A fundamental question of hope

rainbow swoops on a yellow background

Once again, it’s Pride Month around the world. Unlike most such commemorative Pride Months in the recent past, however, the joyful celebrations of identity, expression, rights, and dignity that Pride signifies are now tinged with an ominous and – particularly for transgender persons – alarming recognition. The anti-LGBTQI+ pushback, well-orchestrated and exceptionally well-funded, has now arrived in cruel and often crushing force here in the United States, and increasingly in other countries as well.

For those of us involved in humanitarian response and international development, we face a moral and pragmatic inflection point that few seem yet to have grasped, and that fewer still have prepared for. Fundamentally, we now confront an inescapable challenge to our shared global commitment to equal and universal human dignity and rights as framed in the first sentence of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

In an increasing number of countries, and in nearly half of the states of the United States, that commitment has fallen victim to those who obstinately claim both the right and the duty to strip LGBTQI+ persons of their dignity, equality, rights, freedoms, opportunities, and – in many instances – their hopes for the future.

Consider Uganda’s recently passed draconian anti-homosexuality law, arguably the worst in the world, that criminalizes so many dimensions of LGBTQI+ reality (e.g., even punishing those who fail to report LGBTQI+ friends or family members to the authorities). That new law, which in certain instances is punishable by death, primarily targets gay men but in practice ensnares the entire LGBTQI+ community. Uganda’s law is now being seen as a template in African countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and possibly Zambia too. This isn’t happening by coincidence, so expect more of these pernicious laws ahead.

Those of us based in the United States can no longer claim the moral high ground. Consider the tidal wave of laws now passed in 20 US states that cruelly deny essential health care services to transgender children, in the name of a false, callous, and politically opportunistic narrative of “protecting the children”. Other anti-LGBTQI+ laws and legislative initiatives that are intended to strip away rights and protections are now underway in multiple US states, normalizing a legislative process of dehumanization and cruelty that is both astounding and outrageous in its utterly indefensible moralizing and in its self-righteous motivations.

By this time, with years of research and science behind us, many of us may have blithely assumed that it had by now become common knowledge that being part of the LGBTQI+ community is not a choice but is instead a normal component of human diversity anywhere and everywhere – even in Uganda. We know with certainty that no one is “recruited” into being LGBTQI+. We argue strongly for the principle that being authentic to one’s awareness of LGBTQI+ identity is a basic human expression of two of humanity’s most essential moral dimensions: love and identity.

Being so central to us all, we begin to connect with love and identity at a very early stage of our lives. While children as they grow naturally do experiment with gendered forms of expression, some children have a much stronger and more persistent awareness that they are different from how their society has labeled them by sex. Children and youth may discern a natural pull – an attraction leading to affection and closeness toward other persons who may well be of the same sex.

How ought we to respond? Children and youth are a distinctive and (by definition) vulnerable population served indirectly by all practitioners, donors, and foundations active in the humanitarian response and international development sectors[1], so we ought to be alert and sensitive to their firmly held perceptions of identity and orientation. And during this Pride Month, relevant organizations ought to be even more perceptive by taking close note of the rising global wave of hatred and intolerance directed at the LGBTQI+ population. Reliable estimates place that population at approximately 7% of all persons, everywhere, and a significant proportion of that 7% are children and youth.

In addition to love and identity, there are many other very relevant moral principles affecting LGBTQI+ persons contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and in many other similar secular moral frameworks. These principles includes provisions for care and compassion; interdependence; solidarity; safety and security; freedom from cruel and degrading treatment; protection of privacy; freedom of expression; access to democratic and cultural participation; access to healthcare, education, housing and to all basic public services; and access to employment opportunities. Article 25 of the UDHR also calls out childhood as a time of being entitled to special care and assistance (a position later greatly expanded upon by the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child – which only Somalia and the United States have not yet ratified). Also of note, Article 28 of the UDHR exhorts all nations to create a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in the UDHR can (finally) be realized.

All countries may claim to be a part of the UDHR global consensus, but such optimism can only be wistfully inferred since the UDHR is not a treaty and does not require formal ratification. Many of us cling to the premise of the centrality of these dignity declarations and human rights standards, however. When it comes to LGBTQI+ people, we find that several countries argue that local culture and local laws must take precedence over any universal consensus. Is it plausible to morally defend this carve-out, allowing such countries to (morally and legally) exclude their own LGBTQI+ citizens from being treated as fully human?

To begin to answer that question, I urge all organizations, firms, donors, foundations, practitioners, and other stakeholders in the humanitarian response and international development sectors to consider two important situations, starting now in this Pride Month.

First, I return to the concern raised earlier for the wellbeing of children and youth who are served by the humanitarian response and international development sectors. In this context, a fundamental fact warrants attention. Anecdotally, most LGBTQI+ people discern their status (identity and/or orientation) while they are children. Organizations that serve them have a strong moral obligation to recognize this reality with sensitivity and competence, and consider what they as organizations need to do, both now and in the future, to safeguard, protect, affirm, support, and show care for these children.

