LBQ activism is not new. LBQ-identified women and non-binary people have been active and influential in social movements in contexts around the world for (at least) the last 50 years 13 — In the 1970s and 80s, activists in Europe and North America identified primarily as lesbian women or, occasionally, as bisexual women. Identification with queer, trans, and non-binary identities came later, in the 1990s and first two decades of the 21st century. For the purposes of this report, we will be using “LBQ” and “non-binary”, recognising that these are terms being retroactively applied at times, and not necessarily a reflection of the terminology used over the past 50 years. . The rich history of LBQ activism around the world would fill volumes and is outside the scope of this report. This section aims to briefly frame the history of LBQ activism in contexts around the world, as relevant grounding for this report.
Two social movements can be tagged as birthplaces of global LBQ organizing as it exists today: the women’s liberation and feminist movements and gay liberation and rights movements. LBQ activists have been at the forefront of these movements, and, in many contexts, autonomous organizing has grown out of them.
LBQ activists were prominent in women’s rights and feminist thinking and activism in the 20th century. While women’s liberation movements initially focused on equality between women and men, LBQ activists often pushed for a more radical agenda that challenged patriarchy and heteronormativity, not only in society but also in women’s rights movements. This frequently caused tension, as women’s movements were not always ready to embrace lesbian visibility or promote lesbian rights which were often considered divisive or too controversial. This often led LBQ activists to leave more mainstream feminist groups to start their own organizations.
For example, in North America and Europe, the notion of “political lesbianism” originated in the late 1960s among Second Wave radical feminists as a way to fight sexism and “compulsory heterosexuality” 14 — Rich, A, (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. . “Lesbian feminism” gained energy in the 1970s and 80s, as LBQ women encouraged women to direct their energies away from men and towards other women.
LBQ activism also has deep roots in, and made substantial contributions to, gay liberation and rights movements. Often finding that their needs, demands, and identities were invisibilized, however, and grappling with sexism from their gay male counterparts, LBQ-identified women frequently separated from mixed gay liberation groups to ensure that their agendas were prioritized.
While much LBQ organizing is local and takes place within national borders, LBQ activists have long reached out across these boundaries to connect with others and break isolation, develop shared political agendas, build solidarity, and learn from others’ experiences. LBQ groups have organized conferences, formed regional and global alliances, and seized opportunities for regional and international advocacy, asserting the importance of LBQ visibility and attention to their specific agendas.
For example, on the African continent, the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) emerged in 2003 from a meeting of 50 women sexual rights activists attending a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were concerned about the fact that as lesbian women, they were often marginalized from decision-making and leadership processes. They felt that their voices were seldom heard and respected, in both policy and movement spaces. In the years since 2003, CAL has become a feminist, activist, and pan-Africanist network of 14 organizations in ten countries, challenging the exclusion and invisibility of African lesbians in feminist, queer, and Black liberation spaces.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, feminist encuentros 15 — Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2002, vol. 28, no. 2; Sonia Alvarez et al. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252999688_Encountering_Latin_American_and_Caribbean_Feminisms. have been a focal point for the intersection of feminist and LBQ organizing since the 1980s. The encuentros have also been a space for significant political disagreements, such as questions of what it means to build an inclusive movement (e.g., inclusive of trans, intersex, and non-binary people). In 2012, LBQ activists were among the organizers of a Latin American “LesBiTransInter” space, called “Venir al Sur,” that unapologetically welcomed trans and intersex participants and affirmed the importance of feminist spaces that were inclusive of all sexualities and genders. Venir al Sur was organized again in 2015 and 2018, with plans to continue in the future.
LBQ organizing also happens beyond regional borders. By the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, a global lesbian movement had started to coordinate and engage across borders to build collective agendas and shared strategies. It was the Asian Lesbian Network, led by a Thai lesbian organization, that proposed strategic lesbian visibility and inclusion in the global women’s rights conference, which set forth a distinct separation of lesbian activism around the world from general women’s rights movements and organizations 16 — Marked as a historic moment of visibility for LBQ organizing in a UN space, the major global gathering of LBQ activists is documented in the “We Are Here” film directed by Shi Tou and Jing Zhao. See also: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175051?seq=1 Lesbian Visibility and Sexual Rights at Beijing by A. Wilson .
