3. Gender norms and LGBTQI people

There are a large number of different constellations of genders and sexualities that transgress traditional gender norms. These range from lesbian, gay and bisexual, to queer, trans and non-binary. A person’s gender identity, expression and sexual orientation do not necessarily follow a linear pattern; a person could identify their gender as non-binary and their orientation as being attracted to men. Another person might be a transgender woman attracted to men, making her heterosexual. A third person might be cisgender and pansexual, meaning they are attracted to people regardless of gender or sex. Drawing from classic gender and development insights, if we know that women should not be treated as an essentialised, homogenous group of beings, we should not do the same for LGBTQI people, or people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

There are considerable differences in how people live and how they are treated by others across the spectrum of genders and sexualities. As Schilt and Westbrook (2009) argue, power is allocated through one’s position in the sexual and gender hierarchy. Lind (2009) argues that lesbian women are largely invisible to development actors, as they are perceived to be non-mothers, therefore not targeted by reproductive health interventions and social policy, and not facing particular health risks. In Cuba, lesbian and bisexual women who wanted reproductive assistance were unable to acquire it, as they were not considered a priority over heterosexual couples (Browne, 2018). Their unmet needs not only show direct discrimination against LGBTQI people, but also a lack of understanding and ability to consider reproductive needs beyond normative heterosexuality. 

On the other hand, gay men’s bodies are highly visible through pathologising them as hypersexual potential HIV carriers (Lind, 2009). Within the development sector, men who have sex with men (MSM) have been the main queer group receiving attention, potentially at the expense of lesbians, bisexual women, trans* people, and other queer-identified and gender nonconforming people (Armisen, 2016). Armisen’s review of LGBT groups in West Africa found that gay men continue to take the lead in organising while expecting LBT women to take subordinate roles, and even disapprove of effeminacy in other gay men (ibid.). Women with non-normative sexualities may find themselves more restricted than men with non-normative sexualities by general patriarchal norms surrounding dress, mobility and freedoms. 

LGBTQI people are often seen as gender transgressors or gender deviants by other members of society (‘deviant’ meaning any behaviour that threatens the norm or challenges established power) (Muñoz Boudet et al., 2013: 18). Gender and sexuality are both separate and interlinked (Pereira, 2009). For example, one has to have a gender to be able to identify as heterosexual or homosexual. Heterosexuality is both a gendered relationship and a sexual orientation, as it orders domestic life (for example, the gendered division of labour) (Pereira, 2009). Due to the connections between gender and sexuality, sometimes LGB people can be seen as not being ‘real men’ or ‘real women’ due to being attracted to someone of the same sex. Gay men are often seen as gender deviants, described as feminine or effeminate, or performing a ‘woman’s role’ during sex. Synthesised literature on heterosexual adolescent boys in Jamaica shows that their construction of masculinity generally relies on aggression and homophobia (Smith, 2018). For them, being labelled as gay marks a ‘failed masculinity’ (ibid.).

Consequences of breaking gender norms

Breaking gender norms is often perceived as a threat, which can be punished through social sanctions (Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). The very real implications of transgressing norms include violence, homelessness, exclusion from work and from health care (Eldis, n.d.). Gender transgressors are easily marked in society, and very often subjected to intense scrutiny, community gossip, and often verbal or physical violence.


Homophobic violence exists everywhere and affects all people perceived to be sexually different, regardless of class, age, ethnicity or gender. Globally, violence motivated by homophobia and transphobia is the third highest category of hate crime, after race and religion (Smith, 2018). Many men who have sex with men, gay men, and bisexual men are subject to violent homophobic attacks, usually perpetrated by other men. The global literature shows strong correlations between masculine gender role stress and violence against women and gay men. When men who value rigid traditional gender roles find themselves unable to fulfil these roles or when a situation requires them to be ‘unmanly’, they experience stress, which often results in violence aimed at controlling people perceived to be feminine (Baugher and Gazmararian, 2015).  In Brazil, a study (conducted in 10 cities) of men who have sex with men shows a high rate of experiences of sexual violence (16%), determined mostly by homophobic prejudice (Sabidó et al., 2015). A South African study conducted in a Northern Cape school shows that young men use homophobic violence to assert themselves as masculine men. Openly gay boys reported name-calling, being picked on, being judged, and verbal harassment (McArthur, 2015). The wider literature suggests that homophobic violence against males is mostly about policing masculinity and upholding traditional masculine norms (Baugher and Gazmararian, 2015).

In some contexts, lesbians may be at high risk of ‘corrective rape’, which is understood as ‘the rape of women (by men) perceived to be not heterosexual, to “cure” them of their sexual orientation’ (Smith, 2018). A lesbian in Zimbabwe recounted her story (Rosenbloom, 1996, cited in Jolly, 2000: 80–81): 

[My girlfriend and I] are always on the run because my parents are against what I am. When they found out that I was a lesbian, they tried to force me to find a boyfriend … In the end they forced an old man on me. They locked me in a room and brought him every day to rape me, so I would fall pregnant and be forced to marry him. 

