Author: Brieanna Scolaro
In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Agenda 2030, which outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals to guide international development for the next decade. The SDGs build off the previous set of global goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by identifying 169 specific targets focused on creating an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable world. Examples of these targets include eradicating extreme poverty, ending the preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5, and strengthening resilience to natural disasters. A key pillar of the SDGs is the promise to “leave no one behind,” recognizing that to eradicate poverty and create a sustainably developed world, the 169 targets need to be met for all segments of society, including marginalized groups and vulnerable populations. As such, this principle is especially relevant for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons that are systematically excluded from society based on their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).
Although progress has been made in recent years, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in India and Botswana, being LGBTI remains illegal in at least 72 countries, with five countries holding the death penalty. While 63 countries provide some form of anti-discrimination protection for LGBTI persons, only Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Malta, and the United Kingdom have explicit constitutional protections that pertain to both sexual orientation and gender identity, leaving trans and intersex persons particularly vulnerable., Outside of national policies, the anti-LGBTI attitudes of government officials, employers, and other service providers prevent LGBTI persons from accessing critical services and further perpetuate stigma. At the individual level, LGBTI persons endure various forms of violence, harassment, hate speech, and often face isolation from friends, family, and social groups. LGBTI persons are also often systematically excluded from opportunity in all facets of life, including education, civic and political participation, and economic well-being, which contributes to higher likelihoods of poverty, homelessness, and ill health within these communities. For example, the 2015 United States Transgender Survey captured that transgender individuals were two times more likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be unemployed, resulting in negative psychosomatic factors, including anxiety, stress, shame, and humiliation. Overall, this essay will seek to explore how the SDGs can be used as a foundation to advocate for the economic inclusion of LGBTI persons, including a discussion on what that inclusion looks like, sharing best practices, and asserting a series of policy recommendations.
The Basis for LGBTI Inclusion Within the SDGS
The basis for the inclusion of LGBTI persons within the SDGs is captured by the design of the goals themselves as well as the formal international treaties and resolutions they are built on. First and foremost, the SDGs are grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which posits that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Additionally, the United Nations Human Rights Council, whose mission it is to promote and protect human rights around the world, has produced multiple resolutions, such as A/HRC/29/23, 27/23 and 17/19, that explicitly call for the end of discriminatory laws, practices, and acts of violence based on SOGIESC. Within the international human rights community, a panel of international experts also published the Yogyakarta principles to both serve as a universal guide to the human rights of LGBTI persons and outline binding international legal standards with which all States must comply, including the right to legal recognition and freedom from torture.
Moving to the goals themselves, SDG 10 focuses on reducing inequalities within and among countries. Target 10.2 states “by 2030, empower and promote the social economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex…or other status,” a classification that is commonly interpreted as including LGBTI persons. While the argument linking LGBTI persons to “other status” is often disputed, this link has been made in applying key international documents such as the UDHR, as well as legally binding international treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The term other status is meant to have a flexible application and capture the experience of social groups that are vulnerable, have suffered, and continue to suffer marginalization.
Overall, Agenda 2030 moves from the narrow definition of development used in the MDGs and towards a transformative vision focused on “people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.” As such, all 193 countries signed onto the agenda are mandated to include LGBTI persons in their development initiatives and policies, with the aim of achieving the global goals by 2030.
The Economic Argument
Studies suggest that LGBTI persons make up 1 to 5 percent of the adult population in a given country, with an estimated 4.7 percent of adults in the United States and 6 percent across European countries identifying as LGBTI., When considering the world’s population of 7.6 billion, a conservative estimate still deduces that millions of people are hindered from fully engaging with society due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. Economic development agencies are recognizing that countries that make efforts to fully include all people—including LGBTI persons—are likely to have stronger and more vibrant economies.
The relationship between LGBTI rights and economic development has also been demonstrated both at the individual, micro level and at the societal, macro level. At the individual level, the exclusion of LGBTI persons has a significant negative correlation with broader economic performance. When LGBTI persons are the target of violence and barred from the same educational opportunities and workplace participation as their non-LGBTI counterparts, their contribution to the economy as a whole is diminished. Additionally, increased macro-level rights for LGBTI persons, including decriminalization and, in particular, anti-discrimination laws, has a positive correlation with per capita gross domestic product, resulting in a 3 percent increase per additional right granted. While it is important to note that correlation does not imply causation, there is strong evidence that countries that have greater rights for LGBTI persons also have higher levels of economic development.
The Fight Against Poverty—SDG 1
Eradicating poverty in all its forms remains one of the greatest challenges facing humanity and is the chief principle of SDG 1. While the world reached the first MDG target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—too many are struggling for the most basic human needs. SDG 1 focuses on ending poverty by ensuring access to basic resources, establishing social protection systems, and overall building the resilience of those in vulnerable situations.
