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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Side-lining gender and sexuality in mainstream climate change discourse

Abirami Baskaran addresses the issue of sidelining gender and sexuality in mainstream climate change discourse, and makes a compelling presentation for the adverse implications that result from such exclusion, erasure, and discrimination. Read on to engage with her views.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT; or LGBTQ or LGBTQI) safety in the face of climate change is a concern that hardly anyone is discussing, and yet it is a highly pressing issue. As of 2019, stepping outside the bounds of heteronormativity remains illegal in much of the world. This criminalization of sexual orientation allows for discrimination and oppression to occur during perilous events brought about by climate change, such as climate-related disasters and mass displacement and migration. The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), estimates that members of the LGBT community experience the highest rates of violent abuse, discrimination, oppression, and alienation due to their sexual orientation and gender identities. This rate excludes the LGBT individuals who also identify with other marginalized groups such as LGBT women, LGBT people of colour, disabled LGBT people, and impoverished members of the LGBT community, etc. 

While the word “gender” is used in climate discourses, it is primarily used to refer to how women are acutely more vulnerable to climate change effects in ways that are different from men. While there is no disputing the struggles women undergo in the face of climate catastrophes, it is vital that climate disaster dialogues do not neglect the complex and varying dimensions of sexual orientation and identity, which also shape climate change experiences. 

While disasters don’t discriminate, sometimes people do

Most national frameworks that address disaster risk reduction consistently fail to incorporate the needs of marginalised communities into post disaster scenarios. A review of disaster risk reduction (DRR) legislation was conducted in countries with both a high frequency of climate related disasters, and a high prominence of sexual and gender minorities. Despite the large community of LGBT people in these countries, the national frameworks in place tend to omit their needs. For example, the Philippines’ 2010 DRR and Management law completedly overlooked the local bakla community. Baklas are a group of people who are biologically male, but perform both male and female tasks; some of them also adopt traditionally feminine mannerisms and clothing. 

A study from Gender, Place and Culture also found that LGBT people tend not to receive proper warnings before, during, and after major climate storms. LGBT communities are also frequently excluded from evacuation and emergency shelter procedures, and face additional difficulties when trying to secure new housing and employment (Thuringer, 2016).

There is wide consensus that changing climate patterns are expected to cause mass migration, in some regions this is already taking place. All displaced people face extreme vulnerabilities. However, LGBT people often face an elevated risk during displacement due to discrimination and stigma. A 2015 joint statement issued by the World Food Program and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that LGBT people “often face violence and discrimination when seeking refuge from persecution and in humanitarian emergencies” (Knight, 2016). LGBT persons often face vulnerabilities from lack of family and/or community acceptance and stability. For example, many queer and trans youths in Jamaica have been put out onto the streets by their family, forced to construct makeshift camps in gullies and sewers using limited resources. When the next climate-related disaster strikes, mostly likely a Caribbean hurricane, these makeshift camps will inevitably be flooded and flattened, putting these queer youths in additional danger (Brady, Torres and Brown, 2019). This situation is not uncommon among LBGT individuals around the world as they face varying degrees of disasters.

Evidence of vulnerabilities faced by the LGBT community

The vulnerabilities that the LGBT community experience has been documented in many emergency and disaster situations. Sexual and gender minorities have reported harassment, abuse, exclusion and discrimination during the aftermath of disasters such as floods, tsunamis and hurricanes.

  1. During the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Haiti, homosexual men were denied access to food aid because only women were targeted for the food rationing schemes (Knight and Sollom, 2012). These men had no women registered in their household and thus could not access these resources. 

  2. After floods in Pakistan, displaced transgendered people were denied entry to displacement camps because they did not have government issued identification that matched their appearance (Knight and Sollom, 2012). 

  3. After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, India’s aravanis community “were excluded from relief processes, temporary shelters and even official death records” (Thuringer, 2016). Aravanis are people who “may be born intersex or apparently male, dress in feminine clothes and generally see themselves outside the gender binary.” After the tsunami, most of the aravaniswere denied shelter and were expected to fend for themselves. A small number of aravanis who managed to gain access to disaster relief were met with sexual and physical harassment, abuse and even “corrective rape.” 

