The Women, Peace, and Security Agenda Is Not Just for Straight, Cisgender Women

A High-level Event on Ending Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People held at the United Nations in 2016. (UN Photo/Kim Haughton)

The United Nations’ women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda is fundamentally about inclusion—the inclusion of women and of gender perspectives in all peace and security processes and institutions. But while the WPS agenda has expanded the bounds of who these processes and institutions include, it has drawn new boundaries that often exclude people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics (SOGIESC). As Lisa Davis and Jessica Stern write, “The interpretation of gender under the [WPS] agenda is outdated, binary, and heteronormative.” Twenty years after UN Security Council resolution 1325, it is time for a truly inclusive WPS agenda.

An inclusive WPS agenda would recognize women and girls’ intersecting identities rather than treating them as a homogeneous group. Across all of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s reports in 2018, only 2 percent of references to women and girls referred to a specific subset of this population such as young women, displaced women, or women with disabilities—and only a handful referred to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) people. None of the ten Security Council resolutions that collectively make up the WPS agenda refer to SOGIESC. This omission makes the WPS agenda implicitly heteronormative and cisnormative in leaving unchallenged the assumption that women are straight and cisgender (a term that refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth).

An inclusive WPS agenda would also be framed around “gender” rather than “women.” Indeed, it might more appropriately be called the gender, peace, and security agenda. Embedding the term “women” in the name of the agenda reinforces a male-female gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either male or female. It also limits discussion on the role of masculinities and men in peace and conflict.

But simply changing the language from “women” to “gender” will not be enough, because “gender” is still often used or interpreted as a synonym for (implicitly cisgender) “women.” The WPS agenda needs to be grounded in a more nuanced understanding of what gender means.

Uniquely Vulnerable yet Overlooked

For LGBTI people affected by armed conflict, these semantic distinctions matter. While gender-neutral language may implicitly ignore women, narrowly gendered language can explicitly exclude LGBTI people. Jamie Hagen argues that creating “narrow categories of who is most vulnerable to violence owing to their gender…can ultimately create even more insecure environments for certain women who endure intersecting oppression because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” Excluding LGBTI people from monitoring of and reporting on the WPS agenda makes their experiences invisible. This often leads to WPS plans and activities that promote the protection and participation of a restricted group of women, leaving out a large group of people that is disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of armed conflict.

Evidence shows that state and nonstate conflict actors in a range of contexts have targeted LGBTI people for sexual assault, exploitation, humiliation, blackmail, and extortion and have enforced homophobic and transphobic ideologies. Lesbian, bisexual, or transgender women may be targeted not only because of their gender but also because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, adding layers of vulnerability. On top of this, LGBTI people often lack the family or community ties and economic security that can help people endure in the face of conflict.

Despite this heightened vulnerability, interventions that fall under the aegis of WPS often overlook anyone who is not a cisgender woman. Support for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence rarely caters to LGBTI people or to men. “Gendered” humanitarian assessments, plans, and guidelines rarely mention LGBTI communities, leading to humanitarian responses that exclude them. Peace processes rarely address the specific needs of LGBTI people or include them as participants.

Gender and SOGIESC: A Historically Fraught Relationship

Why have the UN, governments, and civil society been slow to adopt a more inclusive approach to the WPS agenda? The answer lies at both ends of the WPS acronym: “women” and “peace and security.” Within the UN, a limited conception of gender has not been unique to the WPS agenda. Most system-wide and agency-specific gender strategies and gender trainings are rooted in the male-female binary and reference LGBTI people only superficially, if at all. Gender experts and gender focal points tend not to see LGBTI people as part of their mandate. Tellingly, it’s only within the past few years that UN Women has taken steps toward a more inclusive view of gender.

Such efforts to question the gender binary face political headwinds. Some member states are increasingly using UN fora to attack so-called “gender ideology,” typically in reference to “the protection and valuing of LGBTQ+ lives and nontraditional family structures,” as noted by Sarah Taylor and Gretchen Baldwin. Even within civil society, women’s groups have historically been divided over whether to ally their cause to that of LGBTI groups. While these divides have subsided, they have not gone away. For example, the Commission on the Status of Women—one of the most important international gatherings of women’s groups—can be an unfriendly place for gender non-conforming activists.

