LGBT rights: From cloaks of invisibility to cloaks of identity

By Diane Kingston

Diane Kingston is the senior advisor for policy and government affairs at the Alliance.

The Church of England is the latest institution to uphold and promote sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) rights. Progressive positioning on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights is gathering momentum across multilateral organisations, reminding us that inclusion is a human right.

<p>Marc and Ricardo are a married couple who live in Nambia. Same sex sexual activity is illegal in Namibia so the couple got married in South Africa.</p>Marc and Ricardo are a married couple who live in Nambia. Same sex sexual activity is illegal in Namibia so the couple got married in South Africa. © Alliance

In mid-November, the Church of England announced new guidelines telling its schools to let children 'explore gender identity'. The guidelines state that “pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity and to explore the possibility of who they might be”.

Ten years ago it would have been unheard of for the Church of England to have a discussion about gender identity.  For the Church of England not just to have internal deliberations, but to issue UK-wide guidance to its primary and secondary schools is unprecedented and overwhelmingly positive. The Church of England was not reacting to public pressure to act, but have proactively adopted this stance. 

This progressive positioning on gender identity reinforces the Alliances’s work of supporting LGBT organisations, especially in relation to accessing healthcare and upholding human rights. The criminalisation of key populations at risk of HIV infection, such as LGBT people, creates multiple barriers to accessing HIV testing, prevention, treatment and care. If bullying and discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation are not acceptable in schools, a new generation will be more receptive to celebrating human diversity in all its forms.

Multilateral donor action

The conversation has just started within this powerful global institution, albeit limited to its own schools in the United Kingdom. Concurrently, the conversation is also becoming embedded within the World Bank, who have appointed an Advisor on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). This is a newly created position responsible for LGBT inclusion across the organisation’s development projects.

Last week, I met with their new Advisor, Clifton Cortez, who explained that due to exclusion from economic and educational opportunities – as well as a lack of access to healthcare – LGBT communities are more likely to be over-represented among the bottom 40% of people living in poverty. This is despite legal and social advances in LGBT rights over the past two decades.

The intersection of poverty and exclusion is firmly embedded within the World Bank’s portfolios on indigenous people and persons with disabilities. However, SOGI is still a relatively new area of work. As such, the World Bank are undertaking lots of research, including on the costs of exclusion of LGBT communities.

Alongside vital work taking place at the World Bank is the development of a new LGBT Inclusion Index by the United Nations Development Programme. It aims to tackle gender equality, boost social inclusion, and address data gaps.

In most places, data and analysis specific to LGBT people is drastically lacking, allowing the challenges faced by these communities to remain invisible. The LGBT Inclusion Index can assist governments, civil society and other development partners in measuring LGBT inclusion, identifying data trends and gaps, and providing evidence to help advance good policy.

Development, inclusion and human rights

However, the concept of inclusion in development cannot be separated from the broader concept of human rights - something the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) recognises in their own approach to LGBT rights. Yet promoting and upholding human rights can be extremely challenging. When marginalised and excluded groups do not benefit from development, then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not achieve their aim to 'leave no one behind'.

While the Church of England is taking important steps forward, the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the LGBT communities across the world continue to be violated. The last few months have seen peaks in violations against LGBT people, including in Tanzania, prompting the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGTI rights to hold a debate in House of Commons to address the issue.

The APPG discussed ways in which the UK, as a global leader, can mobilise action calling for an end to these violations. The Alliance provided a briefing to the APPG ahead of the debate on how the criminalisation of LGBT persons creates barriers to accessing HIV services.

We also highlighted the work of our Rapid Response Fund, which delivers funding to organisations at specific risk from stigma, discrimination and violence which threaten the provision, access and uptake of HIV services for LGBTI people.

It is clear that we need to keep the momentum going to address these problems and ensure that everyone – regardless of race, age, sexuality or gender orientation – has an equal chance of living a healthy and prosperous life.