Imagine feeling like you do not belong anywhere and that you are not entitled to help when you most desperately need it. Unfortunately, that is how millions of people worldwide feel every single day. Non-conforming and LGBTQ+ people are being left behind in crisis and are in fear of “not fully existing.” Activist Katelgo Kait Kolanyane-Kespule told those at the United Nations Women’s first event on gender diversity and non-binary identities that “we are whole human beings and if you don’t allow trans and gender diverse persons to really be more than the politic of you trying to figure out how and when they exist, you cease to let them fully exist.”
There have been advancements in terms of accepting and utilizing modern definitions of gender around the world, yet the humanitarian sector is falling behind. While there are no direct answers on how to move the humanitarian sector beyond the binary, people are suffering because of this systemic flaw. Few organizations have implemented a practical approach to include intersectionality in their systems of gender and sexuality protection. In order to stay on track with Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandate to protect all human rights regardless of sexual orientation, the humanitarian action sector needs to expand their definition of gender and gender based programming to prevent violence, end discrimination and erase the heteronormative hierachy that is limiting and problematic to LGBTQ+ and non-conforming people in the developing world as well.
While the humanitarian sector continues to stall in its process of becoming more inclusive, people who fall outside of the binary are subject to immense violence and suffering. Scholar Gilbert Holleufer addresses the masculine condition when it comes to war. The way in which gender is consistently socially constructed results in suffering at the hands of societal ideas of what it means to be a male or female. There are issues with what many people refer to as a “politically correct mindset.” In many societies, violence is nurtured in men over time just based on biological sex. In conflict specifically, the vulnerability of these minority groups are exploited. As stated by Sandra Smiley, a public health professional and humanitarian aid worker, statistically, “transgender people and others belonging to sexual and gender minority groups are disproportionately at risk of violence.” Brutality is common when regions are facing a conflict. Transgender people were subjected to police brutality near the end of Nepal’s civil war. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were tormented in Iraq by the government and militia forces under ISIL. In both of these situations, little humanitarian aid was provided to protect these vulnerable populations. Not only that; sexual violence against these groups is even more common.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, humanitarian organizations are failing to provide adequate aid and protection for these people. Created in 2016 and renewed in 2019, the UNHRC created an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While this group does call for a ban on things like global conversion therapy and urges states to create measures to make sure that pandemic responses are free from violence and discrimination against LGBT and non-conforming people, it has not created standards that hold humanitarian action organizations responsible for implementing measures that protect these minority groups from violence in crisis and war. These people fail to receive humanitarian aid due to their identities, the primary characteristic that is causing their original victimization.
Further discrimination also needs to be addressed, aside from the typical forms of violence against non-binary people. It is important to note that in many countries, these groups of people are pushed aside because of cultural stigma and beliefs coming from hostile areas in need of humanitarian aid. These people are denied access to housing, education, employment and healthcare. Transgender women in parts of India were denied temporary housing access because the way they looked did not appear the same as the gender given on their identification documents. Unfortunately, normative understanding of gender is relied on when deciding who should receive aid and protection. Gender identity bias can result in lack of life-sustaining aid given to those in crisis outside of the binary. There is a significant lack of medical treatment for transgender and non-binary immigrants and refugees as well. More often than not, records and prescriptions are lost and many HIV related deaths result from untreated cases in host countries. Sadly, Smiley explains that “it is believed that transgender women are more than 49 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population.”
These intense issues all stem from the societal acceptance of the heteronmonative hierarchy. The humanitarian action sector still abides by this outdated reality. It is tradition to group men and “masculine” and women and “feminine” together and it is global knowledge that different cultures have their own ideas and concepts of what a man or woman truly is. However, according to Elizabeth McGuinness and Saman Rejali, members of the International Review of the Red Cross, “by relying on heteronmantive frameworks, political actors manipulate ideals affiliated with “nationhood”- not just in relation to gender, but to race, class and ability” as well. While hegemonic masculinity addresses the power and social dynamics that create the hierarchy of men, it is very limiting in regards to the LGBTQ+ framework.
When humanitarian organizations rely on this framework because of inherited and educational biases, they fail to acknowledge that the social safety networks for non-conforming people during crisis, such as security and protected housing, are continuously failing. Because of this socially constructed hierarchy that non-binary people plainly do not fit into, they have been blamed for humanitarian disasters like floods and earthquakes. Therefore, their exposure to violence and discmination is constantly increasing.
It is argued that the number of non-binary, non-conforming and LGBTQ+ people who need global assistance is too small to be worthy of attention from humanitarian organizations. However, this is because little data has been collected on these populations in developing countries. On top of that, many non-conforming and transgender people aim to be invisible in order to maintain their safety in non-accepting societies. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is working against them because they are not being counted or targeted for aid. Clearly, a more thoughtful approach is necessary. The ultimate goal of humanitarian agencies is to protect the most vulnerable; but, they are failing. Just because transender and non-conforming people are some of the most marginalized groups, it does not mean that they are not deserving of aid, protection and assistance. Organizations need to recognize and validate all experiences of those who are part of sexual minority groups while maintaining their privacy. It goes against the true mission of humanitarian action work to ignore these groups simply because of a lack of data.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights, without distraction of any kind.” However, the humanitarian sector is not taking this declaration to heart as they progress their work in hostile areas. While the UN continues to speak up for human rights violations around the world, they must also offer the same support to the LGBTQ+ and non-binary communities and their agendas, urging humanitarian organizations to do the same. Not only do these people need visibility and acceptance, they need recognition and protection. In order to stay relevant in our constantly progressing society, the humanitarian sector needs to place LGBTQ+ and non-conforming rights on their agendas and work to create systems and approaches to aid that go beyond the binary to give these people protection against violence, an end to discrimination and provide an elimination of the heteronormative hierarchy that is preventing them from “fully existing.”