While LBQ organizing can be viewed as an autonomous movement, it is important to note that the thought leadership of LBQ women is present and deeply rooted across social movements focused on other human rights or issue areas, including movements for climate justice, anti-racism and Black liberation, criminal justice reform, anti-militarism, and reproductive justice, among others.
The need to create autonomous organizations in order to raise consciousness, identify specific needs, and build community power has been true of LBQ people who belong to other historically oppressed communities. For example, in the United States, Black lesbian organizing emerged not only from the women’s and gay movements, but also the civil rights movement. The first US Black Lesbian Conference held in San Francisco in 1980, named “Becoming Visible,” aimed to build community, assert Black Lesbian presence and experiences, and create a forward agenda 17 — Outwire757, (2017). “Today in LGBTQ History: First Black Lesbian Conference Begins in San Francisco.” .
There are many other examples of LBQ members of historically excluded and exploited groups coming together to build community in reaction to discrimination and exclusion from LGBTQI and women’s communities dominated by more privileged members. See, for example, the case study on Rromnjako Ilo in this report, a group that organizes LBQ people within Serbia’s Roma community.
In addition, LBQ women have been part of other social movements, such as peace protests or reproductive justice. In the Balkans, LBQ women were at the frontlines of the anti-militaristic and anti-war movements in the 1980s and 1990s, mobilizing and organizing across state boundaries 18 — Brakus, A, (2018). “LGBT activism in the Western Balkans: a regional fight for rights” . More recently, LBQ activists have been central to challenging attempts to ban abortion and other attacks on human rights in Poland 19 — Human Rights Watch, (2018). “The Breath of the Government on My Back”: Attacks on Women’s Rights in Poland.” and Argentina 20 — People’s Dispatch, (2019). Argentine feminist groups begin fresh struggle for legal abortion. , advocating for the ratification of the Istanbul convention in Bulgaria 21 — Larsson, L, (2018). “A Bulgarian LGBTI Organisation Fighting to Make a Difference.” , and challenging racism and police violence in the Movement for Black Lives, which is a continuation of a long history of Black queer activism in the United States. 22 — Green, D, (2019). “Hearing the Queer Roots of Black Lives Matter.”
The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an increase in political conservatism and nationalism, the rise of an “anti-gender ideology” movement, and the promotion of patriarchal values and restrictive ideas about gender identity in contexts worldwide. Governments have attacked and repressed progressive civil society, including LBQ activists, and a mobilization of conservative civil society around the world has reshaped political agendas. Conservative forces have deliberately demonized progressive causes and actors, promoting conservative social and family values which frame families as only being legitimate when consisting of a heterosexual couple and their children. 23 — Global Philanthropy Project (2018). Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights.
In increasingly conservative and repressive contexts, LGBTQI and feminist groups and movements become targets for conservative civil society and state actors. Activists that challenge discriminatory religious, political, and social values are easy scapegoats, and LGBTQI activists and groups are often the “canary in the coal mine,” 24 — Global Philanthropy Project, (2016). The Perfect Storm: The closing space for LGBT civil society in Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Kenya, and Hungary. New York. warning of broader crackdowns on civil society. Societies with restricted civil society space frequently promote patriarchal values and traditional (binary) gender identities and roles as part of conservative, nationalist rhetoric. Activists are experiencing “an increase in state-sponsored rhetoric that prescribes and enforces narrow patriarchal and heteronormative gendered behaviour and sexual identity” 25 — Bishop, K, (2017). Standing Firm. Amsterdam: Mama Cash and Urgent Action Fund. as putting LBQ organizing under pressure. 26 — Global Philanthropy Project, (2018). Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights. New York.
This section aims to highlight the key human rights violations and threats that LBQ people face, as it is vital to understand the specificity of their experiences. The oppression that LBQ women experience as women is compounded by their sexuality and (sometimes) gender expression, making LBQ women and non-binary people more vulnerable to human rights violations and making it hard for them to access justice.
