SEXUAL MINORITIES IN CLIMATE CHANGE: The invisible victims of climate change disasters

In almost all of the 195 countries of the world, stepping outside the bounds of heteronormativity remains illegal. The criminalisation of all sexual orientation apart from man/woman binary hinders the much needed integration of the needs of LGBTQI (or LGBT and LGBTQ) members into disaster response, recovery and relief efforts. The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), estimates that members of the LGBTQI community experience the highest rates of violent abuse, discrimination, oppression and alienation due to their sexual orientation and gender identities. This is excluding LGBTQI individuals who are also members of other marginalized groups such as LGBTQI women, LGBTQI people of colour, LGBTQI individuals who live in poverty, etc.

Map of the 73 countries with laws against sexual relations (red) between people of the same sex.
Obtained from:

While disasters don’t discriminate, sometimes people do. Most national frameworks that are in place to reduce disaster risks consistently omit the needs of sexual and gender minorities. To prove testimony to this omission was the review of disaster risk reduction (DRR) legislations in countries where 1) climate related disasters are a frequent occurrence and 2) sexual and gender minorities are prominent (Gaillard et al. 2017). Considered one of the most globally progressive, the Philippines’ 2010 DRR and Management law overlooked the fate of their local bakla minority. Biologically male, baklas are a group of people who perform both male and female responsibilities and tasks, with some that take on “feminine” mannerisms and clothing. Similarly, India’s Disaster Management Act 2005 failed to mention the aravanis people, as well as other gender minorities. The aravanis ‘may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves as neither women nor men’.

The failure to incorporate marginalized communities into post disaster scenarios has devastating consequences. Over the years, there have been several post disaster incidents that either wittingly or unwittingly placed lgbtqi individuals in positions of harm. Most recently documented was during Hurricane Katrina:  following media reports about religious groups that blamed the LGBTQI community for “attracting the wrath of God with their sins”, causing the hurricane, the lgbtqi community faced heightened hostility during that period (Thuringer, 2016). This also highlights the significance of media portrayal during and after disasters. The media supplies critical information to the public and therefore has the ability to construct and shape public perceptions of a disaster. Therefore the choices that the media makes on how to report on disasters can impact people, especially vulnerable people.

Additionally, during the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the stigmatised aravanis community “were excluded from relief processes, temporary shelters and even official death records”. This form of omissions inherently renders the community invisible. The majority of aravanis were turned away from government shelters, and had to fend for themselves after the disastrous tsunami. The few aravanis people who managed to access disaster relief efforts, instead of being met with safety, were instead subjected to sexual and physical harassment and abuse, and even “corrective rape”.

LGBTQI people are not only vulnerable post disaster but also before. According to an analysis by Dale Dominey-Howser et al. from Gender, Place and Culture, the LGBTQI community often do not receive proper warning before, during and after major storms (Thuringer, 2016).

So what should be done?

The heteronormative disaster relief system should be changed to incorporate the particular needs of the LGBTQ community. Currently, there are no existing frameworks for disaster relief that have integrated the needs of LGBTQ people. During disaster relief, the services and resources provided to heteronormative refugees should also adequately support non heteronormative individuals. Another essential aspect of maintaining LGBTQ communities’ resilience is to maintain awareness about relief and recovery practices that may cause inadvertent discrimination. For example, definitions of gender, assumptions of heteronormativity and homophobic and transphobic stigmas should be removed from disaster responses (Thuringer 2016). According to OutRight Action International, it is essential to create safe spaces for LGBTQ people to gather during an emergency. By creating safe spaces, the visibility and significance of LGBTQ individuals will be elevated in the eyes of relief and recovery programmes, significantly reducing the likelihood of being excluded.

Additionally, the experiences of LGBTQ individuals under crises is under-researched. This lack of data leads to protection gaps (Knight, 2016). The invisibility of LGBTQ community adds to their vulnerability. More research should be conducted to better understand how people based on multiple intersections of identity are affected by climate change impacts. Context of persons in terms of social class, race, gender, religion and occupation should also be integrated, to better understand the different experiences based on privilege and challenges within the LGBTQ community. Doing this will ensure that no one is left out.

Essentially, as stated by the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee of 2014,

“There is a need to devote specific attention to
the LGBT population, particularly in post-disaster and post-conflict situations. Stigmatization and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation increase gender-based violence in post-conflict and post-disaster situations, negatively affecting LGBT persons in the provision of food assistance, shelters & humanitarian aid.”

Last of all, we should all show fundamental compassion and humanity to fellow humans in the wake of a terrible disaster. Stigmatization, oppression and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, race or religion should have no place among us, especially in the midst of coping after a tragedy.

But then again, it seems like that is too much to ask for from some people.

– The LGBTQ community has rights to every measures of safety following a disaster –

Written by: Abirami Baskaran

Reviewed by: Aaliyah Hasna

For further reading, check out the reference list and other relevant reading below:

  1. J.C. Gaillard, Andrew Gorman-Murray & Maureen Fordham (2017) Sexual and gender minorities in disaster, Gender, Place & Culture.
  2. K. Sanz & J.C. Gaillard (n.d) Why gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction should also include LGBTs, Gender Disaster Network.
  3. Criminalising Homosexuality and LGBT Rights in Times of Conflict, Violence and Natural Disasters, Human Dignity Trust.
  4. Making disaster risk reduction and relief programmes LGBTI-inclusive: examples from Nepal (2012), Humanitarian Practice Network.
  5. K. Knight (2016) LGBT People in Emergencies – Risks and Service Gaps, Human Rights Watch.
  6. C. Thuringer (2016) Left Out and Behind: Fully Incorporating Gender Into the Climate Discourse.
  7. Incorporating Sexual and Gender Minorities Into Refugee and Asylum Intake and Registration Systems, ORAM.
  8. United Nations (2014) Progress report on the research-based report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on best practices and main challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights in post-disaster and post-conflict situations.
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