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Why Inclusion of Sexual Minorities Is Crucial to Gender Equality

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In previous articles we discussed why inclusion of sexual minorities is instrumental to the World Bank’s goal of shared prosperity and constitutes smart economics. This piece focuses on how sexual minority inclusion is crucial to achieve progress on our gender equality agenda.

One of the background papers to the World Bank’s 2012 Gender World Development Report, “Masculinities, Social Change and Development,” alluded to Raewyn Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” as well as the strong correlation between heterosexism and gender inequalities.

Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the gender practice that guarantees the dominant social position of men and the subordinate social position of women. As summarized by Schifter and Madrigal (2000), it is the view that “Men, by virtue of their sex, [are] naturally strong, aggressive, assertive, and hardworking, whereas women [are] submissive, passive, vain, and delicate.” Hegemonic masculinity justifies the social, economic, cultural, and legal deprivations of women.

Its perpetuation is also widely understood to be the reason sodomy is criminalized in more than 76 countries, cross-dressing is criminalized in countless others, and hostility, discrimination, and violence against sexual minorities are often justified in patriarchal cultures. If masculinity is more valuable than femininity, then it is threatening for men to want to be women, display feminine characteristics, or adopt sexual practices that are not “manly.” Similarly, it is not acceptable for women to renounce male sexual partners.

The background paper highlighted the finding of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) – a quantitative household survey carried out with men and women in seven countries in 2009-2010 – that homophobia is an unfortunate correlate of dominant masculinity. The more patriarchal the society, the more homophobic it is.

As an example, IMAGES data showed that 92% of respondents in India, which ranks 101st in the 2013 WEF Global Gender Gap, said they would be ashamed to have a gay son, and 89% of them said that being around homosexual men makes them uncomfortable. This echoes the findings of the Bank’s recent “Inclusion Matters” report which found that, for example, Georgia, which ranks 86th in the WEF Global Gender Gap, has the third-highest antipathy towards homosexuals as neighbors.  Finally, this is reflected in the latest World Values Survey, which finds a high correlation between attitudes toward the superiority of male political leadership and attitudes against homosexuality.

More strikingly, the paper referred to the conclusions of a study in the Caribbean which showed that homophobia “prevents … parents … from challenging accepted yet detrimental forms of male gender socialization” (Chevannes, in Reddock 2009). This finding echoes numerous studies on boys' and men's violence (from homophobic or gender-based bullying in schools to acquaintance rape) which found the need for boys and men to prove to themselves and to others that they are heterosexual, to prove their manhood, and to gain status among their peers. Homophobia is often a socialization tool to perpetuate hegemonic masculinity and thus gender inequalities.

Hegemonic masculinity is especially problematic for lesbians. Homophobia often justifies violence against non-conforming women, as epitomized in the documented cases of “corrective rape” of lesbians in Thailand, India, and South Africa. In these cases, women were molested in order to make them “real women,” thus restoring the dominance of men.

Homophobia contributes to keeping boys and men within the boundaries of dominant masculinity. In “Masculinity as Homophobia,” Michael S. Kimmel writes: “Homophobia, the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man, keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women. Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand.” The gender agenda must address both the consequences of hegemonic masculinity (such as gender inequalities and gender-based violence) and its roots (the socialization of boys and men).

In September 2012, the World Bank Board of Directors endorsed the proposal for a renewed gender strategy given recent changes, most notably the new World Bank Group strategy, the need for a sharper focus on results and implementation, and the post-2015 agenda. This might be an opportunity to further integrate sexual minority inclusion into the World Bank’s gender strategy.


Fabrice Houdart

Former Senior Country Officer, Middle East and North Africa, and President, GLOBE

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