Since 2004, May 17 has been the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia – a day of remembrance about how discrimination affects sexual minorities worldwide.
Some of homophobia’s consequences are well-known: lack of access to education and health care, violence, unemployment, illiteracy, displacement to urban areas, lack of legal rights, loss of community-based safety nets, brain drain, lack of economic opportunities, lack of access to land, exclusion from informal networks, mental health problems and substance abuse, suicide, imprisonment, lack of cultural representation, and, of course, HIV/AIDS.
However, the amplitude of LGBT economic marginalization and the costs of homophobia are unknown. Those who suffer homophobia in the West are not always economically disadvantaged (think Elton John or most gay middle-class American men). Nevertheless, LGBT people worldwide, as I have experienced on my current trip to Nepal and India, are also very often poor, sometimes profoundly.
Our lack of knowledge in this area constitutes a major impediment to triggering any interest from Bank economists: The modus operandi of our institution remains very clearly committed to the generation of economic growth, and undocumented questions of equity are often seen as distractions. Consequently, the Bank does not advocate the policies needed to address LGBT economic marginalization.
Yet development institutions have been able to calculate the cost of discrimination against women and ethnic, racial and caste groups. Discrimination against a Twa pygmy in the Great Lakes region of Africa, a Dalit woman in India, a Roma in Eastern Europe or an African-American in the United States presents very similar traits to discrimination against LGBT people. As an example, transgender people are stigmatized as illiterate, criminal, and sexually reckless, while their experience of exclusion and discrimination encourages the very behavior that is stigmatized. However, these models relied on collection of sound statistics -- a prerequisite for any successful strategy to advance the rights of victimized groups. Although this can be very difficult in the case of individuals whose privacy must be protected at all cost to avoid state-sponsored violence, a window of opportunity is opening with the registration of “third sex” populations in Pakistan, Nepal, and India.
There is a bit of a Catch-22 here because the World Bank economists and gender specialists will remain skeptical until they see numbers showing the economic cost of homophobia -- but until they allocate resources to research on LGBT population, nothing will happen. This is why it is crucial for LGBT communities in the South to make their voices heard in our institution.
Poor communities that suffer discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression or sexual orientation are often politically invisible and not represented by the small number of affluent LGBT decision-makers. It is essential to make sure that such groups are politically represented within public institutions, and that representatives of such groups are accountable to their communities, empowered to represent them and competent to communicate their interests effectively.
Fabrice Houdart is the country officer for Central Asia and president of World Bank GLOBE, the Bank’s LGBT employee resource group.