Grave reality of global violence against queer women and non-binary people
Governments need to take urgent action on funding and protection for LBQ+ movements across the world, says NGO
Queer women and non-binary people are the least visible in LGBTIQ research and advocacy, and global discrimination and violence against them have “fallen through the cracks”, according to a new report by international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, published on 14 February, used interviews conducted in 26 countries to reveal a pattern of grave physical and sexual violence from security forces, family members and private individuals against lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ+) people worldwide. HRW is now calling for governments and donors to take immediate action to ensure visibility, funding and protection for LBQ+ movements.
“There’s a fairly persistent idea – even if no one says it out loud – that LBQ+ women are somehow safer than other members of the queer community because there aren’t many laws that explicitly criminalise lesbian sex,” Erin Kilbride, author of the report, told openDemocracy. But this notion “completely discounts all of the forms of violence that we documented”, she added.
Based on interviews with 66 LBQ+ human rights defenders, the report identified ten key areas of rights abuses, including rampant discrimination in the workplace as well as in land and property rights, fertility services, migration and resettlement. The lack of legal protection and the alleged “invisibility” of LBQ+ women and non-binary people in national and international law are barriers to their ability to access justice, the report said.
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Forced marriage persistently came up in Kilbride’s conversations with interviewees. People assigned female at birth “bear the weight of highly gendered expectations, which include marrying and having children with cisgender men”, the report says. When they fail to meet these expectations, they are punished.
“These marriages weren't occurring as punishment for being gay – they were occurring as punishment for being a woman,” said Kilbride, an LGBTIQ and women’s rights researcher at HRW.
Forced marriage and property rights
The 211-page report is titled ‘“This is why we became activists”: violence against lesbian, bisexual, and queer women and non-binary people’. It explored sexist, patriarchal legal systems that allow for male guardianship, unequal inheritance laws and discrimination against single women, which leave LBQ+ women and non-binary people at a significant disadvantage in virtually every aspect of their lives.
The report’s findings bear out a 2020 World Bank study that said two-fifths of countries worldwide limit women’s rights to own, rent, administer or inherit property. This presents an often insurmountable economic and legal barrier to LBQ+ couples, said HRW.
Kilbride says a woman in Tunisia told her that every queer woman she knew had “either been coerced into marrying a man or been broken up with by a girlfriend who was coerced into marrying a man”.
LBQ+ people around the world, including in Indonesia, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan, are similarly affected by marriages to men they did not want to enter or cannot leave, HRW revealed. It quotes an LBQ+ activist in Kyrgyzstan who was forced to marry a man at age 19: “There is no path to freedom if you don’t get married [to a man].”
Violence against masculine-presenting people
Another “undeniable theme” that came up in interviews with Kilbride was violence against queer women and non-binary people who presented as masculine. Activists said masculine-presenting LBQ+ people faced a lifetime of economic marginalisation, discrimination and harassment at work and psychological abuse. They were also targeted by security forces and were subject to physical and sexual violence.
“There is clearly a kind of rage from men and from security forces based on our research that is incited by women who dare to take up masculine space in the world – space that cisgender men think belongs to them alone”, said Kilbride.
This is exacerbated in the US for masculine-presenting Black LBQ+ women. Whitney Bunts, a Black lesbian and policy analyst at Washington DC’s Center for Law and Social Policy, told HRW she was beaten by a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest in Missouri in 2020 and it was clear the disproportionate violence was on account of her masculine appearance.
LBQ+ women of colour also find themselves overrepresented in US prisons, experts said at the online press conference for the report’s launch. They are “disproportionately involved in the carceral system,” said Bianca Wilson, senior scholar at UCLA School of Law’s public policy research Williams Institute.
In Argentina, El Salvador and Kyrgyzstan, masculine-presenting LBQ+ people are often forced into precarious work with poor labour rights practices (farms, the sex trade, auto shops) or male-dominated fields, where they face physical and sexual abuse, the report said.
“Many of us become sex workers [due to hiring discrimination in other fields],” a lesbian and sex worker rights defender in El Salvador told HRW. “But then when police raid brothels and homes, the masculine lesbians get treated ‘like men’. This means more forceful handcuffing, kneeling and stripping their shirts off.”
‘Invisibility’ and lesbophobia
The lack of data on issues specific to LBQ+ people and a paucity of money to find out what we don’t know makes it difficult to convince policymakers they should care. Most of the funding that goes to LGBTIQ movements relates to the struggles of gay, bisexual and queer men, according to Kilbride. This includes fighting the stigma of HIV.
There's also “a fundamental devaluation of women's sexuality” and of all women’s relationships – romantic, sexual, social, political – that don't centre around men, she added.
The lack of funding for LBQ+ organisations is not just dire, it’s desperate, Jean Chong, founder and executive director of the ASEAN LBQ+ Network in Bangkok, told the press conference. LBQ+ organisations in 11 south-east Asian countries receive just $500,000, she said. “It’s almost an emergency.”
LBQ+ women and non-binary people face “lesbophobia”, said Ilaria Todde, director of advocacy and research at EuroCentralAsian Lesbian* Community (EL*C). Todde, a Czech lesbian activist who describes her EL*C job title as “dykerector”, says lesbophobia is “the only word that we have at the moment that encompasses the sexism and misogyny that we suffer”. “It’s a word that is often considered the same as homophobia, but unfortunately, that would just make the experiences of LBQ+ women more invisible.”
The HRW report says the phrase “lesbian invisibility” refers to the devaluation of the identities, experiences and contributions of LBQ+ people in the arts, politics, social movements and a range of other documented histories.
“But it begs the question – invisible to who?” says Kilbride. “The violence that we documented in this report is highly visible. It’s been deprioritised and systematically ignored in a range of different streams of reporting.”
If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations can help:
Information, support and referral service for anyone who needs to consider issues around their sexuality.
Phone: 0300 330 0630 (10am-10pm). Website: Switchboard
A range of services, support and information to lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.
Phone: 0345 3 30 30 30 (Daily 10am-10pm). Website: LGBT Foundation
Help and advice for people who may be LGBT on a range of subjects, including coming out and hate crime.
Tailored support for queer people experiencing domestic violence, hate crime, sexual violence, 'conversion practices' and other problems.
Website: Galop helplines
The Rainbow Project
A range of support services including professional counselling for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Northern Ireland.
Phone: 028 9031 9030. Website: Rainbow Project
LGBT Helpline Scotland
Information and emotional support to people who may be LGBT and their families, friends and supporters across Scotland.
Phone: 0300 123 2523 (Tue & Wed 12-9pm). Website: LGBT Helpline Scotland
Share information about gender dysphoria.
Website: Mermaids. Helpline: phone, email or chat
Information about gender dysphoria is available on the NHS website.
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