As a result of stigma, discrimination, and exclusion, LGBTI persons are in general more vulnerable to poverty than heterosexual people. LGBTI persons are often formally barred from accessing financial resources, land, and forms of social protection. Just based on their sexual orientation, a lesbian may be prevented from opening a bank or mobile-money account and a gay or bisexual man can be denied a business loan. Transgender individuals are particularly susceptible to living below the poverty line, as those whose current gender does not match their government-issued documents may be unable to secure land or property necessary for starting a business., In addition to being formally excluded from economic, housing, and employment systems, LGBTI persons find themselves removed from family, religious, community, and other social support networks, which often connect individuals to economic opportunities and serve as safety nets during financial hardship. For example, due to disapproval from family members, among other factors, LGBTI youth are two times as likely than their non-LGBTI peers to experience homelessness, which further makes it difficult for them to later achieve economic success.
Challenges around education (SDG 4) further trap LGBTI persons in poverty. LGBTI students are often excluded from the education system and experience negative school climates. In Serbia, for instance, boys displaying feminine traits are at least three times more likely to be refused enrollment in primary school. Even once inside the school system, hostile environments full of bullying and harassment can force students to end their studies, like with university-level students in Nigeria. Cumulatively, barriers to accessing quality education can force LGBTI persons into unsafe or informal markets with low mobility, reduce their human capital, and limit their contribution to overall economic productivity.
Safe, Decent Work for All—SDG 8
SDG 8 therefore focuses on promoting inclusive economic growth, productive employment, and decent work for all. Its targets aim to enable and expand equal access to banking and financial services, including loans to support the growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. And within the workplace, SDG 8 advocates for safe, secure productive employment for all persons, including job creation, combatting workplace discrimination, and equal pay for work of equal value.
When analyzing the global landscape of workplace protections for LGBTI persons, only 46 percent of countries have federal anti-discrimination policies pertaining to the workplace, with an additional 12.5 percent offering partial protections. Some countries offer state-level protections where federal protections fail to exist. For example, the United States has state-level protections for LGBTI workers in 21 of 50 states. However, in 2020, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether LGBTI status in the workplace is protected the same way as sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. Regardless, this leaves much of the world’s LGBTI population exposed to both formal and informal measures of discrimination in the workplace.
Workplace discrimination based on SOGIESEC can occur across all aspects of the hiring process and when navigating the job itself. For example, a study in Thailand and the Asia-Pacific region found that application rejection was experienced by 77 percent of transgender, 49 percent of gay male, and 62.5 percent of lesbian respondents, and in the United States, more than a quarter of transgender individuals reported being fired due to their gender identity., When applying for jobs, LGBTI persons may remove certain items from their resume or hide aspects of their gender identity or expression during interviews so as to not “out” themselves. Once in the workplace, LGBTI persons face barriers in receiving equal pay for equal work and are often overlooked for promotions. A study in the United Kingdom found that gay men were significantly less likely to hold the highest-paying managerial positions when compared to heterosexual counterparts, a term called the “gay glass ceiling.” LGBT workers who have same-sex partners also rarely enjoy the same benefits as married couples, as these partnerships are not legally recognized in many countries.
Apart from formal workplace discrimination, LGBTI persons face various informal types of workplace discrimination, including sexual, physical, and verbal harassment. Factors such as the anti-LGBTI sentiment of employers and co-workers, combined with the lack of antidiscrimination policies at both the company and country levels, further contribute to harassment in the workplace. Nearly half of transgender respondents in the Thailand study reported workplace harassment. A UK survey showcases the vulnerability for the harassment of LGBTI women, with 42 percent reporting unwanted comments about their sex life, 27 percent experiencing sexual advances, and one in eight being seriously sexually assaulted at work. Often, this harassment goes unreported either due to the fear of being outed or fired or because LGBTI persons don’t believe in their employers to take appropriate action.
1. Support skills training, employment access, and the entrepreneurship of LGBTI persons.
Systematic discrimination, stemming from either the criminalization of LGBTI status or negative societal attitudes, prevents LGBTI persons from fully developing their human capital and achieving economic well-being. As a result, LGBTI persons are more likely to both land in poverty and be trapped there. Policies and initiatives must prioritize the skills training, employability, and entrepreneurship of LGBTI persons to ensure their economic inclusion. This includes supporting LGBTI-led businesses through increasing access to loans and startup capital and providing support across the implementation phase. When possible, technology should be used to increase anonymity and decrease safety risk in hostile communities, and extend access to LGBTI persons with disabilities. Collaboration with local initiatives and key stakeholders, including LGBTI organizations, is critical in reshaping industry-level thoughts around the socioeconomic inclusion of LGBTI persons.
Best Practice: Micro Rainbow International
Micro Rainbow International (MRI) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in the United Kingdom, Cambodia, and Brazil that helps LGBTI people escape poverty. MRI enables LGBTI persons to access jobs and create their own businesses by providing free training on employability and entrepreneurship. In collaboration with a local NGO, Positive Planet Brazil, MRI developed one of the world’s first entrepreneurship courses exclusively designed for LGBTI persons. The courses focus on financial education and business management skills for small enterprises, including follow-up support around implementation and monitoring progress. Overall, the efforts cultivate the sustainable empowerment of LGBTI entrepreneurs in the labor market.