Homosexuality is criminalized in 73 jurisdictions around the world 27 — Human Dignity Trust. ; 45 of these countries explicitly prohibit same-sex conduct between women 28 — Human Dignity Trust. , though LBQ people can experience the effects of criminalization whether the law directly names them or not. Furthermore, LBQ women experience criminalization not only from laws explicitly focused on homosexuality, but also laws that disproportionately impact women, such as laws about adultery, abortion, and sex work, and those that permit child marriage and rape within marriage. Criminalizing laws sanction violence and discrimination by the state. Combined with repressive social norms and resulting economic inequalities, such laws make LBQ women particularly vulnerable to violence, particularly from family members, intimate partners, and community members.
LBQ people experience high rates of violence from their families, which is often less visible than street or state violence. For example, in Ghana, LBQ women have been thrown out of their homes by their families, had their children taken from them, and been beaten by family members who expect them to conform to societal expectations to marry men and have their children. In Ghana – and around the world – LBQ women are vulnerable to forms of violence such as extortion and blackmail through threats of being outed, and are reluctant or unable to report violence due to police and state oppression. 29 — Human Rights Watch, (2018). “No Choice but to Deny Who I Am”: Violence and Discrimination against LGBT People in Ghana. New York.
In South Africa, research has shown that violence against women is particularly high. 30 — Gender Links, South Africa: VAW Baseline Research, Johannesburg. See also: UN Women, Global Database of Violence Against Women. Rape, often gang rape, is used to “discipline” women. Black lesbians are specifically targeted for this type of violence as a way of “correcting” their behavior, and punishing their love and intimacy with other women and the perceived insult to men for being “rejected.” 31 — Human Rights Watch, (2011). “We’ll Show You You’re a Woman”: Violence and Discrimination Against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men. New York. See also: Pambazuka News, (2014). “Straighten up or you’re dead: The case for black lesbians in South Africa.”
In recent years, violence and oppression against LGBTQI communities has escalated visibly in the North Caucasus. However, whereas violence against gay men in the province of Chechnya has received extensive media coverage 32 – Human Rights Watch, (2019). Russia: New Anti-Gay Crackdown in Chechnya. New York. , the violence experienced by LBQ women, often at the hands of family members, remains largely invisible. The Queer Women of the North Caucasus project documents how common family violence is for lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. 33 – The Queer Women of the North Caucasus project, (2018). Violence Against LBT Women in the North Caucasus. Moscow. So-called “honor killings” based on lesbophobia and misogyny have been documented, and LBQ women report having experienced psychological abuse and physical violence within their families. One out of four has experienced sexual abuse. More than one-third had been married by force or under threat. This is also true in other regions where state or state-sanctioned violence against gay men is very public and a well-known human rights issue, but less visible forms of violence against LBQ-identified women and non-binary people can pass unnoticed.
Women (including LBQ activists) and trans human rights defenders appear to be particularly vulnerable to backlash and repression due to “the use of sexualised violence to silence or intimidate them”, according to the report Standing Firm by Mama Cash and Urgent Action Fund. The report states:
“In highly patriarchal societies where there is also a lack of access to justice, gendered attacks – especially those involving the use of gender-based violence – are highly effective in silencing women and trans activists whose voices are already marginalised, reinforcing women’s inferior social status and discriminatory social norms around gender behaviour and roles. Gender-based violence silences their voices through fear, as well as by undermining the support of their families or communities for their public role.” 34 — Bishop, K, (2017). Standing Firm. Amsterdam: Mama Cash and Urgent Action Fund.
Women in general experience discrimination in education, healthcare, housing, and employment, and LBQ women are even more vulnerable. For example, in Kenya, girls and young women suspected of lesbian sexual activity have been expelled from their secondary schools, sometimes after being forced to denounce their peers. 35 — Maina, Carole (2015). “Five students suspended over suspicion of lesbianism sue school.”
Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, or a perception of someone’s orientation, is widespread worldwide. An Asia-Pacific report to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women documents cases of contract termination or forced resignations based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the women. 36 — Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development, (2018). Different but not Divided. Kuala Lumpur. Evictions or refusal of accommodation are common in many countries when the sexual orientation of LGBTQI tenants is discovered or suspected. LBQ women are even more likely to experience this form of discrimination, as in many societies women are less likely to be given accommodation without a man. Discrimination is even more acute for LBQ women who present as “masculine” or androgynous. 37 — Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, (2016). Research on the Lived Experiences of LBQ Women in Kenya. See also: UHAI-EASHRI, (2019). Defiant: Landscape Survey on Violence Against LBQ Women, Trans People, and Female Sex Workers in Burundi.
