LGBTQ2S+ Voices in Sustainable Development

My name is Lindsay Vandewater and I work for Atlantic Council for International Cooperation (ACIC). I am a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community in Halifax and a passionate advocate for queer rights. I have a background working in social equity, and as someone constantly engaged with the issues faced by queer people, I have hosted a handful of Pride events in the past.

Prior to my time at ACIC, they conducted a great piece of research on youth and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), entitled Your Voice Matters. In this research, ACIC sought out youth and youth-serving organizations in Atlantic Canada in order to determine how best to engage Canadian youth on global, regional, and local sustainability. After reading the report, I asked the question I always tend to ask: "what about queer people?" I thought to myself that surely this research could be done with other demographics. I started researching what sustainable development means to LGBTQ2S+ communities, only to find many organizations discussing an exclusion-by-omittance aspect of sustainable development. It surprised me to see that there is very little explicit mention of LGBTQ2S+ people in the SDGs, seeing as the more socially oriented goals focus on gender equality and reducing inequalities.

What does sustainable development mean?

The United Nations Development Program describes human development as “expanding the richness of human life… It is an approach that is focused on creating fair opportunities and choices for all people." Based on human development, as well as building upon the previously established Millennium Development Goals, the UN created Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development with accompaniment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agenda 2030 focuses on 17 universal aspirational goals, complete with target objectives, that are meant to be achieved in the 15 years between 2015-2030.

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“There are 17 goals all based on a single, guiding principle: to leave no one behind. We will only realize this vision if we reach all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
— Ban Ki-Moon, Former UN Secretary General, 2015

"Leave no one behind" is the common thread that binds the 17 goals together as a collective plan for sustainable development. As a broad framework, the Agenda is meant to by adapted by individual countries to their own social, economic, and environmental needs. When Canada signed on to the Agenda in 2015, it made commitments to the SDGs while adapting each of the goals to benefit Canadians and supplement Canada's capacity to help with global change.

So, what does "leave no one behind" mean to communities who are not consulted or explicitly included in the Agenda? What does it mean to queer Canadians and those living in Canada when we see our country focusing more on the environmental aspects of Agenda 2030 than the societal aspects? How do we ensure that our voices are heard in the march towards achieving the 17 goals?

Global Identities of LGBTQ2S+ Communities

As one of the first countries to adopt same-sex marriage, Canada remains one of the leading countries in human rights for LGBTQ2S+ people. In 2017, Canada adopted protections for gender identity and expressions, adding to the already-established protections based on sexual orientation. That being said, queer people still have an uphill battle to reach equality. Canada holds steady on the archaic blood donation ban for gay men and limited ability for trans people to donate; gender expression is not legally protected in all provinces and territories; and conversion therapy is a political chip currently on the table in Canada. These are just some of the political issues LGBTQ2S+ communities face.

According to The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are 141 other countries that have at least some protections for LGBTQ2S+ people. In 2019, we have seen a considerable amount of headway made towards global gay rights, including votes to legalize same-sex marriage in Austria, Taiwan, Ecuador, and Northern Ireland.

Conversely, there are 125 countries worldwide that, as of July 2019, have no protections—or even criminalize—same-sex relationships, including 11 countries that may still enforce the death penalty (see ILGA map above). The range of experiences and protections differ from country to country, but it is clear that, in a global context, LGBTQ2S+ people face serious barriers to equality.

Of the 17 SDGs, several are directly related to queer communities globally, while many are more loosely tied to issues in queer communities. As we will see, regardless of whether the specific goals are directly related to queer people, all of the goals are inter-related. This means that if even just one goal is directly related to queer people, then as a collective the SDGs are significant to the community; if queer experiences can give insight on just one of the goals, then those experiences will be necessary to consider in all other goals. For example, poverty is a serious concern for people in LGBTQ2S+ communities, especially for young people. Later in this post I will explain how poverty is both created by, but also creates, a wide range of issues that are represented by many of the other SDGs.

Breaking down (some of) the goals

To understand the impact that queer communities could have on achieving the SDGs, and vice versa, it’s worth looking at the goals themselves. I have selected just a few of the goals to discuss. I won’t go too deep into discussing each of them, but will try to paint a picture of the significance that these goals have to LGBTQ2S+ identities.

Equality and Equity

Goal 5, Gender Equality, is one of the most relevant goals that could benefit from the input of LGBTQ2S+ people. Looking at this goal’s targets (see below), it’s clear that the UN has focused their definition for gender equality on the equality between men and women. However, our understanding of gender expression and gender identity is constantly evolving. Essential to fully understanding gender equality is understanding the concerns of people still on the fringes of equality, especially those who identify as trans or non-binary. What will gender equality between men and women mean to someone who is non-binary?

Women’s Rights

By not just excluding, but omitting queer people from the discussion, we are omitting generations of lesbian, bisexual, and trans women who have fought to establish not only queer rights, but also women's rights. Generations of queer women have ridden the waves of feminism, and their experiences should count for something. Intersectionality, or the concept that each layer of identity can potentially be affected by different forms of discrimination that intersect with one another, is a factor that needs to be included in any conversation about gender equality. Womanhood is intersectional, and to leave out any of the intersecting identities that women possess devalues the global struggle for gender equality.

