4. What drives norm change around sexual orientation and gender identity?

This section highlights examples of where social and gender norms have changed to be more inclusive of and combat discrimination against LGBTQI people, and what kinds of interventions support such changes. For the most part, gender norms change gradually over time, and it can be difficult to identify what exactly has prompted subtle shifts (Muñoz Boudet et al., 2013). Few interventions for LGBTQI people in developing countries frame their results in terms of norm change, although this might be implicit in their approaches. 

This guide concludes that a multi-pronged approach is most likely to effect change. Both top-down changes (such as laws and policies that promote equal rights for LGBTI people) and bottom-up campaigning (such as peer-to-peer education) have been effective. However, there is no linear process of norm change; some norms may become more relaxed with time, while others may become more entrenched. For example, legal changes may create a more tolerant environment for homosexuality at the same time as violence against LGBTQI people increases, as Swimelar’s study (2016) in Bosnia showed. 

Rights-based activism

Local activists usually play a key role in securing any changes in norms. Programmes should try to support existing LGBTQI rights organisations and activists where possible, integrating norm change approaches with locally relevant ideas. For example, in Malawi, homosexuality is criminalised, and society remains homophobic, but a small number of activists are speaking out in support of LGBT rights (Mwakasungula, 2013). One of their successful actions was to hold a media workshop, where activists briefed journalists on LGBT issues. Days later, newspapers carried stories about LGBT rights, framed as debates and opening up questions, rather than condemning homosexuality as would previously have been the case (ibid.).


Persuading people and societies to change what they do – and what they expect others should do – is a difficult and long-term endeavour. One method used by activists is to frame LGBTQI issues in terms that have local salience or are less controversial. In Barbados, for example, Murray (2012) suggests that the most effective approach by sexual rights advocates was to embed the principles of human rights discourse into local practices based on similar principles. He argues that the fundamental principles of human rights (the equal dignity and worth of all people) could be framed and presented in culturally resonant terms. Likewise, Bosnian activists have specifically used the human rights framing to raise issues that affect LGBTQI people, as that is less controversial than directly challenging local frames of morality and religion (Swimelar, 2016). 

Where governments and people in power are resistant to LGBTI rights, a gently persuasive approach may work best. In Malawi, public and open criticism of the government’s stance on LGBT rights resulted in a backlash and crackdown (Mwakasungula, 2013). Mwakasungula, a civil rights activist, suggests that it may be more effective to discuss behind closed doors what scientific evidence says, and how LGBT issues intersect with the HIV epidemic and other policy priorities (ibid.). Framing the issues that affect LGBTQI people as part of a holistic response to HIV and AIDS could avoid the more difficult clashes with religious and moralistic anti-LGBTQI stances. 

In certain settings, in response to resistance to a perceived Northern agenda pushing LGBTQI rights, some of the literature recommends framing issues in terms of blanket human rights rather than identities (GIZ, 2013).

This allows collaboration with broader human rights movements and has shown promise in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (ibid.).

Training for institutions on the issues affecting LGBTQI people

Public services play a key role in responding to the specific immediate and long-term needs of LGBTQI people. Schools, health care services, and the legal and judiciary systems need to understand LGBTQI issues in order to provide appropriate and supportive services. The literature suggests that these services are often inadequate and sometimes discriminatory, and that they can be improved by training and sensitisation for staff members. Attitudinal change of individuals can lead to better services, which can contribute to a wider culture of understanding and acceptance. 

In Bosnia, LGBTQI people reported feeling unsafe reporting gender-based violence to the police, and that police officers were unfamiliar with the issues facing LGBTQI people (Swimelar, 2016). A local NGO received permission to train police officers on hate crimes and other relevant issues, which has now transitioned into their permanent police training programme and is being rolled out across the country (ibid.). Although some police officers admit to being homophobic, they understand that protection of all citizens is part of their job; as already noted, this has been framed as adherence to human rights and public service. In Jamaica, police officers have also received training and sensitisation in an attempt to shift opinions and change police treatment of LGBTQI people (Dorey, 2016).

Teacher training can be a useful way to equip teachers with the resources and skills to tackle homophobic bullying (UNESCO, 2012). Teachers are in a strong position to role model good behaviour and intervene to deal with bad behaviour, contributing to a climate of normalising tolerance for LGBTQI students. The Blue Diamond Society in Nepal offered teacher training on SOGI issues, including violence, to support the national curriculum on sexual and gender diversity (UNESCO, 2016). They reached more than 600 teachers, but it is unclear what impact this has had on reducing homophobic bullying in the classroom. South Africa has published a guide for teachers on preventing homophobic violence in schools, designed as in-service training (Department of Basic Education, 2016). Most training on LGBTQI issues is optional and provided in-service instead of as a core component of teacher training (UNESCO, 2016). There are few evaluations or studies on how effective training interventions are in reducing homophobic bullying (UNESCO, 2016), but training is commonly regarded as a necessary step. 

