“Much of humanitarian work involves living in societies that don’t accept or understand the fluid spectrum of human sexuality. So, in my current phase in life, I’ve chosen to omit applying to those locations and only apply to those where I don’t have to hide or fear my sexuality being known by colleagues.”
I came across this quotation recently and it really stuck with me, niggling at the back of my mind to the point I was feeling slightly uneasy and I couldn’t figure out why.
Then I started to unpack what was bothering me about it and I realised it was what the quote represented.
As someone who worked in humanitarian aid internationally for a decade, I couldn’t think of a single LGBTQ+ colleague I’d worked with. And, upon reflection, it was quite clear to me that just because I wasn’t aware of any LGBTQ+ colleagues, didn’t mean that they weren’t there.
This led me to reflect on my earlier blog post, ‘What Is Holding You Back’, about facing your fears and to not be afraid to be who you are or stand by your values in your work in order to get more out of it.
Now I read it with the application of “but what if I were openly gay and working in a country where homosexuality is criminalised?” and many of the points became moot in this context.
In this instance being “exposed an imposter” is less to do with the internal idea that you are a self-perceived fraud (as a person who wants to help the world to be better), but rather exposed by fellow colleagues that you do not “qualify” as heteronormative and therefore you are an imposter because you are lying about your sexual orientation and/or gender identity and could be jailed or killed for it because of where you’re working.
As someone who works diligently to help others achieve their potential, I recognised that I needed to do better for my fellow LGBTQ+ colleagues who have the same desire to become international aid workers as I had, so I undertook more research on the matter to find out more about this topic.
I came across a saddening repetitive finding. There were a number of articles written by LGBTQ+ aid workers, but in nearly all cases, they were written anonymously.
The sad truth is, if you are an aid worker and you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary or identify as anything other than heteronormative, then your work in this field is instantly much harder and more dangerous before it has even begun.
But why is this?
The Problem With Non Gorvernment Organisations And LGBTQ+ Support
In 2016, British transgender rights charity, Stonewall, conducted a survey of almost 12,000 LGBT+ employees in the UK that found that 85% of LGB staff who were able to be open about their sexual identity at work experienced higher job satisfaction and were happier with their performance and sense of achievement. The results stood at 79% for transgender people.
It is difficult enough as it is to work in this demanding sector, but when you have to hide a huge part of your identity, it can break you.
The articles from LGBTQ+ aid workers all speak of similar experiences with the various NGO’s they worked for. If they declared their status before they were deployed to a country where being LGBTQ+ was illegal, they were advised to inform their line manager, but on the whole keep quiet about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In one article, a lesbian woman spoke about applying for a change in her contract to have her partner accompany her and receive an allowance. Where this is very straightforward for straight, cis gendered couples, she faced three months of resistance to her request and in the end, a compromise was found where they agreed to give her partner an allowance but omitted her name from the receipt so no one would realise it was a same-sex couple. And she was still expected not to reveal to colleagues that this woman was her romantic partner.
In another article, a gay male worker experienced a female colleague in his office constantly questioning his lack of relationship status and demanding he allow her to find him a girlfriend, or demanding he justify why he didn’t have one. In the end, she just came out with it and shared her deeply rooted homophobic religious beliefs. This same aid worker stated that if he or any other gay national staff member were posted in a country that abhors and criminalises homosexuality, they would be stuck there even if they wanted to be redeployed because their particular agency would most likely wash their hands of them.
These writers also had experiences of other colleagues either outing them or trying to find ways to, and both stated that they felt the NGO’s they worked for were not doing enough to draw up inclusive policies that properly address LGBTQ+ issues.
I know first-hand how alienating aid work can already be when you’re deployed somewhere new and strange and you’ve got so much to deal with trying to learn the culture, help people in need and help yourself to adapt and meet new people.
If you are trying to do all this and hide your sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of being stigmatized, especially when you feel there is no-one, not even your own NGO, for support.
As part of my ongoing personal mission to offer my services and support to all people who need it, I feel that LGBTQ+ aid workers shouldn’t have to rely on trying to identify each other “in the field” in order to find support.
What we need are allies, and we need our NGO’s to step up and take a stance.
Humanitarian work should extend to ALL staff that put themselves forward for this sort of work. It isn’t easy, and it should never be made harder because the agency can’t find a way to support ALL of their staff.
It is now time for me to extend my support to my fellow LGBTQ+ colleagues because every person deserves the chance to live their calling with success, passion, support, and safety.
I want to support you in any way that I can be helpful, even if I can simply be available to support your decision to be an aid worker in a country that doesn’t recognize your identity.
I’ve always believed that by being ignorant we can’t help to affect change, but by offering an allyship, we are carving out a step towards creating a more loving and equal world.