  4. Nepal’s Sunsari district experiences regular heavy flooding, where villages are destroyed. After one such flooding incident in 2008, residents who identified as metis (male-bodied feminine people) faced discrimination in that their families did not receive adequate food supply (Knight and Sollom, 2012). The district leaders reportedly told one meti individual that their family did not deserve the full food portion because they had a metichild. 

These are just a small number of documented examples of what sexual and gender minorities undergo during climate crises. 

Making disaster relief more inclusive – leaving no one behind

The experiences of LGBT people during crisis are under-researched and often misunderstood, which can lead to additional knowledge gaps when considering their protection. A crucial element to address LBGT safety during climate change scenarios is by first addressing these research gaps. This lack of empirical evidence of sexual and gender minorities struggles during disasters contributes to their absence in policies and practices for disaster risk reduction. 

The continued invisibility of the LGBT community contributes futher to existing vulnerabilities. By paying additional attention to research at the intersections of sexuality and climate change, the twin crises of inequality and climate change can be better, and more efficiently addressed. It is also important to consider the context of LGBT communties in terms of social class, gender, race, religion, and occupation. An upper middle class, white, gay female will face a different set of challenges during disaster and migration scenarios than a transgender Nepalese farmer.

With forecasts of potentially catastrophic warming in the future, the frequency of climate-related disasters are expected to rise. Ensuring no one is left behind is now more crucial than ever. Compassion and empathy should be the fundamental value basis for mitigating these vulnerabilities, doled out especially in the midst of coping after a disaster. Stigma, oppression, and discrimination based on sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and gender have no place among us.

Mainstream climate change dialogues lack a gender and sexuality lens; the limited number of reports, articles, and social media posts I came across while researching for this article provides additional evidence that there needs to be more integration of LGBT issues in climate change discourses. I urge everyone to take the time to read and share the references below to raise awareness of issues the LGBT community face during climate catastrophes. Being straight is a privilege many of us tend to overlook in terms of facing climate disasters.

References and further reading

  1. J.C. Gaillard, Andrew Gorman-Murray & Maureen Fordham (2017) Sexual and gender minorities in disaster, Gender, Place & Culture (DOI

  2. K. Sanz & J.C. Gaillard (n.d) Why gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction should also include LGBTs, Gender Disaster Network. (Link

  3. Criminalising Homosexuality and LGBT Rights in Times of Conflict, Violence and Natural Disasters, Human Dignity Trust. (Link

  4. K. Knight and R.Sollom (2012) Making disaster risk reduction and relief programmes LGBTI-inclusive: examples from Nepal (2012), Humanitarian Practice Network. (Link

  5. K. Knight (2016) LGBT People in Emergencies – Risks and Service Gaps, Human Rights Watch. (Link)

  6. C. Thuringer (2016) Left Out and Behind: Fully Incorporating Gender Into the Climate Discourse. (Link)

  7. Incorporating Sexual and Gender Minorities Into Refugee and Asylum Intake and Registration Systems, ORAM. (Link)

  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. (Link)

  9. Brady, A., Torres, A. and Brown, P. (2019) What the queer community brings to the fight for climate justice. (Link)

About the Author  Abirami (Abi) Baskaran is passionate about equality and the environment. A recent graduate with a degree in Environmental Science from The University of Nottingham, Abi currently works as a Research Associate and is an aspiring marine biologist in the field of conservation and research. As part of the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD), Abi has attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bangkok 2018. MYD is a youth-led organisation focusing on climate change policy advocacy and educating youths on climate change. As climate change affects everyone, Abi particularly looks at the gender and sexuality perspective to deeper understand the vulnerability faced by marginalised groups in this climate crisis. Equality and human rights issues matter deeply to Abi, and she is constantly striving to educate herself on issues of the world and to be ethically consistent. As an environmentalist, intersectional feminist and a vegan, Abi believes in ending all forms of oppression. In her spare time, Abi enjoys playing football, reading, and painting.


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