2. Establish nondiscrimination policies protecting LGBTI persons in the workplace.
A lack of nondiscrimination policies makes the workplace an unsafe, unproductive setting for many LGBTI persons. Both formal and informal measures of discrimination prevent LGBTI persons from obtaining jobs and encourage physical, verbal, and sexual harassment. Formal nondiscrimination policies should be incorporated into all businesses, complete with established systems of enforcement and compliance monitoring. This recommendation directly aligns with SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), particularly target 16.B, which calls to “promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development.”
When developing policies, obtain guidance from the local LGBTI population to ensure the policy captures the right language and tone. For instance, in some countries, discussing personal issues in general is considered taboo. Instead, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression can be framed within a diversity and inclusion agenda.
Best Practice: The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)
A worldwide employer operating in more than 170 countries, IBM has long been a global champion of diversity and the inclusion of LGBTI persons in the workplace. Internally, IBM has formal policy measures that ensure protection and equal opportunity, including the hiring, promotion, and compensation of LGBTI employees. These initiatives include providing equal health insurance benefits for same-gender partners and leading diversity trainings to promote allyship. Outside the office, IBM offices such as those in Mexico, India, and the Philippines often sponsor community events, participate in LGBT pride marches, and partner with workplace advocacy organizations. Overall, IBM has more than 30 strategic partnerships with LGBTI NGOs in order to create a strong mechanism for accountability and communication with the larger LGBTI community.
3. Collect meaningful, high-quality data disaggregated by LGBTI status.
The need for better data is asserted through SDG 17 (Establish Global Partnerships), in particular its target 17.18, which calls for data disaggregation by income, gender, age, and other characteristics. However, high-quality, meaningful data on the economic inclusion of LGBTI persons is largely unavailable. Due to the history of discrimination faced by the population, LGBTI persons may feel the need to conceal their identity either from previous traumatic experience or from current threats to safety and security. Others are distrustful of systems in general or may want control in how their information is shared. The design of the data collection tool itself may not appropriately categorize the range of possible LGBTI experiences, for example, failing to capture information on sex characteristics or not using local definitions of varied expression, such as the hijra population in India. For some, sexual orientation may be fluid, while others would opt to label their status as “do not know” or “other.” The task, therefore, will be to develop classifications that are standardized enough to permit country-to-country comparison of data but specific enough to respect the self-determination of different populations. This challenge around data collection further decreases the visibility of LGBTI persons and prevents inclusion from development initiatives and national policies. A standard measure is needed to compare the overall degree of economic exclusion across countries, measure progress over time, and appropriately direct resources.
Best Practice: The UNDP LGBTI Index
A collaborative process between the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Human Rights, the World Bank, and members of civil society resulted in the LGBTI Inclusion Index, a global index to measure the inclusion of LGBTI Persons. It centers on the five most important dimensions of human freedom, one of which being economic well-being. It aims to capture the broad, country-level of economic exclusion of LGBTI persons by exploring access to jobs, employment nondiscrimination laws, income levels, social protections, and the number of LGBTI-owned businesses in a given country. Future research should build on the work of the LGBTI Index, as well as use it as both an outcome measure and a predictor of other outcomes.
The existence of the SDGs themselves represent a major milestone for economic inclusion of LGBTI persons globally. Even though they do not explicitly mention sexual and gender minorities, the SDGs have been used as a foundation for collective action and policy change across the world. However, if we are truly committed to ending poverty and inequality in an effort to leave no one behind, we must link the economic development of LGBTI persons to the inclusion of other vulnerable groups within the full framework of sustainable development. The intersecting identities of LGBTI persons, such as how one’s SOGIESC interacts with race, ethnicity, political, religious, disability, and other factors, further increases the marginalization of this group. Without creating initiatives that also combat women’s inequality, racism, xenophobia, and beyond, we will fail at addressing the systematic exclusion of LGBTI persons. At the larger level, economic development is only one piece of achieving a fully developed society. We must also look at the social, political, and environmental inclusion of LGBTI persons, as we cannot discuss poverty without also talking about education, homelessness and climate change. The future of the world’s population—not just the LGBTI population—is in our hands. We can help both humans and economies to thrive, but we cannot be complacent. We have a choice—and we must exercise it now.
Brieanna Scolaro, MSW, is a trained social worker and experienced program manager who is passionate about the nexus of mental health, humanitarian response, and human rights. Her prior work experience has centered around disaster relief and immigration issues, including a post-graduate fellowship with the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, Switzerland; advocating for LGTBQ asylum seekers at the United Nations in New York; and a year of direct disaster response with AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps. Currently, she is the director of community relations at a mental company in New York City and the founder of Scolaro & Associates LLC, a strategic consulting firm. She received her master of science degree in social work from Columbia University and bachelor of arts degree in psychology from the University of Delaware.
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