Q&A: Emily Dwyer on the humanitarian sector’s LGBTIQ blind spot


Kathmandu (Pahichan) May 3 – At the start of a recent presentation, humanitarian worker Emily Dwyer held up a copy of the Good Practice Review for disaster risk reduction. The book is several hundreds pages, and there is just a single paragraph referring to the needs of “sexual minorities,” said Dwyer. “Disaster managers do not, at present, consider the needs and capacities of LGBT people in their disaster planning or identify them as a specific audience for preparedness advice,” it reads, in part.

Speaking at the Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference in Melbourne last week, Dwyer, who is launching Edge Effect, a new consultancy that works with humanitarian and development groups to improve awareness and help create better practices on LGBTIQ issues, said the guidebook was better than many in that it at least acknowledged the shortfalls. Across the humanitarian sector, however, there is more usually a wholesale failure to engage with local LGBTIQ communities.

Issues around sexuality and gender are typically seen strictly through a human rights, or occasionally a health lens. But the needs of communities that are as varied and diverse as those of the cultural contexts in which they reside, are cross-cutting. Everything from education, to housing, to livelihoods are affected uniquely. And when it comes to disaster relief, virtually no humanitarian groups are equipped to deal with the challenges faced by LGBTIQ communities.

“Before emergency strikes, people are dealing with all types of issues that impact on their vulnerability in an emergency situation,” said Dwyer.

In Tamil Nadu, India, recalled Dwyer, people who identified as a third gender known locally as Aravani, were excluded from relief efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami because they couldn’t be registered as men or women, couldn’t receive ration cards and saw temporary shelters closed off to them. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake destroyed the offices of the only NGO that offered support to the LGBTIQ community, gay men and lesbians struggled to access safe spaces. When food distribution was mainly funneled through female channels, male-only households had trouble accessing it, while women without male partners lacked security. In Indonesia, Waria — a third gender — were unable to access official shelters provided after the Mount Merapi eruptions, because they were afraid of being attacked.

After more than a decade in the humanitarian sector, Dwyer drew on her personal experiences while launching Edge Effect. “All of this can be addressed by a humanitarian sector interested in leadership,” she said. After her talk, Dwyer sat down with Devex to discuss the shortfalls of the sector, her own journey and the impact of greater awareness. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about your work with Edge Effect?

We work specifically with humanitarian development organizations to assist them to engage equitably, effectively and safely with LGBTIQ communities, wherever they do their work around the world. And we also work with those communities to assist them to engage with the international system.

What sort of humanitarian organizations are you working with?

It’s very early days for the organization. In fact, it’s very early days for the humanitarian development community to be engaging in these issues. So far, we have some work lined up with Oxfam to explore what LGBTIQ-inclusive disaster relief work would look like in Fiji. And we’re talking with a wide range of other organizations, providing some comments, for example, on the protection chapter of the Sphere handbook provision. But really, we’re just trying to raise LGBTIQ awareness within the humanitarian development sector.

What prompted you to start this organization?

My own personal transition had something to do with the desire to start this organization. I’d been working in humanitarian and development projects in South Asia and Southeast Asia since 2004, and through that period had been suppressing myself. And then from around 2011 to 2014, I started my own personal process of transition, and I just reflected a lot on the work I had done within the international humanitarian and development community. I saw that there was this huge gap.

I’ve also done some work in Australia with LGBTIQ activism with a radio station, and through that, got involved with some of the activism and human rights work done in Australia. I also connected up with organizations in the Asia-Pacific region that are doing human rights oriented work.

There’s a lot of interesting activity going on in the human rights space. The United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have affirmed the rights of people of diverse sexual orientation, gender and identity in sex characteristics, or SOECES, and most recently there was a controversial — but as it turned out, enduring — mandate offered to an independent expert to investigate these issues around the world. We’re seeing some donor interest in funding, in particular human rights projects. But those projects have tended to be in the human rights space, and haven’t yet transitioned across to the development space. That space claims to be human rights based, but so far it hasn’t included SOECES rights. It hasn’t really transitioned across to humanitarian organizations that might be taking a needs-based approach, but for one reason or another haven’t really thought about the pre-emergency situation faced by LGBTIQ people, and how that impacts on their vulnerability and resilience after an emergency happens.

These issues don’t even seem to be on the back burner, most groups aren’t even thinking about it. Why do you think there isn’t more awareness yet within the humanitarian and development sector?

To some extent, it’s because there isn’t a lot of guidance available for the organizations. For example, within the development space, the Sustainable Development Goals don’t mention LGBTIQ people and the politics around that. There’s an attempt now to read us back into the SDGs. Within the humanitarian sphere, the Sphere standards themselves don’t say anything about LGBTIQ people. And a range of other standards, assessment frameworks and good practice guides within the different clusters don’t yet provide much guidance. Unless individuals within organizations have had some reason to engage with LGBTIQ people — if they’re queer themselves, or if they have family or friends — then it’s just been out of sight, out of mind.

It is challenging, in a lot of the countries we work in within the Asia-Pacific region or further, for a variety of political or cultural and religious reasons. There are all kinds of reasons why LGBTIQ people might not self-identify, and might not make themselves visible to aid agencies. It’s a complex mix of reasons why organizations haven’t been engaging with LGBTIQ communities. But it’s really urgent.

If you’re a member of an organization and you’re wanting to be more open to this issue and more aware and vocal and improve the practices — where can you start?

I think a really important place to start in engaging with LGBTIQ communities is to work with local organizations. The range of gender identities and sexual orientations, the way that people think about themselves varies considerably across countries within the Asia-Pacific region and varies considerably even within parts of different countries.

Working with local organizations, it is important to understand what those gender identities and sexual orientations are — many of which don’t fall neatly into the LGBTIQ+ boxes that aid agencies might be more familiar with. It also allows those organizations to understand what might be possible within the local political, cultural, social,  and legal environment with which they work. It’s really important to take advice, take leadership from, and engage with those local organizations. Of course that’s not an easy thing to do. It involves a longer term trust building between those organizations and within the communities that those organizations work with. But starting with the local organizations is a great place to start.

Starting with our own organizations is also a great place to start. Organizations could provide a range of training, they could think about their projects design, they could think about their own internal policies and walk the talk themselves of being LGBTIQ-inclusive.

How many people are being left out of humanitarian response due to this exclusion?

One of the challenges is that it is very hard to collect data around LGBTIQ people in different countries, because there is so much criminalization, discrimination and marginalization. There are all kinds of reasons why people will not self-identify. They will not make themselves known as LGBTIQ in a survey, in a focus group, in an interview situation if they’re concerned about questions such as: Through this process will I out myself? Will I get myself into even more trouble than I am already? In official statistics gathering, meanwhile, these questions are not often asked. But there are hundreds of millions of LGBTIQ people around the world. It’s important to remember that just because they’re less visible, just because we don’t know about them, just because we don’t know so much about their lives doesn’t mean that they disappear. In fact, because the humanitarian community is not effectively engaging with LGBTIQ people, that is, in effect, doing harm. Doing nothing is not a neutral action here; doing nothing, is making people’s lives worse.

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