From Exclusion to Inclusion: 3 Tips to Improve the LGBTQ Experience in Aid Work

Imagine landing a job that you have been yearning for only to find out that being yourself is illegal and in some cases punishable by death, or that your spouse cannot join you on your next mission for the same reasons. This is the case for many LGBTQ ( Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) aid workers. This article looks to highlight the challenges and experiences LGBTQ aid workers face, and how we can collectively meet these challenges head-on.

Challenges ahead

As the world comes to grips with the inclusion of minorities, the LGBTQ community requires more robust organizational measures to ensure their inclusion in the international aid industry. LGBTQ aid workers face discrimination and a lack of adequate data to shed light on their experiences. According to UN Globe, a collective that works against the discrimination of LGBTQ U.N. employees, humanitarian agencies are yet to take the initiative to train employees on issues related to the LGBTQ community including the appropriate and respectful language to use when referring to people from the community. Furthermore, until 2016, there was little to no reporting on harassment of LGBTQ aid workers in the aid industry. A workshop held by RedrUK 2016, shows that there is inadequate data on the experiences of LBGTQ aid workers both at country and regional levels but that what is known is that LGBTQ aid workers feel they have inadequate counselling and emotional support within their organizations; RedrUK also highlights the lack of data on aid workers that identify as LGBTQ altogether.

Adverse experiences facing the LGBTQ aid workers are compounded in countries where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, which also happen to host many of the world’s largest humanitarian missions currently. The Feinstein Center at Tufts University issued a 2017 report on Sexual Assault of aid workers and found that “LGBTQ aid workers reported sexual identity harassment, blackmail, threats, and assaults against them, primarily by men working in the aid industry or security providers employed by aid agencies:

“Interviewees reported sexual harassment and assault against aid workers in contexts where a sexist, homophobic work atmosphere exists (including in housing compounds) and senior management does not stop it”. — Feinstein Center, 2017

The Feinstein Center report also highlights the fear of being “Outed ‘’ by one’s colleagues as a form of harassment. LGBTQ couples may also not enjoy the benefits that come with having a spouse accompany them to missions as is the case with heterosexual couples; such benefits include health insurance, housing allowances, and/or visa support. This, in turn, makes it difficult for a smooth transition to a new mission and narrows the professional options for LGBTQ couples.

Excluding LGBTQ aid workers from organizational consideration is adversely impacting not only humanitarian programming but the efficiency of such organizations writ large. A 2018 report on Sexual and Gender Minorities in Humanitarian Response from the Humanitarian Advisory Group points out that aid workers are not skilled to handle the needs of the LGBTQ community as a result of the lack of inclusion of gender minorities. As reported by one LGBTQ refugee cited in the report, “gay men are not chosen as beneficiaries” indicating that this internal bias is being mirrored in the industry’s external outreach. A 2016 Stonewall survey conducted in the UK shows that LGBTQ staff work better when they can be themselves, translating into higher efficiency and innovation for the organization as a whole.

LGBTQ Voices from the Field

The Humanitarian Women’s Network (HWN) spoke to LGBTQ aid workers about their experiences in the field; they point to issues of not being employable, feeling unsafe and isolated. Shweta from Nepal points out that “…sharing about my sexuality often creates a distraction at work, it has also made me less desirable to agencies”. A woman from an LGBTQ non-profit in Norway, who prefers to remain anonymous, also highlighted the lack of security while on a mission:

“When an LGBTQ aid worker gets deployed they are not informed on whether the area they are sent to is safe for them, instead you rely on your intuition to decipher that fact, there is no security for LGBTQ travellers, no information as to who to approach when you run into a problem.”- Anonymous LGBTQ Aid Worker, Norway

What Agencies Can Do
Despite the challenges faced by LGBTQ aid workers and their experiences in the field, there are tangible and affordable measures that agencies can adopt right now to ensure their inclusion. Lana Woolf a Co-founder of Edge Effect, a non-profit organization that works with gender minorities and LGBTQ people notes that “organizations should advocate for internal policies, once organizational culture becomes more inclusive then they can take the next step in implementing on the development sector as a whole”. Proposed are three options suggested by RedrUK that can help organizations promote an equal and safe workplace for LGBTQ aid workers.

  1. Draft and Execute Inclusion Policies for LGBTQ

Agencies should implement HR policies that provide LGBTQ aid workers with: background information of missions vis-a-vis LGBTQ related issues; compensation for LGBTQ couples tantamount to heterosexual couples; and address the security threats specific to LGBTQ staff.

2. Ensure Staff Support and Training for LGBTQ Workers and their Colleagues

Agencies should provide their staff with appropriate resources on what it means to be LGBTQ; the benefits of a diverse work environment; a guide on how to identify harassment of an LGBTQ staff and how to report it and involve LGBTQ aid workers in the decision-making process. Here is a diversity and inclusion training from the group, Human Rights Campaign, to get started.

3. Get Involved with or Create LGBTQ Staff Networks

Both agencies and LGBTQ aid workers benefit from being part of a supportive and knowledgeable community. Here are a few LGBTQ networks in aid that provide such support.

  • LGBTQ Aid and Development workers: a group that provides a place for LGBTQ aid workers to network and come together
  • UN Globe: an initiative that works against the discrimination of UN LGBTQ employees
  • Human Rights Campaign: an LGBTQ civil rights organization that fights against the inequality of the LGBTQ community

If you’re looking for tips on how to start your own Network, HWN has a Network toolkit available here at our website.

Team at Humanitarian Women’s Network

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