The literature also strongly suggests that health care providers need to be trained and sensitised in the kinds of health issues facing LGBTQI people (Dorey, 2016). In Cameroon, for example, a specialised health service for LGBTQI people started by conducting discussion forums and training sessions with its staff, to overcome negative attitudes (ibid.). They also held some public sessions in the community to change attitudes. This has helped to make LGBTQI people feel more comfortable in approaching services. In Jamaica, training sessions were delivered to staff identified by regional health authorities as needing ‘support to challenge their attitudes’. Staff were also asked to help sensitise co-workers. The training resulted in significant changes in attitudes and understanding (OutRight Action International, 2018). 

Developing allies and champions

An ally is a person with privilege and power, who is not the object of discrimination but can interrupt oppressive systems and stand up for social justice (Wernick et al., 2013). Allyhood in relation to LGBTQI people has mostly been discussed theoretically. The literature has identified some motivations for allies: personal connections and empathy for individuals; moral or other value-based reasons; and self-interest for collective liberation (ibid.).

Peer intervention can be more effective than adult intervention for youth issues, especially in schools (UNESCO, 2012). Youth-led awareness-raising appears to be an effective method to develop LGBTQI allies and reduce bullying, and potentially to establish equality and inclusion as social norms. In India, for example, a gay–straight alliance project in a school received national recognition for leadership, awareness-raising and creating empathy (UNESCO, 2016. They used Facebook to post encouraging messages about LGBTI issues, hosted a complaints box in the school, and provided new literature in the library. Participants report an improved LGBTI-accepting school environment, and more supportive, open conversations. Plan International has also implemented a programme for adolescent boys to become agents of change for gender equality in Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (Middleton-Lee, 2015). The programme includes a strong emphasis on changing norms around homophobia, mostly focusing on the relationship between homophobia and hegemonic masculinity, and norms around being a ‘real man’. Boys participated in training workshops and then led workshops with their peers; ‘before and after’ assessments found significant changes in participants’ attitudes to homosexuality. Changes in attitudes were also reported in Swaziland and Lesotho as a result of participatory theatre interventions focused on increasing understanding of LGBT stigma (Logie et al., 2018).

Responses of communities to the skits demonstrating stigma against LGBT people showed increased understanding, increased empathy, and self-reflection on personal biases. Another theatre-based intervention in South Africa helped young people – LGBT and straight – to explore their own understandings of heterosexism  and heteronormativity through six weeks of acting out relevant situations and seeking ways to improve or intervene (Francis, 2013). This study highlights that, while young people were quick to criticise structures of oppression, they were more reluctant to explore and challenge their own internal biases and prejudices. This suggests that interventions need to support both individuals and communities in order to create change. 


Changing the law is often a central aim for LGBTQI activists. Recent years have seen sweeping changes in national legislation around LGBTI and sexuality rights across the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, and in the South Asia region, many countries are liberalising previously repressive regimes, and instating new policies and laws supporting LGBTI rights, to varying degrees (Eldis, n.d.). 

There is no binding international covenant on protection against discrimination on the basis of SOGI (UNICEF, 2014), as this is supposed to be protected under existing anti-discrimination covenants. However, there have been international calls to action and agreements in principle about LGBT rights, which often form the basis for national campaigns. Among the most important are the following:

  • 2017 (November): Adoption of the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 (YP+10): Additional Principles and State Obligations on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics to Complement the Yogyakarta Principles.
  • 2016 (November): Appointment of the first UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
  • 2016 (June): United Nations Resolution A/HRC/RES/32/2. Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • 2015 (August): Sustainable Development Goals. Limited inclusion of people of ‘other status’ in the non-discrimination section, Paragraph 19 of the outcome document. 
  • 2013 (July): United Nations ‘Free and Equal’ Campaign. A global UN public information campaign aimed at promoting equal rights and fair treatment of LGBTI people. 
  • 2006 Yogyakarta Principles. A set of international principles relating to sexual orientation and gender identity; a universal guide to human rights, which affirms binding international legal standards with which all states must comply. 

The international community is able to bring some pressure to bear on states to adopt human rights and LGBTI rights legislation. When Slovenia and Croatia joined the European Union (EU), for example, decriminalisation of homosexuality and anti-discrimination legislation were made a condition of acceptance (Swimelar, 2016).