In Quito, Ecuador, two lesbian activists were raped in their apartment after appearing on television to talk about LGBT rights (Lind, 2009). That same study highlighted that acts of violence against gay men and travestis in Ecuador take place in public settings, but most reports of violence against lesbians have been in their homes, or in institutionalised settings. 

State institutions may also be perpetrators of violence. A group of lesbian sex workers in Bangladesh described how they were put into ‘rehabilitation’ centres, where lesbian acts were considered ‘deviant’ and thus heavily punished with isolation, verbal and physical abuse, and flogging by wardens (Karim, 2018). In Jamaica, LGBTQI youth stated that they do not go to the police to report incidents of violence because of fear that there would be a homophobic response (25%) or that the police would not be helpful (40%) (Smith, 2018). Their reluctance is based on previous experiences of poor responses from the police, judiciary and other security forces in Jamaica, which holds true across much of the literature from other country contexts. As Dorey (2016) notes, when reporting crimes, lesbian and bisexual women are likely to be taken less seriously than (perceived) heterosexual women. 

Family relationships

Many LGBTQI people are rejected by their families. The effects can be devastating, especially for young LGBTQI people, who are usually more dependent, economically and emotionally, on their family. They may experience homelessness, poverty, increased risk of abuse, health difficulties and other negative outcomes as a result. Globally, UNESCO reports that 51% of LGBTI youth have experienced prejudice and inequality within their families (Smith, 2018). In West Africa (as in many other parts of the world), bullying by family members is likely to be the first homophobic experience LGBTQI young people face (Armisen, 2016). Bullying and rejection by family can lead to homelessness; in Jamaica, Plan International reports that 40% of young homeless people are LGBT (Middleton-Lee, 2015). In Jamaica, which has been ‘characterized as one of the most homophobic and transphobic societies globally’ (Smith, 2018: 250), there is a divide between rich and poor families with LGBTQI children. The more affluent families were more likely to be tolerant of LGBTQI children, although not usually fully accepting.


School can be a significant setting for marginalisation of and discrimination against LGBTQI youth, but it can also be a productive space for interventions and shaping new norms (Wernick et al., 2013). Homophobic bullying at school often results in poor attendance, dropout and poor academic achievement due to feeling unsafe and uncomfortable (UNESCO, 2012). Bullying (as a punishment for perceived sexual difference) is usually perpetrated by other students rather than teachers, and more often by boys than girls (ibid.). It can also affect students who are not LGBTQI – for instance, by the use of homophobic slurs, reproducing a culture of normalised homophobia. 

In the global North, LGBTQI students are more likely to be excluded from school. One reason is that experiences of bullying may lead them to use violence (in self-defence), or to truancy, which results in disciplinary action (Snapp et al., 2015). This kind of discipline may unfairly punish LGBTQI students instead of supporting them and dealing with the bullying (ibid.). They may become identified as ‘problem’ students. When schools fail to intervene or support LGBTQI students, those students can find it difficult to complete school or to do well. Increasingly, efforts to challenge gender-based violence in schools include a discussion of homophobic bullying. Access to school may be particularly difficult for transgender students, if uniform and toilet facilities do not accommodate their specific needs (UNESCO, 2012). Gender nonconforming students are likely to be disproportionately punished for dress code violations (Snapp et al., 2015).

Health care

Gender nonconforming people and sexual minorities often find it difficult to access the health care they need. This is sometimes because of a lack of expertise from medical professionals who may not have been trained on trans health issues or sexual orientation (Eldis, n.d.). At other times, they may face outright discrimination and encounter service providers who refuse to treat LGBTQI people. People may fear encountering discrimination or even violence at medical centres, and so choose not to attend for regular check-ups. 

Health care professionals may not be predisposed to providing appropriate or sympathetic care for LGBTQI people, or even to adopting a ‘do no harm’ approach. In India, for example, ‘conversion therapy for homosexuals’ continues to be part of ordinary clinical practice (Singh, 2016). Lind (2009) describes a study in Ecuador, which found that many lesbians had been forced to undergo electric shock conversion therapy. Queer women in West Africa were reported to avoid seeking health care as much as possible, due to fears of discrimination (Armisen, 2016). In India, many hijras have high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses (Kalra, 2012). They do not often seek help from medical professionals, due to discrimination (perceived and real) and a perceived lack of knowledge among health professionals about their specific needs (ibid.). LGBTQI people in Jamaica report a hostile environment for accessing health care, describing apparently unnecessary medical or psychological testing, inappropriate enquiries about their sexual orientation, and poorer quality of care (Smith, 2018). Reports of discrimination from health service providers are extremely common across the literature, across all countries and regions. 

