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Is Feminist Development Queer?

by Dr. Corinne L. Mason, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology at Brandon University

Published: December 13, 2017

In one third of the world’s countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people can be arrested and jailed, and in five countries, they may be executed for engaging in same-sex relationships and acts. As of 2015, 76 countries around the world criminalize consensual same-sex relationships. In the development and human rights communities, violence, discrimination, and inequality are often considered a barrier to progress and now, questions of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) are being taken more seriously in this regard. As a response to the overwhelming need to address LGBTI rights globally, the United Nations launched the Free and Equal campaign in 2013 to create global awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination. In 2015, USAID released LGBT Vision for Action. Currently, the UNDP and World Bank are working to create a LGBTI Inclusion Index.

Not to be outdone, Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) references sexual orientation and gender identity as part of its human rights and inclusive approach to development.

As Canada appears to be imagining itself as a leader of LGBTI issues globally, one must consider how FIAP frames the connections between feminism and SOGI. A simple qualitative analysis shows that while “sexual orientation and gender identity” is mentioned only 4 times in FIAP, “women and girls” shows up 166 times (and men and boys 9 times). When sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned, they are offered in tandem and always within a long list of other social locations, such as age and ability. In FIAP, gender seems to refer to (cisgender) women and girls, or at best the relationship between (cisgender) women and (cisgender) girls and men and boys. While “gender norms” are taken into account twice in FIAP in relation to discrimination and harassment, homophobia and transphobia are nowhere to be found.

Of course, such a simplistic word-count does not necessarily mean that SOGI will not be central to FIAP’s implementation, nor does it mean that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is not taking global LGBTI rights seriously. To be sure, Canada will co-chair the Equal Rights Coalition with Chile, which is the first intergovernmental network dedicated to protecting the rights of LGBTI people globally.

Canada is not the first to introduce a feminist policy that is inclusive of LGBTI people. In 2015, Sweden launched the world’s first feminist foreign policy, and is using sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as an entry point for tackling SOGI issues. Following Sweden’s lead, and emerging out of a Harper-era blacklisting of the issue, GAC recently hosted “Inclusive Development: LGBTQ2I Rights and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” roundtable (October 18, 2017). Local and global experts called on Canada to specifically address LGBTI issues, which are as diverse as the sexualities and genders marked by this label. Since $650 million over three years will be spent on SRHR, the inclusion of LGBTI rights is a most welcome initiative.

What remains are a few key questions: Is there internal expertise at Global Affairs Canada to take on global LGBTI rights and implement SOGI analyses, especially as (more traditional) gender expertise diminished under Harper? Do development organizations have the capacity or will to do this kind of work? Will funding reach new global partners already working on LGBTI rights on the ground? Without FIAP explicitly naming LGBTI communities as those who are most marginalized, how will this “inclusive” agenda ensure that they won’t be left behind?

Finally, and quite seriously, GAC must contend with criticism of Canada’s complicity in anti-feminist trade deals with Saudi Arabia and Nigeria that put not only women’s lives at risk, but those of LGBTI populations that reside in countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized.

FIAP is already facing critical feminist attention, and it will also face queer critique as it seeks to include LGBTI rights. Such external accountability mechanisms are not new to policy-makers, but GAC’s work with LGBTI communities. Those concerned with sexual orientation and gender identity at GAC would do well to explicitly acknowledge the complexity of global LGBTI rights as a first step.

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