Transnational pressures like EU accession conditionality can support legal change, which might lead to norm change, partly because the benefits of joining the EU outweigh the social costs of acknowledging LGBTI issues, and partly through a ‘social learning’ process of persuasion and argumentation (ibid.). 

In another example from Latin America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2018 that same-sex marriages should be recognised – a ruling that applies to countries which have signed the American Convention on Human Rights (BBC News, 2018). Those countries are now expected to change their national laws to comply with the ruling. Importantly, whether a new norm rapidly takes hold or not also depends on how compatible it is with local traditions, national identity and domestic norms (Swimelar, 2016). A bloc of African nations is increasingly resisting legalising LGBTI rights, and has aligned with conservative Christian groups from the global North, creating a powerful international lobby resisting the pro-LGBTQI rights work of other international organisations (Ibrahim, 2015). 

At the national level, activists have used some of the pre-existing non-discrimination principles embedded in international and national laws to advocate for LGBTI rights. Rights to work, freedom of speech, and freedom from violence, which have already been guaranteed, can be deployed to protect LGBTQI people, without needing to create new laws or change existing ones. This approach can be considered non-confrontational. It was used in Kenya recently, when some local NGOs working on LGBT rights were denied official registration and brought a legal case against the government, which they won on grounds of freedom of association (ibid.).

The High Court held that, although homosexual acts were prohibited, LGBTI people should be allowed to form organisations, which also implies recognition of LGBTI groups as a vulnerable minority (ibid.). In this way, activists used existing laws to create the legal space for their activities, and possibly laying the foundations for the beginnings of norm change. 

Achieving a change in national law is often a ‘rubber-stamp’ exercise, legitimising a practice that has already become socially acceptable. In India in 2014, for example, the government legally recognised a third gender category, ‘Others’ – reflecting the long-standing history and cultural position of the hijras (Gosine, 2015). In Nepal, the government granted equal rights to diverse SOGI citizens in 2007, with the 2015 Constitution prohibiting discrimination by the state or public (GIZ, 2013; OutRight Action International, 2018). This was a result of long-term local campaigning. 

One view of norm change suggests that ‘the law should approximate popular views’, otherwise the enforcement and legitimacy of the law can be called into question (Bicchieri and Mercier, 2014: 7). Changes in the law can support and encourage new practices, but not always instigate them (see case study box on India). On the other hand, legal changes are sometimes progressive acts which themselves bring about norm change, even if not entirely supported by a majority of the population. For example, Botswana amended its Employment Act in 2010 to make it illegal for employers to dismiss people based on their sexual orientation, which is one of a number of small and gradual changes towards LGBT rights even though there is not yet widespread support (OutRight Action International, 2018). Legal cases can bring greater visibility and public discussion around issues affecting LGBTQI people, which can lead to norm change. 


From decriminalisation to recriminalisation and back again in India

Like many post-colonial contexts, India retained a British law from 1860 which criminalised ‘intercourse against the order of nature’ (mostly meaning male homosexuality) (Singh, 2016). This statute was overturned in 2009 by the Delhi High Court – a victory for queer activists who had targeted this particular item of law (ibid.). However, homosexual acts were recriminalised in 2013 by the Supreme Court (Tonini, 2018), partly in response to a petition from Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups (CNN, 2018). Yet in September 2018, the Supreme Court overturned its own decision, and again decriminalised homosexual acts – a decision that was met with much celebrating by campaigners (Safi, 2018). The intervening period since 2013 had seen a great deal of activist campaigning and mounting legal pressure. An unconnected court case in August 2017 ruled that every citizen has a fundamental right to privacy – a decision which five judges said meant that the 2013 recriminalisation was wrong, based on the interpretation that sexual orientation is a matter of privacy (ibid.). 

This case study highlights that norm change must come either through or with agreement from the general population, and probably in conjunction with depathologisation and social and religious acceptance, as laws alone cannot generally force people to change their attitudes. Singh (2016) suggests that between 2009 and 2013, although the law in India changed, social norms did not, and people continued to see homosexuality as an illness, with the medical establishment continuing to regard it as a curable condition. The positive legal change in 2018 seems to be a result of consistent campaigning and awareness-raising, a legal framing of homosexuality as natural and inherent to pre-colonial Indian culture (Dhillon, 2018), and of course the legal precedent of right to privacy. This example shows that legal change is just one part of a complex system of norm change. 


Increasing visibility of LGBTQI people

Many activist and development campaigns are predicated on the idea that increased visibility of LGBTQI people will lead to increased social acceptance. However, visibility can have mixed results, as it can also increase stigma or vulnerability to gender-based violence, for example. 