For intersex people, it has been common for doctors or parents to ‘correct’ their child’s genitalia in order to fit them into the gender binary (Middleton-Lee, 2015). In some countries, there are the beginnings of a discussion on allowing intersex children to grow up intersex and let them decide their gender and sexuality for themselves. Malta, for example, was one of the first countries to enact legislation (in 2015) to protect intersex children from non-consensual surgery (OutRight Action International, 2018). 

One of the most common concerns in the literature, and in discussions with activists, is the lack of development programming that supports LGBTQI people into employment and to develop skills or education. Dorey (2016) describes the various forms that discrimination can take, such as insecure employment, lack of access to common land, and refusal of loans. Where gender norms discriminate against women and women’s work, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming women are likely to experience double discrimination. They may be directly discriminated against (for example, by people not wanting to buy goods from them) or indirectly (for example, by not having a father or husband willing to act as a guarantor). IDS has published studies on the links between sexuality and poverty as part of its Sexuality and Development programme.  

LGBTQI people do not automatically challenge gender norms on a personal level; indeed, some people may enforce strict gender norms and ideas of how to ‘do LGBT’ correctly (Eldis, n.d.). Within a group of lesbian sex workers in Bangladesh, for example, couples followed a heterosexual husband and wife model, with the ‘wives’ sometimes expected to be monogamous, stay at home and no longer do sex work (Karim, 2018). They framed their sexual identities through performance of respectable heterosexual, middle-class relations (ibid.). Where queer people uphold heterosexual social and family institutions, this is called homonormativity (Duggan, 2002). 

Marriage and reproduction

Same-sex marriage is a hot topic of debate in many contemporary societies, including several developing countries. With regard to gender norms, marriage can be considered a fairly traditional, heteronormative institution. While legalising same-sex marriage is considered a gain for LGBT rights, bringing greater equality in terms of material benefits such as inheritance rights and hospital visitation privileges (Bernstein and Taylor, 2013), queer scholars have tended to see the desire to be married as conservative (Croce, 2015), as marriage typically upholds traditional gender norms and heteronormative institutions. Although many same-sex couples do not engage in traditionally gendered actions, such as the household division of labour, for example, the institution of marriage itself conforms to a heteronormative ideal. Joining the institution of marriage could therefore lead LGBTQI people to uphold traditional gender norms (Garwood, 2016). It is worth noting that discussions of same-sex marriage have largely taken place within liberal democratic systems and have not considered forms of marriage beyond a loosely Christian, global Northern, monogamous form. 

Reproduction has always been central to the development and state-building project, through producing new citizens and workers, and maintaining social reproduction of cultural and national values (Lind, 2010). LGBTQI people are not considered normatively, by the state, as having biological reproductive potential in the same way that heterosexual people are. As (perceived) non-reproducers, LGBTQI people fall somewhere outside the normative discourses of reproduction and citizenship, making them ‘useless’ to the nation-state. In the Balkan region, where birth rates are falling, the fear of a population crisis is a common argument against LGBT rights, on the basis that LGBTQI people will not reproduce (Swimelar, 2016). The combination of invisibility to social policy and exclusion from national identity, through their relationship to gender norms, is a potent mix. 

Third genders

The existence of many localised versions of ‘third gender’ people highlights just how unsatisfactory binary categories of gender are. However, models of binary and unequal gender are currently dominant throughout the world, perhaps due to the Western colonial legacy, or simply because non-binary societies are fewer and less powerful. Third genders in the anthropological literature almost always refer to people assigned male at birth. There are no common examples of accepted third genders for people assigned female at birth.

The hijras of India are one of the most well-known examples – assigned male at birth, but presenting with many feminine qualities (Puri, 2010). Hijras have explicitly rejected global Northern constructs of transgenderism or definitions as trans women or gay men, claiming the position of ‘third gender’ (trithiya panthi or trithiya prakriti) (Kalra, 2012). They have a specific cultural role as they are endowed with the power to bless fertility on newlyweds and to bless newborns; many hijras earn a living by performing rituals at weddings and births (Puri, 2010). Despite this special position, they continue to be stigmatised, marginalised and subjected to violence and abuse (Kalra, 2012). Puri (2010) describes the persistent discrimination experienced by hijras, including police violence, lack of civil protection and interpersonal violence from landlords, who may evict hijras on the basis of gender. 

