Authors: Esther Brito, Réka Szabó
Efforts to improve human security in situations of violence have increasingly recognized the differential experiences and vulnerabilities of specific communities – like women or the elderly. In this line, advances have also been made in exploring the intersectionality of these contexts – that is, the fact that those belonging to multiple marginalized groups endure compounded risks. We are now at a point where we explore identity in conflict with more nuance than ever before. Yet, one collective still often remains excluded from our analysis – the LGBTQI+ or Queer community.
Despite efforts at inclusion and nuance in international security, like the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, we still implicitly marginalize or exclude the queer community from policy or alleviation measures, offering little differential protection or recognition. As such, in the words of Academic Jamie Hagen, “those vulnerable to insecurity and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity remain largely neglected by the international peace and security community”.
Queer human security and protection in conflict: where we fall short
From Chechen leaders, to Zimbabwe’s President or Turkey’s Erdogan, world leaders often don’t only decline to offer protections to LGBTQI+ people – they actively deny their existence. Be it within their borders or entirely, the majority of world leaders still deny basic recognition and rights to the queer community, paving the way for discrimination, abuses, and killings.
As a result, LGBTQI+ experiences are often implicitly or explicitly excluded from policy, research, and services addressing identity-based violence and mass atrocity. A recent paper by Protection Approaches has explored the multiple ways queer experiences of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide remain under-explored and unaddressed.
As we have stated, this is often due to pervasive political, legal, and social discrimination. However, another prominent effect is that, due to the community’s exclusion from research and debate, there is a stark lack of data pertaining to the lives of queer populations. Even when attempts at inclusion are made, we have little experience in how to ethically and effectively gather data on the community. Firstly, as violence is often viewed through a dichotomous lens with regard to gender, there is little space or recognition for communities that do not conform to this binary. Secondly, even if research focuses on LGBTQI+ minorities, challenges remain when attempting to ethically explore identity outside primarily western categorizations of gender and sexuality – which need to be adapted to different cultural realities – as well as in deciding which collectives to include and how to do so without putting them in danger. Lastly, researchers face the potential lack of availability of basic data on abuses – as many people do not report violence due to the fear of stigmatization or reprisals. As a result of these converging dynamics, queer populations suffer a double attack: victimization and erasure.
Being Queer in war: lived experiences of LGBTQI+ populations in modern conflict
The reality is that LGBTQI+ persons suffer disproportionate violence during armed conflict. The continued abuse and discrimination the community is subject to in peacetime only aggravates within this context, with the worsening of social chaos and the erosion of the rule of law. Indeed, the violence extends beyond self-identification, as even those being only suspected of belonging to the community face reprisals. While progress has indeed been made in terms of the recognition of LGBTQ+ populations under human rights law and existing abuses are increasingly being documented by media, human rights bodies, and civil society, queer populations remain among the least protected of all communities in armed conflict.
“I was on my way home [from work] when five or six men (…) stopped me. They kicked and punched and slapped me all over my head and body. They (…) threw me in a garbage bin. I lay down (…) and they pulled out a razor blade and a screwdriver and poked and cut me all over (…). They sliced me up and poured around five liters of gasoline all over my body and face and set me alight…. The neighbors rescued me”.
- Khadija, 31-year-old Iraqi transgender woman (August 5, 2021).
Beyond this, queer populations often contend with a severe lack of accountability and a sense of impunity, with states and armed groups tending to be involved in their abuses. Unlike other collectives, queer individuals not only have little or no recourse in law, they often can’t even find social or NGO support.
With discriminatory targeting driven by gender and sexuality worsening in much of the world, some scholars have come to consider these persecutions as amounting to crimes against humanity– as they are systematic, planned, and exercised against primarily civilian populations.
Notable examples of systematic abuses to LGBTQI+ populations continue to arise. Queer Afghans have been targets of increasingly severe attacks since 2021, in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. While same-sex relations were criminalized even before the Taliban took control, the situation has notably worsened. According to a report by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International, LGBT Afghans have been threatened, sexually assaulted, attacked, and often been forced to flee as refugees. In some cases, family members themselves that support the Taliban have become threats to their safety. Nevertheless, obtaining testimonies remains complicated and there is no accurate estimate of the scale of attacks currently targeting LGBT people in the country.
While Afghanistan may be one of the cases that has received the most coverage, similar abuses have been reported in Iraq, Syria, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. In Syria, the Assad regime has continued to progressively exacerbate its persecution and abuse of LGBTQI+ persons, or those considered to be so. This has been exemplified by reports of sexual violence – including rape, forced stripping, and cavity examinations – threats, severe assault, extortion, kidnapping, and killings by both the state and rebel militias. Even localized conflicts may severely affect the attitude of entire states toward the queer community – in Ukraine, Russian-influenced anti-homosexuality policies and attitudes proliferated since 2014, with the advent of conflict in the Donbas, and negatively affected the lives of LGBTQI+ persons in Kyiv. In this line, we need to consider not only wars, but other severe conflicts as sources of victimization. For example, LGBTQI+ persons – especially trans women – have been recognized as more vulnerable to violence both by armed militias and organized crime across Central America. As such, queer populations stand at the intersection of exacerbated vulnerability and reduced social or institutional support, especially in situations of conflict or protracted human security crises.
While LGBTQI+ people are not the only collective facing increased risks to their human security, the lack of attention paid to their protection, as well as their exclusion from most policy and research efforts on international security, have led their needs and vulnerabilities to be marginalized in humanitarian responses and social assistance during violent conflict.
There is an urgency to recognize the dire situation of queer populations in modern conflict and develop a policy architecture that is able to ensure their protection at an international level. As it stands, the recognition of LGBTQI+ experiences is often absent from even from the most seismic of security crises, and unless that changes we will continue to fail in efforts to holistically protect human rights.