envisioning a new global development agenda. The process of crafting the “post-2015” development agenda will challenge the global community to define its values and reach consensus about how to best protect the world’s most vulnerable from poverty, starvation, disempowerment, and marginalization.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people across the world, this is an important moment. Given the vast and overwhelming nature of the discrimination faced by the LGBTI community worldwide, it is important that the post-2015 agenda addresses the development needs of LGBTI people. This is because, in so many respects, homophobia and development cannot mix.

The story of Alex and Michael, two gay Ugandan men who were driven out of their country by homophobic violence, is a case in point. Prior to 2009, Alex and Michael were a shining example of development success; the couple owned a restaurant in Kampala, drove a car, provided for their families and contributed greatly to their local economy. However, when it was discovered that Alex and Michael were romantically involved, everything changed. Their families disowned them, rejecting the support that they could provide, their restaurant was burned to the ground, their car was set on fire, and they fled the country after receiving death threats. Currently, they are living in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, where they face regular discrimination and as a result are malnourished, have poor access to medicine, and live in extreme poverty.

Alex and Michael’s story illustrates the detrimental impacts that homophobia can have on development efforts. First off, homophobia directly counteracts development by creating poverty where there was none and exacerbating poverty on a microeconomic level. After coming out or being “outed,” LGBTI people are often disowned by their families, creating homelessness and casting LGBTI individuals into poverty. Furthermore, in the process of being victimized by their families and local communities, LGBTI people often have their possessions and money stolen, confiscated, or destroyed. Both of these phenomena were illustrated by the case of Michael and Alex, and in both of these situations, homophobia had a direct negative impact on the local economy. Through the destruction of their restaurant, a valuable local business was shattered; through the burning of their car, a mode of transportation was lost for an entire community of people; and through the confiscation of their remaining possessions, Alex and Michael were driven to poverty, becoming a further burden on an already-impoverished area.

More importantly, homophobia discriminates in the development process itself. Corrupt government officials and administrators of aid regularly turn away LGBTI people from receiving the same benefits as others, as was the case for Alex and Michael while living in a Kenyan refugee camp. Furthermore, intimidation alone often causes LGBTI people not to seek development assistance in the first place; many LGBTI individuals are afraid that they may be arrested, beaten, or killed if they ask for help from a development program or government office. In a world where homosexuality is still criminalized by 75 countries and punishable by death in five countries, this fear is entirely reasonable.

Given the immense barriers that homophobia presents to development, it is important that the post-2015 agenda explicitly addresses the needs of the LGBTI community. There are multiple ways that this can be accomplished, but the most effective ways to address the LGBTI community are also the simplest. For the post-2015 agenda to be truly inclusive, it should specifically mention sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as grounds upon which discrimination will not be tolerated, and it should specifically call for data on the experiences of LGBTI people.

These two simple provisions will radically change the reality for millions of LGBTI people across the world. First, through banning discrimination in development programs, LGBTI people will be able to get access to invaluable development resources that have been systematically denied to them for the past twenty years. Secondly, through collecting economic data based on the experiences of LGBTI people, the international community will be able to shine a global spotlight on countries where LGBTI individuals are denied access to the basic necessities of life and forced to live in poverty. In addition, through combatting the discrimination faced by LGBTI people in development, we will be able to transform entire systems of discriminatory development, helping other marginalized communities gain access to vital resources.

The implementation of such measures will be complicated and in many cases will stand in opposition to national laws that criminalize homosexuality, but this cannot deter the global community from addressing the needs of a group of people who have been marginalized for decades. In discussing the post-2015 agenda, most scholars and experts are quick to mention that gaining consensus on a non-controversial development agenda will be the greatest way towards success. As 2015 approaches, it is nearly inevitable that this same argument will be used to dissuade advocates from bringing up the challenges faced by the LGBTI community. But who is left behind in the name of avoiding “controversy”? Will the Post-2015 Agenda leave behind the needs of LGBTI people in the interest of gaining consensus? If so, which other groups are “too controversial” to deserve access to water, food, shelter, and security? Members of racial and ethnic minorities? Religious minorities? People with disabilities? Women?

In crafting the post-2015 agenda, no one should be left behind. That is why the global community should look to create a robustly enumerated non-discrimination policy that asks whether or not marginalized communities are having their basic needs met. When designing the post-2015 development agenda, the international community should help those who are most in need, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Without carefully addressing the needs of the LGBTI community, the post-2015 agenda will not be able to create the future we want for all.