Peace and Security and SOGIESC: Behind the Curve

As for the peace and security side of WPS, the conversation about SOGIESC has barely gotten off the ground. This is in contrast to the other two pillars of the UN. The UN human rights system has been reaffirming the rights of LGBTI people for more than twenty-five years. The UN development system has been including gay men and transgender people in HIV/AIDS-related work for just as long and is increasingly considering the needs of LGBTI people across its broader programming—discussed in a forthcoming paper on UN policy and programming on SOGIESC.

Paradoxically, this progress speaks to one of the barriers to taking up issues related to SOGIESC in the UN’s peace and security pillar. Many see SOGIESC as a matter of human rights and social inclusion, not of peace and security. This is most obvious in the UN Security Council, which is generally reluctant to take up anything perceived as a human rights concern. The Council held its first—and so far only—meeting on violence against LGBTI people in 2015 in the context of attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. One year later, it adopted its first—and so far only—statement about an attack targeting people on the basis of their sexual orientation following the Pulse nightclub shooting. Both initiatives were spearheaded by the United States. Since then, no country has been willing or able to spend the political capital required to take forward such initiatives, especially in the face of opposition from Russia.

This lack of attention in the Security Council carries over to the peace and security organs of the UN Secretariat. The UN Departments of Peace Operations and Political and Peacebuilding Affairs do not appear to have substantively engaged with questions related to SOGIESC. Neither have most UN peace operations. One notable exception is the UN special political mission in Haiti, which included an indicator related to protecting LGBTI people in its 2017–2018 results-based budgetseemingly a first.

LGBTI organizations have also tended to focus their engagement with the UN on its human rights pillar and, to a much lesser extent, its development pillar. UN peace and security organs are less accessible to civil society in general, and even less so to LGBTI organizations, which often struggle just to get consultative status. LGBTI organizations also have limited financial and human resources to engage with the UN, and donors direct most of the limited funding they provide toward work on human rights.

Another barrier to taking up issues related to SOGIESC in the UN’s peace and security pillar is the lack of data. There is very little data on violence and discrimination based on SOGIESC anywhere in the world, a state of affairs the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity describes as “tantamount to criminal neglect.” When it comes to conflict-affected settings, such data is almost nonexistent, with the limited exception of Colombia, which has been the focus of a large share of the few studies that have been done. Without this data, it is easy for policymakers to imagine that the LGBTI population is too small to warrant attention or to assume that it is covered by existing responses.

Toward a More Inclusive WPS Agenda

Despite these barriers, the past five years have seen some progress toward a WPS agenda that includes LGBTI people. Every year since 2015, the secretary-general’s annual report on conflict-related sexual violence has referenced LGBTI people (mostly in relation to Colombia, Iraq, and Syria). Likewise, the secretary-general’s 2019 report on WPS had more references to LGBTI people than any of his previous WPS reports. Notably, it requested UN peace operations “to continue to improve their monitoring and reporting of threats and violence against activists…with data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.”

Beyond the UN, at least seven countries have included references to LGBTI people in their national action plans on WPS. In 2018, OutRight Action International became the first LGBTI organization to join the NGO Working Group on WPS. This corresponded with a marked increase in the working group’s attention to LGBTI people in its monitoring and reporting. For the first time, its 2017 and 2018 reports on the implementation of the WPS agenda included sections dedicated to LGBTI people. In August 2020, OutRight also published a toolkit for civil society organizations looking to get more involved in advocating for an LGBTI-inclusive WPS agenda.

This progress remains limited and fragile, especially in a political climate where even long-established language on gender is being contested at the UN. But at the same time, more UN member states are advocating for and voting in favor of LGBTI rights and inclusion than ever before, and LGBTI activists have built a coordinated, global movement. Advocates for both women and for LGBTI people can harness this support to push for the UN, governments, and civil society to adopt an inclusive approach to WPS. The WPS agenda should help bring LGBTI people into the UN’s discourse and policymaking on peace and security rather than reinforcing their exclusion. This would serve as a powerful example of how efforts to mainstream gender in the UN can expand the bounds of inclusion without creating new boundaries that shut out those who do not conform with narrow conceptions of gender and sexuality.

Albert Trithart is Editor and Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.