Individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) face serious human rights violations in many societies because they do not conform to culturally established gender norms. LGBTI people are at a higher risk of violence, abuse, discrimination, and exploitation because of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or sex characteristics – at the start of an emergency, in transit, and when they arrive in countries of asylum. To avoid danger, many people conceal their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics, making it difficult for UNHCR and partners to identify them, provide humanitarian services, and ensure that asylum procedures adequately address their needs. They necessitate specific protection responses as well as specific types of humanitarian assistance.
A word about terminology.
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Many terms are now used to address and refer to people with various sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, or sex characteristics (see below). While acknowledging that language evolves, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) uses the acronym LGBTI as an umbrella term to describe diverse groups of people who do not conform to conventional or traditional notions of male and female gender roles. Other terms include LGBTI+, LGBTQ, LGBTQAI, Queer, and so on.
Ensure your employees understand what terms are appropriate and should be avoided in every situation. In this regard, local LGBTI organizations can be a valuable resource. If you’re working with an LGBTI person and don’t know what term to use, ASK!
The following definitions apply:
LGBTI is An acronym for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex’ people, as well as ‘people of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expressions, or sex characteristics.’
Lesbian A woman who has a lasting romantic, emotional, or physical attraction to other women.
Gay: A man with a strong romantic, emotional, and physical attraction to other men. The term refers to women who are attracted to other women.
Bisexual A person capable of romantic, emotional, and physical attraction to people of the same sex and gender as well as people of different sex and gender.
Cisgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity corresponds to their biological sex at birth. They can be of various sexual orientations.
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and, in some cases, gender expression differ from what is typically associated with the sex to which they were born. They can also be of various sexual orientations.
Intersex is an umbrella term for various natural bodily variations in sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads, reproductive organs, and chromosome patterns) that do not fit traditional binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex people do not always have a different gender identity or sexual orientation than the norm. Rather, their bodies exhibit sex characteristics that differ from the norm. They are not to be confused with transgender people.
Homosexual A person who is romantically, emotionally, and physically attracted to people of the same sex and gender. Many people in English regard it as an outmoded clinical term that should be avoided.
Sexual preference Each individual’s enduring capacity for profound romantic, emotional, or physical feelings for, or attraction to, people of a specific sex or gender.
Gender identification Each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender may or may not correspond with their sex at birth or the gender attributed to them by a society based on their sex at birth.
Gender identity The external expression of one’s gender identity as expressed by one’s name, pronouns, behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, or bodily characteristics.
Sex A person’s bodily characteristics are classified as female, male, or intersex. At birth, infants are typically assigned a sex based on the appearance of their external anatomy. A combination of bodily characteristics such as chromosomes, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics determines a person’s sex. It functions as a biological marker.
SOGIESC ‘sexual orientation, gender identity expression, and sex characteristics’ is an acronym. It is used to describe sexual orientations and gender identity expressions in their entirety and by sex.
2Objectives of protection
The UNHCR’s protection goals for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are as follows:
To raise awareness among UNHCR and partner personnel about the specific risks and protection needs of LGBTI people.
Ensure that UNHCR and partner offices, registration facilities, reception centers, service delivery points, and other areas of concern for LGBTI people are welcoming, confidential, and safe.
Consult LGBTI people of concern and ensure that their perspectives are incorporated into the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of emergency responses.
To ensure that LGBTI people of concern are not discriminated against, are treated respectfully, and have a full say in decisions that affect them.
To ensure that all responses are inclusive of LGBTI people and consider their unique capacities and needs in terms of age, gender, and diversity (AGD).
To put in place appropriate systems to prevent, mitigate, and respond to violence against, or exploitation and abuse of, LGBTI people in an emergency.
3Base principles and standards
Code of Conduct, UNHCR, 2004.
The Code of Conduct helps employees make ethical decisions in their professional and personal lives. It is a moral code; it does not have legal force.
UNHCR, Age, Gender, and Diversity Policy, 2018.
