How Can We Include LGBT People in the Humanitarian Sector?

17 May 2016
Kit Dorey

by Kit Dorey

Kit Dorey is the International Policy Officer at Stonewall, the UK’s largest lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) organisation.

In this blog, I share some thoughts about the relevance of LGBT human rights for the humanitarian sector (for both service delivery and staff inclusion), using two commitments from the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) as a framework. There remains a lot to be done by organisations under both commitments to improve LGBT inclusion, meaning there’s plenty of space for action!

I presented key findings from Stonewall’s Global Diversity Champions programme at a workshop earlier this year about the inclusion and security of lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) staff in the humanitarian sector organised by RedR and the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Our programme works with over 80 global employers to create resources and benchmarking tools that help ensure a fully LGBT-inclusive environment for staff

In this blog, I share some thoughts about the relevance of LGBT human rights for the humanitarian sector (for both service delivery and staff inclusion), using two commitments from the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) as a framework. There remains a lot to be done by organisations under both commitments to improve LGBT inclusion, meaning there’s plenty of space for action!

CHS Commitment 1: Communities and people affected by crisis receive assistance appropriate to their needs.

CHS Guidance Notes and Indicators: This commitment calls for stakeholder analysis, impartial assessment of need and risks and policies that include disadvantaged or marginalised people.

In Stonewall’s paper on the Sustainable Development Goals, we published evidence and recommendations on the inequalities that LGBT communities face all over the world, in terms of income, health, education and access to justice.

The pre-existing marginalisation of LGBT communities in the global south is likely to be increased during times of crisis, as demonstrated by Knight and Solom. When services, employment and social assistance are affected, LGBT people will be among those hardest hit, especially since many cannot draw on traditional family or community networks. They will be at disproportionate risk of physical and sexual violence and harassment post-disaster.

LGBT people often face discriminatory treatment in the delivery of humanitarian aid or services. For example, when responses are guided by community feedback mechanisms that do not include LGBT perspectives or where aid is delivered by homophobic, biphobic or transphobic intermediaries. Finally, LGBT groups can be disadvantaged by unintentionally discriminatory policies and practices, which use a narrow definition of “family” or mandate gender segregation in camps with no flexibility for trans groups. Even well-intentioned aid workers may lack the awareness to support LGBT service-users appropriately.

But there’s a lot that can be done to address issues like these. A crucial first step is reaching out to LGBT community organisations during and in the aftermath of a crisis. Or making sure that LGBT voices are represented within existing “community” feedback.

Secondly, a proper review of policies and practices (in light of context-specific information) can help ensure LGBT people are not being excluded. Policies should include a clear, unambiguous anti-discrimination clause, which is well communicated both internally and externally. Other steps include LGBT sensitivity training for delivery and programme staff – there is space to address LGBT needs as part of pre-deployment and other core training programmes.

Discrimination and general lack of awareness hinder the ability of the humanitarian sector to support the most vulnerable groups. Workshp attendees broadly agreed that the sector can afford to be bolder and more united in its commitment to LGBT equality.

For an LGBT-inclusive gender analysis of the humanitarian response in Nepal, please read International Alert’s  report.

CHS Commitment 8: Communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers.

CHS Guidance Notes and Indicators: This commitment calls for staff policies to be fair, transparent and non-discriminatory and to ensure the security and wellbeing of staff.

LGBT staff inclusion is not just a matter of fairness. Stonewall has found that LGBT people perform better when they can be themselves. For public organisations and NGOs this will translate into higher productivity and creativity, better job satisfaction and greater staff loyalty.

A 2016 Stonewall survey of 11,980 LGBT employees in the UK found that 85% of lesbian, gay or bi respondents who were ‘out’ at work were satisfied with their sense of achievement compared to 51% of those who were not ‘out’. For trans respondents, the results were 79% of those who were ‘out’ compared to 47% of those not ‘out’.

Even in contexts where it is not possible to be ‘out’ in every aspect of your working life, known-supportive colleagues or other networks can help achieve similar results. LGBT-inclusivity does not just benefit the individual staff member. Other positive side-effects include improved relations within teams, better staff retention, lower training and rehiring costs, and the attraction of better qualified candidates.

Suggestions relevant to the humanitarian sector:

1. Fair, clear and consistently applied LGBT-inclusive policies:

There is a lack of clarity in the sector about how hiring, relocation and benefit policies apply to LGBT staff and partners. A crucial step to address this is an audit of the relevant policies and how they are applied, adding LGBT-specific considerations where appropriate. If policies can’t be applied completely equally, for example where it would not be safe for legal or social reasons to relocate same-sex partners, the organisation should commit itself as far as possible to other forms of compensation (e.g. through leave, rest and recuperation).

For similar reasons, it may not be safe to deploy LGBT staff to particular countries. Staff safety should always be of the utmost concern. However, the workshop also discussed the danger of unnecessary overreaction, meaning that LGBT candidates face the choice of disclosing their identity (and risking harm to their careers) or hiding it (and closing themselves off from potential support). Organisations should take every step to ensure that disclosure will not harm career opportunities – they should also be clear that deployment decisions will be based on up-to-date information and in consultation with the affected individuals.

The issue of real versus perceived risk also came to light when discussing the lack of proper security protocols for LGBT staff, an issue that security advisers stressed needs to be addressed.

2. Staff support before, during and after assignments:

Human resources (HR) and security advisers cannot give staff the ongoing support they need without being trained and supported themselves. Guidance on how the relevant policies apply to LGBT staff and up to date information on the social and legal situation are of vital importance. Attendees highlighted a lack of pre-deployment guidance for staff in general, not just for LGBT staff. Basic information like this could be easily produced, letting LGBT staff know how they will be supported and who they can reach out to when they face issues during deployment.

3. LGBT staff networks:

Finally, the workshop discussed the generally inadequate opportunities for counselling, emotional support or impartial advice within organisations. This can be compounded by a general culture of self-sacrifice, which means staff don’t readily discuss personal issues. Such an atmosphere potentially affects everyone, but can have a particularly strong impact on LGBT staff at risk of psychological distress due to hiding who they are.

A way around this is through LGBT staff networks, which we have found to be an enormously valuable part of our global workplace programme. Organisations can play a role in creating or supporting these networks, and they can be global and/or local in scale. Staff will be able to access confidential support and advice from other LGBT colleagues, and they also provide a social network that can positively impact mental health.  Personal accounts of the experiences of LGBT humanitarian workers can be found on the GAYd worker blog and further resources on the LGBT Aid and Development Workers website.

The humanitarian sector is at risk of failing in its mandate if it does not address the fair inclusion of LGBT service users and staff. However, it is also clear that the sector contains many committed advocates, with lots of ideas for addressing the key concerns discussed in this blog. The crucial first step is already complete – a growing recognition of the problem and a coalition of concerned actors looking for solutions.

If you are interested in learning about Stonewall’s work to bring about LGBT inclusive international development or its work with global employers, please contact