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Stephen Wood

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a live Guardian Development panel discussion on sexuality and development issues. It was a fascinating experience, bringing a rich set of mainly Southern voices to bear on a wide-ranging set of topics.

What became apparent throughout the discussions were that two issues are beginning to gain traction amongst those operating within this field: the risk that many facets of sexuality advocacy may be drowned out due to a focus upon LGBT rights and the retreat into a silo mentality by those working on gender and sexuality.

In these past few weeks, the frenetic pace of sexual rights activism has cranked up a notch – the obvious homophobic developments in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, but also continual attacks on abortion, sex workers rights and women’s bodily autonomy. For those active in these movements, the sheer intensity of keeping up with and showing solidarity is a strain in itself, making it incredibly difficult to look outside of our backyards into the concerns of others outside our narrow area of expertise.

Considering the current climate, it isn’t surprising that minds currently race immediately to global LGBT rights when we talk about sexuality and development. The Ugandan Anti-Pornography Bill passed in December 2013, which risks criminalising women wearing mini-skirts or dressing in an ‘immoral’ way, received much less coverage or international condemnation than the reviled Anti-Gay Bill passed last month.

As a gay man, working to amplify the voices of LGBTI colleagues working in the Global South is an essential part of what gets me up to work in the morning, but sexuality is much broader than that. That is why the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme works hard to build intersections and alliances between very different groups, convening conversations that broaden people’s conception of sexuality and it’s relevance over many seemingly unconnected areas of the development world.

Limitations of LGBT identity politics

LGBT is a particularly Western term that whilst makes sense for a lot of people globally, can also fail to speak to the realities of people’s lives in many contexts. We need to problematise it, whilst hanging on to it for where it is politically useful or speaks to peoples experiences. Where development interventions use this framing as a mechanism by which citizens access rights or services, we run the risk of imposing an identity politics upon cultures that could be incredibly unhelpful to some.

The other note of caution is that LGBT rights are a particularly trendy topic at the moment with media attention and (in some cases) development funding available right now to engage with it. The wheel will turn, Governments will change and priorities shift – and unless LGBT movements for progressive change build common cause across these debates to identify allies – the funding and energy will eventually shift in other directions, potentially to less aligned beneficiaries.

Placing LGBT at the centre of sexuality issues also poses political problems for others within the field. There is a sense that it is creating discord amongst development professionals who work upon it by shutting down wider debate on issues around sex education, reproductive and sex work by association, where the assumption is given that sexuality is code for LGBT equality.

Consequently, conservative voices are using this a defensive position to argue against efforts to reform other crucial areas of sexual rights, such as education, access to services or spousal consent laws. More nuanced strategising between social movements is needed to avoid these attempts to divide and conquer.

Breaking the glass walls dividing gender and sexuality

Rightly, with equality for women and girls so far away from being a reality in many (if not all) parts of the world, there can be an understandable concern that bringing sexuality, including LGBTI people, into conversations around gender equality will mean hard choices around resources and that women will be the losers in that debate.

The cold reality is that these divisions may be due to NGOs being dependent on bilateral or international funding, so the silo mentalities we are witnessing could be a scramble to differentiate oneself for limited resources. As I’ve written recently, even within the fledgling LGBTI aid industry, there are unhealthy hierarchies of priority between groups that mitigate against collaboration.

Yet within gender research and advocacy, an essentialist, binary view of gender can still hold sway, ignoring the reality that oppression of sexual minorities very often stems from a visceral dislike of those who trouble their world-view of immutable gender roles. Within the development world, it often remains unspoken amongst donor agencies and practitioners that aid should be focussed on the ‘deserving poor’, those whose lives and choices do not challenge dominant moral codes. For all the focus upon conservative voices blocking progressive change in aid recipient countries, the mirror is rarely held up to confront the instances of judgemental and heteronormative behaviour from development professionals.

Consequently, gender work often focuses upon the empowerment of particular groups of heterosexual women, rendering invisible those who don’t subscribe to specific gender scripts, ignores the transformative possibilities of working with men, let alone transgender and gender-variant people. We need to re-open dialogue amongst those working on gender about the possibilities for deepened alliances and challenge some of these unspoken undercurrents and exclusions.

What can be done?

Voices need to be heard from NGOs on the ground to engage in and influence the evolving strategies of funding organisations, governments and philanthropic donors. Collectively, we need to ensure that mechanisms for support are developed in a way that discourages silo thinking, encourages self-reflexivity around gender identity and sexuality and places intersectionality front and centre. I’ve spoken to senior staff within funding agencies who bemoan the lack of lobbying coming from the grassroots – it doesn’t hurt to remember that we are not just recipients, we are key stakeholders they need and want to listen to.

IDS strives to ensure that our Sexuality and Development Programme avoids some of these problems by placing intersectionality at the heart of what we do:  building projects, alliances and campaigns that make those connections central to the process as well as the outcome. In much the same way as gender mainstreaming has sought to assess the impact of public policy upon women and men and catalyse fresh collaborations, we also seek to identify fresh entry points for sexuality engagement in issues such as housingsocial insuranceeducation and poverty.

To point to specifics, our current DFID-funded programme on the links between sexuality and poverty has produced a synthesis report written by Kate Hawkins, myself and our partners, published this week, which gives an excellent snapshot of how consideration of gender and sexuality within the production of poverty-reduction policies are intimately connected.

Colleagues across IDS recently held a major meeting called “Undressing Patriarchy” which brought together development practitioners, activists, policymakers and researchers working across gender justice, feminist movements, men’s movements, LGBTI and sex worker groups to take time to re-interrogate what patriarchy means for our movements and activisms and to identify bridging activities we can take forward to tackle it.

At a time when resources are scarce, where gender and sexual rights movements are struggling to respond to fast moving and at times dangerous political contexts, it is a lot to ask for an investment in engagement with what many view as tangential issues. Yet at their core, gender, sexuality and LGBTI activists are part of a wider movement to safeguard pluralism and human rights and it is only through making common cause can we ensure that these issues remain firmly at the centre of mainstream social and policy agendas.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK


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