The Future of LGBTQ Human Rights in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

Participants of a townhall meeting held as part of the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women. (UN Photo/Ryan Brown)

As we approach the 20-year anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325—the first resolution on women, peace, and security (WPS)—those committed to a gender perspective in peace and security work are faced with a time for reflection on where the agenda has gone and where it may go in the future. This presents an opportunity for considering how the next generation of WPS programs can include an awareness of the varied sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI) of women in conflict around the world.

Although neither Resolution 1325 nor any of the subsequent WPS resolutions explicitly mention LGBTQ individuals, civil society actors have been campaigning to bring attention to lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women in WPS projects. Paying attention to these individuals is important for moving past policies that default to the needs of cisgender, heterosexual women. Civil society actors are finding new ways to pursue alliances and work in coalitions in an environment that is increasingly hostile to those working for gender equality. By working with those individuals and organizations committed to LGBTQ human rights in the international arena, WPS programs can reflect a more complex understanding of gender.

A gender perspective that accounts for queer women, too

Despite the lack of language on LGBTQ individuals or SOGI in WPS resolutions, there is a growing movement toward this more expansive understanding of gender. This is evident in the move by some to refer to the project as “gender, peace, and security” rather than “women, peace, and security.” Arguing for such a shift, Jessica Stern, the executive director of the LGBTQ human rights organization Outright Action International, together with Lisa Davis of MADRE, a women’s rights NGO, writes that “a broader interpretation of gender builds coalitions across the women’s and LGBTQ movements, which amount to a larger movement committed to ending violence against individuals for defying traditionally ascribed gender roles. This broader understanding within the WPS framework also helps strengthen the concept of gender equality and underscores the need to address long-standing gender-based violence and discrimination in transitional justice and peace-building processes.” This work is already happening, and in late 2018, Outright joined the NGO Working Group for WPS, a coalition of over a dozen international NGOs working to advance the WPS agenda at the UN and around the world. This is the first time an organization focused specifically on LGBTQ rights has joined the working group.

Reflecting this shift, there are several ways that sexual minorities have received attention in WPS spaces. One of these is peace processes. The Colombian peace process is often held up as an example for future peace processes because the negotiations had a gender subcommittee that included the LGBTQ organizations Caribe Afirmativo and Colombia Diversa. The final peace agreement also included numerous references to LGBTQ populations. While this demonstrated an unusually intersectional gender perspective compared to previous peace processes, the Colombian peace process was not the first to account for LGBTQ communities. As José Alvarado Cóbar, Emma Bjertén-Günther, and Yeonju Jung note in a report about gender perspectives in peace processes, “Although to a lesser degree than the Colombian peace agreement, some clauses found in the Mindanao peace agreements tackle the issue of women’s protection and address the special needs of women and other gender identity groups.”

But the peace deal is only the beginning. Human rights defenders often face significant threats following the signing of a peace deal with over 100 defenders killed in Colombia in 2018. As such, members of a panel on intersectionality in peacebuilding at this year’s Forum on Peace and Development recommended “institutionaliz[ing] mechanisms to ensure that inclusion is continuous during the implementation phase after the agreement is signed.”

While the move to include language about LGBTQ individuals in peace deals is important, it also requires financial, organizational, and political backing by WPS programs. This support might include establishing best practices for documenting and responding to homophobic violence or supporting transgender people to get documentation that matches their gender identity. To mobilize such support, panelists at the Forum on Peace and Development also recommended “continuously emphasiz[ing] the grievances and concerns of the LGBTQ community and other neglected groups particularly at higher political levels.”

Another space where civil society actors have drawn attention to LGBTQ human rights is the national action plans developed to implement Resolution 1325. In these documents, states define what specific actions they plan to take to implement the WPS resolutions, including what security concerns they will prioritize. For example, Canada’s 2017–2022 national action plan specifically pledges to pay attention to LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers. The plan states that the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada will “promote greater understanding of cases involving sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and the harm individuals may face due to their non-conformity with socially accepted norms.” This focus on asylum illustrates how national action plans offer an opportunity for states to draw attention to LGBTQ human rights not just in foreign policy but also in domestic policy.

