Silence and Stigma: Discrimination against Sexual Minorities

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Development organisations working on gender equality often build strategies whi ch s t r i ve to empower women, strengthen their skills in leadership, augment their decision-making abilities and improve their wellbeing. A key area of this intervention is to combat genderbased violence. This is an important element of Oxfam Hong Kong’s work on livelihoods and security. In areas where we work, however, we also come across a minority group – sexual minorities – who suffer no less from violence, discrimination and prejudice. They frequently face heinous forms of discrimination and prejudice often similar to those faced by women: they lack a public voice, are rendered invisible by family and society, and are often treated violently. In some countries, homosexuality is considered so criminal that a conviction may bring more jail time than rape or murder; it may lead to a death sentence. Yet, the sexual minority community is seldom considered or included as part of a development agency’s gender work. Thus, there is a need for more organisations to work towards acknowledging the rights and needs of sexual minorities.

What is a sexual minority?
Sexual minorities can be defined as persons of a sexual orientation which is not part of the majority, or whose practices differ from the majority of the surrounding society. Initially, the term referred primarily to lesbians and gays, but it has come to include bisexuals and the wide spectrum of transgendered people: lesbians, male homosexuals (gays), bisexuals, the transgendered (those whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex) and inter-sexed (those whose biological sex cannot be clearly defined as male or female). These days, they are often referred to in short as LGBTI. This term also includes people who may not identify themselves in any such category but may practice the same sexual activities. An example of this is men who have sex with men but who do not perceive themselves as gay or bisexual.

Why is there discrimination?
A main reason why sexual minorities are discriminated against is because there is so little understanding of the issues around sexuality, especially homosexuality, which is often shrouded in stigma, silence, taboo and shame. This lack of awareness and acceptance extends beyond the individual level to the institutional, including the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) world. In 2010 for instance, when two gay men in Malawi were hounded by the media and the general public for outing themselves and declaring their wish to be married, Oxfam Hong Kong learned that some civil society groups, including an NGO which Oxfam supports, were in support of antihomosexuality, which is the predominant stance in the country.

Discrimination in Southern Africa
In many countries in southern Africa where Oxfam Hong Kong works, we see a number of instances where people face hardships. Many Africans who are visibly different – such as transgendered persons – are not able to access appropriate health education and health care, and their wellbeing is at risk. In Zambia, for example, discussions with transgendered persons reveal that when they try to enter a clinic, most of them are ridiculed and pushed away. One transgendered person says, “Doctors look down upon us as freaks who don’t deserve good health.” In Malawi, where homosexuality acts between men are illegal, the President recently signed a bill into law that now also criminalises sex between women.

In fact, homosexuality remains illegal in much of the region, and while government programmes such as PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) fund the purchase of condoms, it does not cover the purchase of water-based lubricants, which are necessary to prevent the tearing of condoms during anal intercourse. A number of studies around the world show that LGBTI persons are a high-risk group to HIV infections, yet in Malawi and Zambia, there are virtually no anti-AIDS programmes to assist sexual minorities.

Discrimination in South Asia
A similar situation prevails in countries in South Asia where transgendered and inter-sexed persons, called hijras, live in the margins of society and have little or no social status. Hijras can face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration and law. This is largely due to the fact that the bureaucracy has been unable to place them into male or female gender categories through which they can claim their legal rights and access public services. The legalisation of homosexuality in Nepal (2007) and India (2009) has been a step in bringing more recognition and equality for sexual minorities, but more progress is needed.

Discrimination in China
In China, discrimination against LGBTI individuals also occurs. One situation that Oxfam Hong Kong observes is among LGBTI sex workers, primarily gay men and transgendered individuals. The agency currently assists low-income sex workers in various cities and sees that LGBTI workers face more extreme levels of discrimination, such as acts of violence by their clients. Some LGBTI workers do not use hospitals, because they have experienced mistreatment from doctors, whom they say are disrespectful and look down at them. Oxfam is supporting local communi ty groups to provide various support. This includes a referral system with professional and empathetic doctors so that LGBTI sex workers can be properly assisted; establishing support networks among sex workers who can provide emotional and other support to each other; and various activities to maintain their self-respect and selfidentity. After all, tongzhi, the Chinese word for gays and lesbians, translates as 'comrade'.

Discrimination in Southeast Asia
In Vietnam, the law does not recognise transgendered people. The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), works to raise awareness on sexual diversity and gender identity, and promote the rights of LGBTI persons. iSEE says there has been some improvement recently, but stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities prevail. A spokesperson recalls a case where a transgendered woman in Quang Binh Province was raped by three drunken men in April 2010. The local court would not declare a case of rape because the victim was not legally identified as a woman. According to the court, a victim of rape case can only be a naturally born female.

In the Philippines, discrimination of sexual minorities also occurs in various ways. There are cases of LGBTI students being denied admission to schools or being expelled, of companies blocking the advancement of LGBTI employees, and law enforcement agencies harassing gay men. Since 2006, several antidiscrimination bills have been filed and are pending before the Philippine Senate and Congress, but so far, there is no law to protect LGBTI rights.

Discrimination in the workplace
In developing and developed countries alike, discrimination in the workplace is pervasive. Homophobia remains the norm. Because many employers have no policy on issues around sexual majority/minority, many LGBTI people feel forced to hide their sexual orientation from co-workers. This can negatively affect a person’s wellbeing, productivity and chances f o r p r omo t i o n , a n d t h e r e f o r e o n e ’s earning power and income.

What you can do
A lot of work needs to be done, by schools, government, and community organisations to help address the basic rights of sexual minorities. Oxfam Hong Kong has taken some steps and will continue to remain vigilant. The agency’s personnel policies already include the protection of rights for sexual minorities, which appl ies for everyone at the headquarters in Hong Kong and at the field offices in a total of ten countries. In community development programmes in southern Africa, we are developing strategies within the gender portfolio to build awareness on the rights of sexual minorities. In Zambia, the new country strategy clearly highlights the need for building awareness on the rights of sexual minorities; consequently, programmes targeting this group will be put in place shortly. In Malawi, there is also a plan to raise awareness among staff of Oxfam and partner organisations of the rights of minority groups. Only when we are aware and fully understand an issue, can we then reach out to the community at large. As the political and spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Navin Vasudev is the Regional Programme Coordinator for Oxfam Hong Kong’s programmes in southern Africa. A gay man, born in India, married in Canada, and now based in Johannesburg, South Africa, he acknowledges contributions from Oxfam Hong Kong colleagues Genela Buhia in the Philippines, Nguyen Thanh Ha in Vietnam, Wang Jing in China, as well as from iSEE ( and the Oxfam team in Malawi.