In Mexico, the muxe (also assigned male at birth) identify as a third gender. They dress in indigenous female clothes and work in traditional female occupations, like sewing and hairdressing (McGee, 2018). They claim a particular Zapotec indigenous identity, which cultural position affords them some protection from the homophobic violence witnessed in the rest of Mexico (ibid.). Like hijras, muxe are considered to bring good luck. In Thailand, kathoeys also identify as somewhere in between male and female: 

I was born as a man, but never felt comfortable living as a male, wearing men’s clothing and conforming to male gender roles. That did not mean I wanted to be a woman, but rather somewhere in between male and female. I am transgender, or ‘kathoey’ in Thai. We do not see ourselves as men and our gender identity is separate from our sexual orientation. As a transgender person I may dress in women’s clothing but that does not mean I am attracted to men. But there is a common misconception that equates transgenders with gay men or lesbians. (UNESCO, 2012: 24)

Brazilian travestis, another well-known example of third gender people, have actively resisted the assimilation of their identities under the Anglicised term ‘transgender’, preferring to fight for recognition as travestis (Maria Silva and Jose Ornat, 2015). Travestis are often considered the most vulnerable group in the Brazilian queer community, as they experience extreme violence and aggression and are most likely to suffer a violent death (ibid.).

Among the LGBTQI community, trans and gender nonconforming people face the worst poverty and discrimination when it comes to employment (Armisen, 2016).

Although hijras have a cultural place as givers of blessings at weddings and births, they are not entitled to own property, marry or obtain a passport (Kalra, 2012). The same study shows that as Indian social structures change, demand for their traditional role is dwindling, and with few other options, hijras are increasingly turning to sex work and begging as a means to make money.

The strong anthropological literature on hijras, muxe and other third genders shows that a male/female model of gender is insufficient to describe realities in different parts of the world. Third gender groups have consistently rejected global North labels for their gender identities, preferring to use their own terms. As such, an ‘LGBT rights’ framework does not really apply (McGee, 2018). Although third gender people may be considered as transgressing gender norms of masculinity and femininity, in many cases their unique gender identity has local cultural significance and some degree of acceptance. In these cases, they are not transgressors, but are simply fulfilling the gender norms attached to that identity. 


In much of Latin America, men’s masculinity is determined not by the gender of their sexual partner, but by the role each takes (McGee, 2018). In sex between two people with penises, the person who does the penetrating is considered ‘the man’ (active) and thus not considered to be homosexual. The person who is penetrated is taking a culturally feminine (passive) role, and may be considered homosexual (Kalra, 2012). The masculinity of the active partner is not affected by who he has sex with, unless he becomes the person who is penetrated (McGee, 2018). This model is quite different to the global Northern idea of essential sexual and gender identity determined by choice of sexual partner. Instead, gender is performed through sexual role preference. Gender norms are upheld by one partner taking a traditionally masculine role and one a traditionally feminine role, and norms are not transgressed unless the roles are reversed. 

Non-binary and genderqueer

These are umbrella terms for people who self-identify as neither or both male and female, or different genders at different times, or who contest the idea of there being only two genders (Richards et al., 2016). Research on those who identify as non-binary is very thin (ibid.). Estimates of population size vary from around 3% of all society (Netherlands and Belgium) to 40% of trans people (Scotland) (ibid.). The number of people identifying as non-binary is likely to be much higher than that reflected in the literature, especially as the category becomes more recognised and understood, making it safer to identify as such (ibid.). People who identify this way tend not to conform with traditional gender norms, and may reject them entirely (Budge et al., 2018). 


This brief overview of some iterations of genders and sexualities shows that there are infinite possibilities for relations with gender norms. A central dynamic for LGBTQI people is whether they conform to or transgress norms – remembering that gender norms are different in every place and for every gender. This dynamic is important to keep in mind when working with LGBTQI people and in development practice more generally, as it helps explain behaviour and choices, and social responses to LGBTQI people. Transgressing norms is a powerful occurrence, which often leads to social stigma, exclusion and violence.

Transgressing norms may also be a matter of relative privilege. Marginalised ethnic groups, poor people, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups who already experience discrimination may not want to invite a further source of discrimination by drawing attention to any transgression of gender norms (Berkowitz, 2009). However, people identified as LGBTQI by others in their society may be seen as inherent norm transgressors, and may not be able to combat this view even if they conform as best they can. Within the limits of normative politics, LGBTQI people who are understood as ‘deviant’ have little hope of challenging this status in any meaningful way; they may only be able to improve their secondary status as ‘different’ (Lind, 2010). The implication for development practice is that support for LGBTQI people at the individual level is necessary but not sufficient; a deeper approach is needed, which tries to change gender and social norms such that LGBTQI people are not regarded as transgressors. 

It is worth repeating that some LGBTQI people (such as the hijras) are actually upholding local gender norms, and that some people deliberately want to be seen as transgressors, often in order to make a point about the restrictive nature of gender norms. LGBTQI people experience gender norms in more ways than simply conforming and transgressing, and these have multiple and complicated effects. Transgression is not inherently negative; in fact, it is often where change comes from. 

Browne, E., 2019, Gender norms, LGBTQI issues and development: a topic guide, ALIGN, London UK