The AGD policy reaffirms UNHCR’s commitment to putting people at the center of everything we do. It consolidates UNHCR’s commitments to a strong AGD orientation, accountability to affected people (AAP), and women and girls’ rights. It establishes six engagement areas and ten mandatory core actions for UNHCR headquarters and all operations.
UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection No. 9: Claims to Refugee Status Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity, 2012.
Legal advice is provided to governments, legal practitioners, decision-makers, the judiciary, and staff carrying out refugee status determination under the mandate of UNHCR.
Need to Know Guidance: Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex People in Forced Displacement, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2011.
Provides practical guidance on ensuring the rights of LGBTI people of concern are respected, and discrimination is avoided.
Risks of Protection
LGBTI people are not a monolithic group. While they may share some risks and concerns, each individual and population has unique concerns arising from their sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics with their gender, age, and other diverse characteristics (such as disability, race, and religion).
Lesbians may face persecution because of their gender and sexual orientation. They may be more vulnerable to gender-based violence, such as honor crimes and rape, at the hands of private actors such as family and community members. Because of their social and economic status, they may have difficulty accessing asylum procedures, police, or other forms of protection and support in asylum-seeking countries. Some lesbians will have been forced into heterosexual marriages and may have children.
Gay men lead more public lives than lesbians, putting them at greater risk of harm, including from state actors in countries where male same-sex conduct is a criminal offense. Gay men may be reluctant to disclose sexual abuse to authorities or service providers.
Bisexual people may be largely invisible. They are typically persecuted due to their perceived homosexual or lesbian orientation. Because they can be physically, romantically, or emotionally attracted to both men and women, they may believe their sexuality is a matter of choice rather than identity. Both heterosexual and non-heterosexual communities may stigmatize them.
Transgender people are frequently marginalized and subjected to violence. They are frequently subjected to abuse, discrimination by state officials, and hatred from family and community members. They are frequently sexually abused by both state and non-state actors. They may engage in survival sex work because they are frequently excluded from education, housing, and employment. They frequently lack access to critical medical services.
Intersex people may face discrimination because they do not conform to mainstream gender expectations or are perceived to have a physical disability due to their atypical sexual anatomy. They may be subjected to ritualistic abuse in cultures where bodily diversity is considered evil. They are frequently subjected to coerced surgical interventions, including sterilization, without their consent. Family members of intersex people are sometimes at risk as well.
Temporary shelters; collective shelters; sanitation facilities, such as showers and toilets; centralized aid distribution areas and queues (if they are stigmatized or excluded by those overseeing the queues); information and registration points or centers; health or counseling centers; official offices, including police stations and military posts; detention facilities are all common risks for LGBTI people. LGBTI people may be stigmatized, harassed, or marginalized by host communities and their own families and communities.
If housing is designed to house single people or couples of different sex, same-sex couples and their families may be separated. Furthermore, when services are provided, same-sex couples may be treated unfairly. Same-sex couples may be excluded from essential family aid if distribution criteria do not recognize them. Transgender and intersex people may be assigned housing that does not correspond to their preferred gender identity but rather to their sex at birth.
Some LGBTI people may find the content of assistance packages offensive. Transgender men, for example, may require sanitary napkins, and intersex people may require hormone replacement therapy.
Coping mechanisms and infrastructures on which LGBTI people rely may be disabled or destroyed. These include non-discriminatory health and community centers and safe public spaces.
If UNHCR and its partners fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect all persons of concern, their reputations will suffer.
Six critical decision points
Ensure that all staff and partners understand the protection needs of LGBTI people, either through training or by reviewing UNHCR’s Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex People in Forced Displacement guidance.
Ensure that all UNHCR and partner facilities are welcoming and safe for LGBTI people.
Ensure that all employees and partners, including drivers and security guards, understand what is and is not acceptable behavior when working with LGBTI people. The UNHCR Code of Conduct establishes clear standards and requires managers to take action when inappropriate behavior is observed.
Appropriate partners may be required, especially without (reliable) national services.
Create systems that consistently refer LGBTI people to appropriate service providers and ensure that all services are available without discrimination.
