Pride’s Moral and Existential Global Moment

rainbow flag and the words "pride month" written in rainbow text

Paradigms – and the values that they are based on – are neither fixed nor immutable. In this country, a shift in the norms that long defined the systemic and entrenched exclusion of one demographic began with a communal act of saying no, but it quickly led to a powerful affirmation of yes.

We now call that shift in values Pride Month.

On June 28th of 1969 in New York City, some transgender women and their gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends at the Stonewall Inn decided that they were no longer willing to submit to the oppression of police-enforced societal norms that victimized them and all people within the LGBTQI+ community (which includes many valued allies too). Together they said no; through the Stonewall Uprising they asserted their claim that human dignity is both important and universal. As an openly transgender woman myself, and one who also has been compelled here and in several countries to make a similar assertion, the act of claiming our dignity as equal and worthy human beings is an exemplar that belongs at the heart of international relief & development.

Fifty-two years after Stonewall, Pride Month is now a global phenomenon. How could this have happened? For a demographic which faces such intense discrimination, “othering”, humiliation, violence, and widespread criminalization (in one form or another)[1] around the world, the notion of now having secured an entire month of celebrations, marches, speeches, parties, and festivals to unapologetically proclaim our existence as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and non-binary (LGBTQ+) persons seems incongruous at best. Naturally, around the world not all is festive each June. Many of the world’s anti-LGBTQI+ jurisdictions prohibit, disrupt, or otherwise constrain such celebrations, and arrest or detain and often roughly handle those LGBTQI+ persons and their allies who dare to show up, wave our flags, smile, and assert our humanity. Still, we do show up, we persist in our claim, and we remind the world that we are not going away.

We have our reasons for being resolute, and perhaps even for a modicum of optimism. In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on behalf of his country, formally apologized to his country’s LGBTQI+ community for homophobic and transphobic actions taken by the Canadian government in past years. Now, many government leaders have demonstrated strong solidarity with and support for LGBTQI+ persons, as evident both in the White House Memorandum of February 4th of 2021 on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World, and in President Biden’s “Your president has your back” comments directed to transgender youth in his first joint address to Congress on April 29th. On June 25th, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte issuing a robust rebuke to Hungary’s fiercely anti-LGBTQI+ Prime Minister Viktor Oban over his country’s new anti-LGBTQI+ legislation. The Netherlands was joined in its defense of the human rights and dignity of LGBTQI+ persons by the leaders of 14 other European Union countries. The prime ministers of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, and Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel (who is openly gay) also jointly issued a Tweet that proclaimed a wide level of EU support for diversity and LGBTQI+ equality.  It was not that many years ago when such support at such a high level would have been unimaginable in our lifetimes.

The path ahead remains fraught, however, as even in the United States anti-LGBTQI+ bias is widespread. 2021 has already become the worst year in recent history for the number of state legislatures enacting a variety of anti-LGBTQI+ measures into law. Nevertheless, I take heart. The rainbow flags fly – even on many American embassies and consulates around the world in countries where homophobia and transphobia prevail. As sexual and gender minorities, we are making our presence known, proudly and with remarkable resilience and courage. When human dignity itself is on the line, we must and will step up.

In the context of international relief & development, support for the needs and aspirations of LGBTQI+ persons and civil society organizations is not yet something to celebrate. With the notable exception of funding for research and programming that targets HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, where the incidence rate is very high among transgender women, gay men, and bisexual men (“men who have sex with men”), foreign aid resources targeting the many other relief & development needs of the LGBTQI+ populations in the Global South has been paltry. While we ought to applaud the investments and significant advancements made in the global fight against the ravages of HIV/AIDS, there are many who would argue that this investment in “their” disease is mostly intended to protect the straight and cisgender population from infection (in addition, the association of that virus with LGBTQI+ people further stigmatizes us). Excluding HIV/AIDS funding, total foreign aid allocated to the development needs and aspirations of LGBTQI+ people is only a tiny fraction of international development aid[2]. Follow the money: U.S. arms sales to the eleven countries that still consider consensual same-sex or LGBTQI+ identities as capital offenses exceeded $7.4 billion in 2019. There is clearly little in the way of a global consensus yet on acknowledging or respecting the universal dignity and worth of the world’s LGBTQI+ populations. We have much work to do.