Discrimination in accessing healthcare is widespread and takes many forms. LBQ women are less likely to have health insurance than heterosexual women, because most employers do not offer coverage for unmarried domestic partners. Even LBQ women with insurance or state-provided healthcare tend to avoid going to doctors for fear of experiencing stigma or discrimination 38 — National LGBT Cancer Network. “LGBT Cancer Information.” New York. ; as a result, they are more likely to develop health complications. A significant area of healthcare discrimination experienced by LBQ women is related to motherhood. Many countries still do not have medical systems set up to support lesbian women on the path to parenthood, and the heteronormative nature of healthcare systems in general does not make it easy anywhere.
Challenging closed and patriarchal societies — reaching LBQ women in Roma communities
Rromnjako Ilo (A Roma Woman’s Heart) fights homophobia, patriarchy, racism, and the invisibilization of LBQ Roma women in a closed, patriarchal society. Twelve years ago, LBQ Roma activists, empowered by the emergence of feminist movements in Serbia and the social changes they were witnessing, founded Rromnjako Ilo. Today, the group remains the only organization serving LBQ Roma women in Serbia.
Working intersectionally and recognizing the impact of gender, sexuality, class, race, and disability, Rromnjako Ilo builds support, both within the Roma community and the larger society, for Roma women’s bodily rights. The group also raises awareness about the violence and discrimination that Roma women face within their communities and in the larger society. For instance, even the non-Roma lesbian movement in Serbia tends to ignore the experiences of queer Roma women.
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Women within Roma communities often experience sexual abuse and are frequently sold into marriage at 12 or 13 years of age. Working in Roma settlements, Rromnjako Ilo has begun to work collaboratively with other organizations to introduce therapeutic counseling and legal aid for Roma LBQ women. These services are often an entry point for the group’s more long-term work to shift social norms. Their peer support workshops and counselling also contribute to building a community for LBQ people who often have no other safe place to be themselves. This has created access to resources for many LBQ women, bringing visibility to their needs. However, it has also forced Rromnjako Ilo to disguise their identity as an LBQ organization in court proceedings to ensure, to the extent possible, that LBQ women can pursue divorce or custody claims without encountering discrimination.
Using a feminist disability lens, Rromnjako Ilo works holistically to support all Roma LBQ women, including those with disabilities. In building awareness of diverse sexualities and disabilities among Roma women, they support women in the community to recognize and name their multiple identities. Supported by Rromnjako Ilo, many Roma women realize for the first time that they have a right to make decisions about their bodies and to claim any sexual identity they wish to. Their advocacy against early and forced marriage, imposed heterosexuality, and sexual abuse, as well as their efforts to increase the visibility of LBQ Roma women, underscore the group’s holistic approach. As a member of the group says:
“We have established new norms about sexuality in a closed society. We are breaking taboos.”
This is inherently risky work. Their community-based activism and resulting visibility have led to physical attacks, threats to burn their office, and repeated hacking of the group’s website, all of which have forced them to flee their office space and develop countermeasures to ensure their safety.
Since its inception, Rromnjako Ilo has struggled to find consistent long-term funding. LGBTQI rights gains within the Balkans (for example, more tolerance of Pride parades and recognition of same-sex relationships in Croatia) have led many bilateral donors to stop funding without recognizing that gains have not been consistent throughout the region and that in countries like Serbia, women still lack economic and bodily rights. Working at the intersections of identities also raises fundraising challenges. For example, if the group tries to access funding for Roma communities and discusses their work with LBQ women, they are told to apply for LBQ-specific funding by donors. Similarly, if they apply for LGBTQI funding and speak of working in the Roma community, they are told to apply for funding for Roma people or ethnic minorities. Rromnjako Ilo struggles to resource their direct service work to build knowledge and self-esteem among Roma women, and they also have difficulty raising funds for the digital and physical security of staff.