7 Important Steps
Procedures for identification and evaluation
Identify and reach out to LGBTI individuals. Consult civil society actors, NGOs, and other organizations if possible. Remember that LGBTI people may deliberately seek to remain hidden for their safety. Your first duty is to ensure their confidentiality and safety. Do not assume that LGBTI people look, act, or behave in a specific way.
Make safe spaces and train staff and partners to work with and communicate with LGBTI people. Create an environment in which LGBTI people feel safe to come forward and seek the help they require.
Include visual material with key messages for LGBTI people in your reception areas, registration facilities, and service delivery points. Ensure that confidential hotlines and other reporting channels are in place and that people who cannot access services know them.
During the assessment process, remember that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and other people of diverse SOGI face different risks and have different needs and priorities; they are not and should not be treated as a homogeneous group. Determine their specific requirements.
LGBTI people of concern should be included in support services’ protection and assistance programming. In some cases, special arrangements and adaptations may be required.
Ensure that the urgent needs of LGBTI people are met, including those for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), health, shelter, food, and core relief items (CRI); take targeted actions as needed. Include LGBTI people in programs that prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), collaborating with partners as needed.
Create confidential, safe, and effective referral systems by mapping LGBTI people’s needs in collaboration with LGBTI-sensitive NGOs and other relevant service providers.
Availability of services
Respond to the specific needs of LGBTI people promptly and adequately. Map out your partners, referral mechanisms, and community capacities.
Where possible, collaborate with partners, other actors, and authorities to identify appropriate and safe housing arrangements.
Ensure that LGBTI people have equal access to services such as counseling, health, and MHPSS and that LGBTI people are included in programs that target people of concern. Examine your response programs to identify areas where LGBTI people may be at greater risk. Remember that it is not always safe for LGBTI people to use established mainstream services. Many public health facilities, for example, are legally required to report SGBV cases to local law enforcement, putting LGBTI people at risk.
Abuse and exploitation prevention
Implement appropriate systems to prevent and respond to LGBTI violence, exploitation, and abuse. Set up monitoring systems for this purpose.
Ensure that LGBTI people have access to feedback systems and that concerns raised through those systems are addressed.
Inclusion and sharing of information
Ensure that LGBTI people of concern are consulted and meaningfully involved in program design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.
Provide information in various forms and locations about how and where LGBTI people can seek help.
Make certain that documentation procedures and decisions are sensitive to and include people who do not conform to mainstream sex and gender expectations. Ensure that such people have equal access to protection and assistance programs.
Ensure that the office reception area is safe and welcoming and that registration is done in a non-discriminatory manner. Registration may necessitate special arrangements.
Assist service providers in making their programs inclusive and accessible to LGBTI people.
Advocacy and raising awareness
Include the various protection issues LGBTI people face in partner awareness-raising and training activities.
Provide specialized training to ensure that staff, interpreters, and other relevant actors (in government and civil society) understand the unique needs and vulnerabilities of LGBTI people fleeing persecution.
8 Important management considerations
There should be enough resources and knowledgeable staff to meet the specific needs of LGBTI people of concern.
Increase the capacity of protection staff and partners to respond to LGBTI people’s protection needs. Incorporate efforts to address LGBTI issues into all relevant sectors.
Create mechanisms to monitor the safety and protection of LGBTI people.
Encourage national services and partners to continue to support LGBTI people.
9Resources and collaborations
Staff in the protection, community-based protection, health, education, livelihoods, and other technical sectors are especially important. Each operation should ideally have a trained and knowledgeable LGBTI focal point.
Financial resources will be required to plan and implement relevant services, interventions, and programs.
Training Ensure that staff, interpreters, and other relevant actors (in government and civil society) receive training on the specific risks and needs of LGBTI people. Ideally, such training should take place before an emergency occurs.
LGBTI-friendly national non-governmental organizations and government institutions. ORAM, ILGA, and HIAS are well-known international NGOs with expertise. Such partners are frequently capable of providing mental health and psychosocial support as needed.
Investigate national LGBTI organizations that offer specific services to LGBTI people.
· Define and describe for lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.
o Gender and sexuality concepts.
o Social and political context.
o Social determinants of health affecting lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.
o Barriers to health care.
o Health care disparities.