On a more pragmatic level, investments in any international relief & development policies and programming are always tightly tied to the demonstrations of results achieved for the donor or taxpayer money spent. That results-orientation is in turn linked to having credible data on the status quo – i.e., the baseline for what needs to change for relief & development to be seen to have been effective. For LGBTQI+ persons, in nearly all cases, that baseline empirical data simply does not exist. As a relatively tiny demographic (the Williams Institute estimates that 3.5% of adults in the USA identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and only 0.3% of adults identify as transgender), there are decision-makers who will argue that the numbers simply do not warrant the research expenditures necessary to gather such baseline data, especially given the high levels of vulnerability of this population (which necessitates that safer but much more expensive research methodologies be employed). Given strong heteronormative norms, and entrenched resistance to non-conforming gender identities, there is also some degree of systemic bias against allocating scarce research monies to such marginalized and vulnerable populations. Marginalization therefore begets yet more marginalization, as both programming and more comprehensive research depend on baselines that no one will invest in generating. No surprise then that the needs and aspirations of LGBTQI+ persons simply do not find their way into anyone’s aid or development budget.

For anyone who has worked on gender equity and equality issues over the past four decades, the adage of “follow the money” will be familiar as a meaningful indicator of the degree of seriousness under which the needs of marginalized women and girls have been considered in international relief & development allocations. Fortunately, there has been progress in that regard, and while still inadequate the money allocated to gender equality issues in relief & development has increased as has the level of commitment to respecting the dignity of the female half of the population. But LGBTQI+ people are not half the world’s population, and demographic pressure to prioritize such investments will always be lacking. What then will drive countries, foundations, and other donors to attend to the plight of sexual and gender minorities?

At this point, we have largely exhausted the political-economy rationales for spending time, energy, effort, political capital, and financial resources to motivate the inclusion of LGBTQI+ persons into the category of full humanity. Our dignity and worth remain subordinate to other interests and often at the mercy of prevailing cultural and religious values that are dismissive of, or hostile to, our humanity. So why should any of us within the LGBTQI+ population harbor any optimism?

The reason is audacious. Bold. Perhaps absurd, yet…

The reason to smile during Pride Month is linked to a perception that centuries of anti-LGBTQI+ discrimination, violence, and dehumanization are coming to an end, along with similar norms that have always led people to reject the equal dignity and worth of women and girls, of racial and ethnic minorities, of persons with disabilities, of people whose histories are mired in an inferior class or caste identity, and of indigenous persons. All these categories of marginalization, discrimination, and abuse – and many others as well – have existed since time immemorial, but now the human beings comprising these categories are finally being seen, heard, and increasingly acknowledged. Vast social movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Me-Too movement, and campaigns by persons with disabilities and indigenous persons all converge on one demand: human dignity must be respected as important and universal, with no exceptions. Overcoming the horrific tragedy of the global coronavirus pandemic, especially now that the virulent delta variant is becoming dominant, depends on acknowledging that moral boundaries must transcend political boundaries, although the spike in COVID-19 deaths in the Global South testify that we have been unforgivably slow to learn that lesson.

Even the urgent need to attend to global climate change is calling on humanity to change in a way and at a speed it never has before to find common ground – and higher ground. We must – right now – redefine the relationship between universal human dignity for those of us alive and those yet to be born, as only through a transformation in our respect for our environment and for our planet can we continue as a viable species. We are at an existential moment in so many ways, and we are being called to think, feel, and act in a manner that we have never done before.

OK – this metamorphosis in human morality and action is at best barely more than nascent. Many values that we now hold must be made explicit, then evaluated, and where necessary, revised. Human behavior is a product of the values that we hold, consciously or subconsciously, and the moment for moral clarity about such values is now suddenly upon us.

That being said, we have no choice but to change and to grow in wisdom, caring, and fairness. The luxury of abundant time is gone. Some significant and discernible progress must be made in moving towards a moment when humanity reconsiders the importance and universality of human dignity – and says yes.


By Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D.
President and Founder
Center for Values in International Development


Photo by Marco Verch, Cologne, Germany, and is made available through Creative Commons


[1] 71 countries criminalize private, consensual same sex activity; 43 countries criminalize private, consensual activities between women; 11 countries have laws that can lead to the imposition of the death penalty for private, consensual same sex activity (Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen); and 15 countries criminalize transgender people for “cross-dressing” or “impersonation”. See https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/

[2] Recent data is skewed by attention to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2015 and 2016 combined, more than 500 foundations and governmental agencies gave a total of $524 million to LGBTQI causes, almost a quarter more than in the previous two-year period. But LGBTQ groups received only a tiny fraction of international development aid, estimated at about $140 billion in 2016, according to the New York-based Global Philanthropy Project. See https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/global-lgbtq-funding-worry-bulk-goes-north-america-n869246

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