This moral obligation cannot be pushed aside or ignored by relief and development policy makers, donors, and practitioners simply because to shoulder this moral obligation would be administratively inconvenient or because local laws and local values are openly anti-LGBTQI+. No one ever promised that shouldering moral obligations and doing the right thing would always be easy. But not attending to that obligation is itself a denial of that young person’s authenticity, with potentially dire consequences for those children who are LGBTQI+. Local staff active on the relief and development projects of American organizations, domestically and internationally, will communicate by word or action to children and youth in their care, what their personal sensibilities are about LGBTQI+ persons. If those opinions speak most loudly of rejection, disgust, and outrage against LGBTQI+ persons, then these LGBTQI+ children will hear this hurtful language and note how it is culturally normalized. As those queer children grow up in these hostile and rejecting environments, they will soon see that their prospects for achieving a good education and ultimately for securing decent employment are highly constrained, and in many instances bleak.

Second, yet also of significant concern, is the special moral obligation that ought to apply to all entities involved in dispatching headquarters staff or consultants to work in countries where LGBTQI+ status is criminalized and deeply stigmatized. In this context, their obligation is to recognize and act on securing the safety and well-being of any such persons who either are LGBTQI+ or who openly identify as strong allies of LGBTQI+ persons.  Few organizations have yet taken appropriate action to raise awareness of the safety challenges that affect their US-based headquarters LGBTQI+ staff who travel on assignments to countries and to those US states that do not respect the dignity, rights, and freedoms of LGBTQI+ persons. Funding for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) training (as well as related organizational security training) on sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual expression, and sexual characteristics (SOGIESC) issues and about the harsh realities faced by LGBTQI+ persons represents only a tiny fraction of DEIB and security budgets in US-based relief and development organizations and firms (if there is any such budget at all). While funding is an important indicator of organizational priorities, another far more challenging aspect has gone almost entirely unaddressed by such organizations, firms, foundations, and donors.

Simply put, morally there cannot be two co-existing but unequal standards of human dignity.

Our recent sector-wide focus on localization and decolonization has brought this into sharp focus, as many political leaders, institutions, and organizations active in relief and development demand that the dignity and rights of all LGBTQI+ people under their respective moral duty of care (e.g., employees, consultants, etc.) be held to be universally equal to the dignity and rights of other persons who are straight and/or cisgender. Unfortunately, things get vague and confusing when such political leaders, institutions, and organizations confront the reality that the values and laws of many countries stand in direct conflict with core moral commitments from the Global North to recognize and respect universal and equal human dignity and rights. Advocates of localization rightly stress the centrality of agency and decision-making by local people, but prioritizing localization cannot be an acceptable excuse for humanitarian response and international development actors to justify excluding the moral standing and concern for the well-being of the LGBTQI+ persons who are an integral part of every population they serve, including in the Global South. Some local values can give rise to serious harm to very vulnerable persons.

This situation is particularly poignant and daunting in USAID Missions situated in countries that criminalize LGBTQI+ persons, further complicated by the fact that typically two thirds of the staff of such USAID Missions are local persons whose opinions have considerable influence on USAID programming. Many such local staff may be inclined to hold cultural and religious views held by most of their local peers, i.e., values that fail to recognize and respect the dignity and rights of LGBTQI+ persons in their own country. With the new USAID LGBTQI+ Inclusive Development Policy poised for final release (hopefully this month), such USAID Missions will need to receive clear guidance from Washington on how to comply with that new policy in the face of pernicious and cruel local laws that fundamentally conflict with the American values upon which that new policy is framed. Where will this guidance come from, and will it adequately address this deep (and many would argue intractable) conflict in moral values?

In the 1995 volume Development Ethics: A Guide to Theory and Practice, the late Prof. Denis Goulet (a pioneer in the field of development ethics) of Notre Dame University wrote: The mission of development ethics is to keep hope alive. How do we do that now, when such a plain and obvious threat grows in the US and internationally against so many of us: children, youth, adults, and the elderly?

That moral dilemma stands starkly before us. As we happily post our rainbows on websites and T-shirts, and celebrate Pride Month, that question extends well beyond June and can no longer be ignored. How will we shoulder the moral burden ahead? How will we translate the grand intentions to create safe and accepting spaces for LGBTQI+ into a reality?  How will we best serve the wellbeing, needs, hopes, and aspirations of LGBTQI+ children, and of all LGBTQI+ persons? Where are our champions now?

Let’s begin to find some answers, now.

Happy Pride.

[1] Several organizations have established their mission and services on this youthful population. They include but are not limited to such organizations as UNICEF, the International Literacy Association, Save the Children, Children International, SOS Children’s Villages, Plan International, World of Children, the Global Fund for Children, Feed the Children, and the International Youth Foundation.

The Center for Values in International Development
1919 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Suite 425
Washington, DC 20006

Registered as a nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia, USA, and tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.