To put it simply, inequality comes from imbalances in power and privilege. Above, I mention intersectionality, and how significant it is to understanding gender equality. But intersectionality is just as important in understanding any aspect of someone's identity and becomes increasingly important as we consider other identity factors like race, ethnicity, religion, sexual and gender orientation/expression, physical and mental ability, and social class.

Health and Well-being

Without a doubt, even in 2019, LGBTQ2S+ people across the world experience lower quality-of-life, even in countries like Canada that have progressive laws protecting queer people. Whether the issue be violence, discrimination, lack of proper or accessible health services, or even the systematic exclusion from quality education, decent work, or community engagement, queer people experience a pile of issues that degrade their health and everyday well-being.

Retrieved from: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-1-no-poverty.html

Retrieved from: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-1-no-poverty.html

Homelessness and Poverty

LGBTQ2S+ poverty is a multi-faceted concern. There are a wide range of issues that contribute to poverty, and homelessness can cause—and exacerbate—those very same issues. In Canada, it is estimated that around 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S+. Consider the amount of violence and discrimination any given person experiences when homeless. That issue becomes compounded when considering the hate crimes people experience just based on sexual or gender identities. Further, homelessness will drastically affect one's ability to secure decent work and obtain a quality education (two of the SDGs).

Violence directed at queer-identified people is a global problem, despite many countries legislating governmental protections (see ILGA image above). Statistics Canada reports that people identified as lesbian, gay, and bisexual are much more likely to experience violent discrimination than heterosexual-identified people. Further, it is almost impossible to read news coming out of the United States without hearing about the ousting of trans people and the unbelievable amount of trans women who are murdered in hate crimes. We saw the horrific examples of targeted violence towards gay and bisexual men in the Chechen gay purges. Violence perpetrated against LGBTQ2S+ people not only affects the physical and mental health of the person who was victimized, but also the health of the community itself, which links directly with SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities (more below).

Physical Health

Even apart from violence, many identities in the LGBTQ2S+ community require different levels of attention when the issue comes to physical health and medical attention. Intersex-identified people have long experienced tumultuous relationships with medical professionals. In fact, one of the most recognizable and tragic stories of mismanaged intersex healthcare comes out of Canada, with the case of David Reimer. Further, trans-identified people face barriers in accessing medical professionals who are properly suited to provide hormone treatment and/or perform gender reassignment surgery.

Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

Queer Canadians are at much higher risk of experiencing depression, suicidality, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and substance abuse than their heterosexual counterparts. Compounding the issue is the lack of medical services that are both accessible and accommodating to queer people. In broad strokes, we can attribute mental health concerns to anyone who experiences discrimination, especially for LGBTQ2S+ people in countries where there are fewer protections than there are in Canada, where 38% of Indigenous youth who identified as LGBTQ2S+ were unable to access mental health services when they needed to, compared to 27% of Indigenous heterosexual cisgender youth.

Communities and Peace

Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 16 tie well together to highlight the importance of LGBTQ2S+ voices in sustainable development. You can read more about LGBTQ2S+ people and Goal 11 in an article by the advocacy group OutRight UN, which is one of the few resources that outlines clear actions items. In order to achieve peaceful and sustainable communities in any part of the world, we need to consider the barriers that produce inequalities for any given person (see SDG 11 targets in image to the left). With this in mind, the fact that countries have sparsely considered LGBTQ2S+ people in their targets for achieving sustainable development is that much more baffling. However, the justice systems and the development of strong, inclusive policies and procedures for institutions may help in leveling out the kind of imbalances caused by power and privilege.

I want to make clear is that I do not believe that queer rights should come before the rights of any other underrepresented community. I believe that achieving the SDGs in their full capacity will be an improvement for so many struggling communities around the world. We need to strive for equality together, regardless of the communities we belong to. In fact, our differing communities can even be beneficial to one another in our fight for equality. It is incredibly important to share our thoughts and experiences with others so we can inform each other on the struggles that our communities are experiencing.

That being said, I believe LGBTQ2S+ communities provide a fascinating example on how the SDGs can affect, but also be informed by, any given community. A necessary point to make in this post is that as the rights for gay and trans people develop and grow in North America, so do the experiences that LGBTQ2S+ communities face when dealing with the struggle for those rights.

These experiences create a potential space where LGBTQ2S+ communities in protected countries can not only share their voices to advocate for queer communities around the globe who are still deeply struggling, but they can also share the experiences of queer liberation to create platforms for those still fighting. By sharing our stories as a collective, we can spark change to help others reduce the inequalities they face.

As I have identified in this post, queer communities are heavily affected by the concerns that have influenced the creation of the SDGs. Even in Canada alone, LGBTQ2S+ people struggle with health and well-being, discrimination and hate crimes, and poverty, among other concerns. Yet minimal effort is made to include the voices of queer communities in Canada's achievement of the SDGs. So, how do we ensure that our voices are heard in sustainable development? How do we ensure that we are not, in fact, left behind? We need to talk about the issues we face. We need to use the platforms we are given to direct conversation to our exclusion and continue to fight for platforms so others can do the same.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you are interested in furthering our discussion on sustainable development, you can attend the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation’s event LGBTQ2S+ Voices in Sustainable Development at the Foggy Goggle on July 25th.