Armisen’s study of West African groups involved in lobbying on LBGTQI issues quotes an activist in Nigeria who highlights the importance of social relationships and positive contact with stigmatised people: ‘As we become more visible to the people we love, it’s harder to hate us. It will be harder to listen when public officials come out and speak rubbish, because you know the one you have in your house is not like that’ (Armisen, 2016: 15). In Jamaica, West and Hewstone (2012) measured attitudes of university students who had had casual social interactions with gay men, and their prejudices against them. Their study found that people who had had interactions with gay men reported more positive attitudes towards them. Similarly, in Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa, interventions using theatre to promote more positive attitudes to LGBT people led to changed attitudes and awareness of LGBT people and the issues they face (Logie et al., 2018; Francis, 2013). These studies indicate that intergroup contact can be effective in reducing prejudice, although to scale up they would need to be paired with many other norm change approaches. Similarly, as Wernick et al. (2013) found, anti-bullying strategies can create meaningful relationships between straight/cisgender people and LGBTQI people to create empathy, and the desire to directly intervene if witnessing harassment. 

However, increased visibility can also cause a backlash. For example, at the Queer Sarajevo Festival art event in 2008, participants were violently attacked (Swimelar, 2016). The police did not prevent the attack, and the media response was not to condemn the attackers but to publish the names of the participants (ibid.). In West Africa, interventions for men who have sex with men have strong potential to further stigmatise this group by associating them with HIV (Armisen, 2016). In Bangladesh, Karim’s (2018) study of heteronormativity found that men’s groups aimed for visibility as a strategy to promote sexual rights, while women’s groups tended to keep a lower profile, fearing a backlash and potential threats to the safety of their members. Strategic invisibility and the private space of the home had helped protect women’s group members (ibid.). 


Scholars have widely noted resistance to LGBTI rights in the global South taking the form of resistance to Western imperialism. Resistance should be understood in the context of colonialism, not just ‘cultural’ homophobia (Gosine, 2015). Many countries have resisted the ‘gay rights agenda’ on the grounds of national sovereignty and anti-imperialism (Murray, 2012: 46). Exhortations to change laws or become more tolerant of homosexuality are often interpreted as Northern nations imposing their power on poor countries against their will (ibid.). Threats of sanctions or withdrawing international aid unless LGBTI rights are acknowledged have had the effect of entrenching resistance, as sanctions are seen as a form of foreign imperial control (Mwakasungula, 2013). As Mwakasungula explains, during the trial of two men in Malawi who had held an illegal same-sex engagement ceremony, homosexuality was described as foreign, alien, and against local Christian and Islamic religions (ibid.). As Swimelar (2016) argues in relation to Bosnia, resistance to ‘foreign’ norms can be a way for states to claim greater legitimacy and authority. 

In West Africa, Armisen’s study (2016) found some examples of increasing homophobia at the political and policy levels. For example, Nigeria recently instated a law prohibiting same-sex marriage and homosexual acts, which would incur stringent jail terms. Gambia and Burkina Faso have also recently introduced new anti-homosexuality laws. Most of these national laws target men engaging in same-sex acts; few mention women engaged in same-sex sexual practices or transgender people. In Malawi, for example, while same-sex relationships between women had been assumed to be non-existent, such relationships were criminalised in 2010 – ironically framed as a move towards ‘gender equality’ (punishing women in same-sex relationships equally with men in same-sex relationships) (Mwakasungula, 2013). In many countries, there remains strong resistance to LGBTI rights at the highest levels, meaning that achieving change requires long-term campaigning and advocacy to secure even gradual change. 

Conservative religious attitudes can be a significant challenge to changing norms towards greater acceptance of LGBTQI people and to realising their rights. For example, as Logie et al., 2018 highlight, after experiencing a sensitisation theatre exercise, audience members in Swaziland and Lesotho expressed hesitation about accepting LGBT people, as they saw this as in conflict with Bible teachings. They wanted all people to be happy but found a tension with their religious beliefs. In Malawi, where church leaders have a strong community presence and considerable influence in government (Mwakasungula, 2013), they have advocated against LGBT rights and homosexuality on the basis of morality. Religious and traditional leaders have appeared on television to denounce homosexuality, ensuring their message reaches a large audience (ibid.). On the other hand, some church ministers have advocated for tolerance and inclusion (while still condemning homosexuality as a sin), which can have a powerful influence on norm change at the community level. 

Book traversal links for 4. What drives norm change around sexual orientation and gender identity?

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