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Sexual orientation and gender identity

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • Special consideration must be given to the particular needs and risks faced by individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, such lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LBTI) women/individuals.  Research has shown that individuals around the world face acute violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.  This violence can be exacerbated in times of conflict.  (For a detailed report on the discriminatory practices and acts of violence against LGBTI individuals, see OHCHR, 2011.). 
Gender Identity refers to a person's innate, deeply felt psychological identification as male or female, which may or may not correspond to the person's body or designated sex at birth (excerpted from Human Rights Campaign). For example, individuals who are born male may identify as women, individuals who are born female may identify as men, and others may identify as third genders or other genders.
    • Violence. LBTI individuals around the world face physical, sexual and psychological violence, coercion and threats.  This violence is most often motivated as a form of punishment for acting outside of prescribed gender norms (OHCHR, 2011.).
      • Transgender women who are male-bodied face particular challenges when it comes to sexual assault.  In many countries male-bodied individuals cannot seek legal redress for sexual assault or rape, which leaves transgender victims of sexual violence further marginalized and at-risk (Stemple, 2009).
    • Discriminatory Laws. Not only do LBTI persons face violence at the hands of their families and communities, but they also suffer collective violence in the form of discriminatory laws (Brown, 2011).  Criminalizing laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including “sodomy laws” and laws restricting sexual activities and relationships among consenting adults, exist in 76 countries (ILGA, 2011, p. 9; see a world survey of laws criminalising same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults.). 
    • Transgender persons may risk violence, discrimination, and denial of services when their presentation does not match their information, picture, or name on State-issued identity documents. (For a survey on the discrimination faced by transgender persons in the United States, see Grant et. al, 2011). 
    • LBTI persons – and even persons who do not identify as LBTI but act outside of prescribed gender norms – also risk arbitrary arrest, detention and, in some countries, the death penalty for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (OHCHR, 2011).
    • Discriminatory Practices. LBTI persons around the world face discrimination in access to and quality of healthcare, employment, housing, and education.  Restrictions to their freedom of expression and assembly create a forced silencing and isolation, and many face additional discrimination from their families and communities (OHCHR, 2011).
  • During times of conflict risks faced by LBTI individuals may be exacerbated.  For example:
    • LBTI individuals may have trouble accessing livelihoods opportunities due to discrimination, increasing their exposure to poverty (OHCHR, 2011).  For example, LBTI individuals may be excluded from economic or livelihoods groups, and employers may fire or refuse to hire someone based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
    • Social and economic marginalization, compounded by conflict, may force LBTI people into sex work, where they face increased risk of exploitation, abuse, and violence – often at the hands of police or military who have apprehended them (McMillan & Worth, 2011).
    • Lesbian couples living together may not be recognized as a family unit – especially if they have no children – and may be denied necessary food and services given to other registered families in refugee or IDP camps (Knight & Sollom, 2012). 
    • Gender-segregated shelters, bathrooms, health facilities and other facilities exclude those that don’t fit neatly into male/female genders, or those who are not legally or publicly recognized as their identified gender.  Transgender women may not “pass,” or be perceived by the general public, as women.  When this happens they may be denied safe shelter with other women and forced to share shelter space with men, increasing their risk of assault, harassment and abuse (Knight & Sollom, 2012).
    • Prior to conflict, LBTI people have often found ways of navigating, avoiding, and minimizing daily harassment and violence by creating safe spaces and communities for themselves.  When communities are scattered, safe spaces are destroyed and patterns of movement are disrupted due to conflict, LBTI people may face increased levels of violence (Laguerre et. al., 2010).
  • In 2006 the Yogyakarta Principles were developed in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, by a group of international human rights experts in response to abuses faced by sexual and gender minorities.  The Yogyakarta Principles are a universal guide to human rights which affirm binding international legal standards with which all States must comply. See a copy of these principles, available in 6 languages.

Additional Resources

For information on the effects of Pakistan’s flood on transgender people, see LGBT Asylum News, 2011.  Available in English.

For an essay on the experience of lesbians during wartime, see: Mladjenovic, L. 2001. “Notes of a feminist lesbian during wartime.”.  Available in English.