Two days before Justice Kennedy issued his landmark opinion affirming the Constitutional right of same sex couples to marry anywhere in the United States, Kyrgyzstan’s anti-gay “propaganda” bill passed its second reading in parliament by a horrifying majority of 90-2. And that’s an average week in the developing world — more than 77 countries currently criminalize homosexuality. Of those, 10 percent punish that “act” by death. In fact, recent victories here may even be causing a series of backlashes (often state-sponsored.)
The story of LGBT Americans is a story of enduring courage across generations. Last week’s victory was paved over by the sacrifice of quietly celebrated Americans. From Mattachine to Stonewall, from Act Up to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” from Lawrence v. Texas to nationwide marriage equality, the courage and persistence of LGBT individuals and their allies has bent the arc of history closer to justice.
Like those brave Americans, LGBT leaders in the developing world now demand fair treatment in healthcare, education, housing or public policy. And like their U.S. counterparts, they dare to challenge discrimination even when it feels futile. As Igor Yasin — a Russian LGBT activist — wrote in 2013, “The time has come: we can’t expect anyone to do it for us, and nothing is going to change unless we act.”
Today we know, based on growing statistical evidence, that LGBT people are over-represented among the poorest. In fact, we believe that as much as American law and policy has embraced unprecedented recognition of LGBT rights, international development for LGBT people is in reverse gear, pushed into regression by governments and the complacency of bystanders to unprincipled and tragically harmful discrimination.
As American gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people begin to enjoy more of the benefits of equality than they ever have before, the lives of our LGBT brothers and sisters abroad often are, truly solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In a recent socio-economic survey we carried out in India, 80 percent of transgender respondents reported working in begging or sex work due to the lack of other options. This is an impediment to international development. One cannot eliminate poverty while ignoring such paralyzing discrimination which affects hundreds of millions.
Sadly, international organizations have been reluctant to support LGBT movements abroad because of their own entrenched cultural issues. Discrimination against LGBT people is often perceived as culturally permissible. In fact, my own organization, the World Bank Group, has spent none of its own $5 billion annual administrative budget to address LGBT discrimination in the past. A coalition of Nordic member countries have contributed from their own funds $250,000 (0.005 percent of the Bank’s own administrative funds) to the topic in the last two years.
This grant allowed my team to launch needed studies on the amplitude and impact of discrimination worldwide. It also allowed us to bring global LGBT leaders to make the case for greater protection and inclusion in development initiatives. Together we literally shamed the World Bank into creating a sexual orientation and gender identity task force just a few months ago. One single task force does not make an international Stonewall. And yet, it’s a place to start.
Perhaps more frustratingly, we LGBT people cannot rely on others to argue on our behalf. Our movement has been one supported by allies, but led from within. We must demand our fair share of development resources to benefit our brothers and sisters embattled abroad. And we must not be intimidated (back) into silence. Our movement has never succeeded — and has always suffered — in silence.
As has recently been reported by this and other LGBT outlets, my own efforts to speak up at the World Bank along with a group of LGBT organizations were the subject of a year-long $1+ million investigation and my very public demotion. Such personal costs do not compare to those paid by the LGBT activists who came before me. Perhaps that is one measure of progress. But they also pale in comparison to the price paid by LGBT activists today in Egypt, Russia or Turkey. We must not idle while discrimination is tolerated abroad. We must not be shaken, or silenced, or stymied by intimidation at home. And above all, we must, as Jamaican activist Angeline Jackson reminds us, remain hopeful: “We are not beaten; we are strong and we are resilient, and we are working for change.”
Fabrice Houdart is a country officer for the Maghreb at the World Bank. Since 2011, he is also a strong voice for greater consideration of LGBT people in international Development. In May this year, he faced disciplinary measures allegedly for having shared an official-use only document with a coalition of LGBT rights organizations pushing for greater protection for LGBT people worldwide. He lives with his twin boys in Washington, D.C.