The national action plans of several other countries, including Argentina, Albania, Japan, Sweden, the UK, and the US also include specific commitments to consider the needs of LGBTQ populations either domestically or in foreign policy. In several of the national action plans there is a recognition that LGBT people (Japan) or those with diverse sexual orientation or gender identities (Argentina, Sweden, Switzerland, United States) are a group of people uniquely vulnerable to violence related to their gender. In the case of the Albanian national action plan there is a call to “strengthen professional capacities of police officers to investigate crimes on the grounds of sexual orientation (hate crimes).” Notably the United States national action plan explicitly mentions intersex individuals alongside attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and individuals whose meaningful participation should be sought for executing WPS policy.

Strengthening alliances between complex communities

Despite this progress, most peace processes and national action plans still do not directly address diverse sexual orientations and gender identities when considering gender. One of the main challenges to bringing SOGI into conversations on WPS is the complexity of the LGBTQ community. While often seen as homogenous, this community includes a wide range of people with very different needs.

During a recent panel at the London School of Economics’ (LSE) Centre for Women, Peace and Security, Henri Myrttinen, head of gender and peacebuilding at International Alert, reflected on how this complexity played out in his research in Colombia: “In the morning we would meet with lesbian and gay upper-middle-class lawyers in their 40s and 50s [and] of European descent. Their positions of agency and vulnerability would be very different from the Afro-Colombian transgender sex workers who we’d meet in the afternoon. But there is this tendency to lump. There is this tendency to lump everyone together as LGBTQ.”

Similarly, Theresia Thylin, a researcher at UN Women, has found that LGBT combatants in different armed groups in Colombia have experienced very different degrees of acceptance of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Their varied politics and personal experiences are an important reminder about individual differences in access to power and privilege within the LGBTQ community depending on class, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors.

Reflecting on her work with countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Nour Abu Assab, co-founder of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration, explains, “People struggle to define themselves within the LGBT boxes.” For this reason, Assab and others have developed an alternative framework—sexual practice and gender performances (SPGP)—that, as opposed to definitional categories like SOGI or LGBTQ, takes into account intersectionality with race, class, and other factors.

Collaborative resistance to anti-gender politics

While this complexity is increasingly reflected in discussions among WPS advocates and researchers, a conservative backlash has sought to revert to black-and-white understandings of sex and gender. The anti-gender foreign policies of governments including Brazil, Colombia, and the US all have anti-LGBTQ dimensions. One need only look to the politics that surrounded the latest WPS resolution (Resolution 2467) and the pushback over the use of the term “gender,” let alone terminology related to sexual orientation. As Myrttinen explained in the LSE panel, “It is important to examine how homophobia, biphobia, [and] transphobia are such a potent mobilizing force across different ideologies, from far-left groups like Maoist guerillas… to far-right Nazi groups [and] extremists of all major world religions.”

Responding to these anti-gender politics requires supporters of WPS and of LGBTQ rights to invest in collaborative approaches and break down institutional silos. Myrtinen argued that those working on WPS and those working on LGBTQ rights “sit in separate departments.” He continued, “When we did a research project looking at LGBTQ experiences of conflict and peacebuilding and presented it to donor agencies in the UK, Sweden, and Ireland, often that was the first time that people… in the same ministry who were working on WPS met their [colleagues] who were working on SOGI issues because [they were] seen as two distinct issues.” Resisting the backlash against gender in peace and security is a project that will benefit from long-term, collaborative work between WPS and LGBTQ organizations to better understand the ways their agendas overlap and how to respond to the anti-gender politics both groups face on the international stage.

Jamie J. Hagen is an assistant professor of international relations. Her research focuses on Women, Peace, and Security and LGBTQ politics. She tweets at @Jamiejhagen.