Executive summary and terminology

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights have become an important topic of discussion in the development sector in recent years. Moving from the provision of HIV and AIDS care for the disproportionate number of LGBT people affected, through to same-sex marriage legalisation, the landscape has shifted to promote an LGBTI-inclusive approach in many areas. This is supported by a series of international and national human rights provisions affirming all people’s rights to non-discrimination, freedom of expression and freedom from violence. In some contexts, these changes have been possible due to shifts in social norms towards greater tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQI  people. Norm change has largely been the result of long-term and increasingly visible and vibrant activist engagement, drawing on strategies such as media coverage, peer interventions, ally-building and institutional training. This guide reviews some of the literature on the norm changes that are leading to greater acceptance of and less discrimination towards LGBTQI people, focusing on low-income countries in the global South. 

Nearly every social science discipline has a body of theory about norms (Vaitla et al., 2017). This paper takes a queer theory approach. Queer theorists have worked on sexuality, gender and norms, examining the underlying heteronormative  assumptions that inform much gender analysis. The insights from queer theory encourage a broad view of gender and sexuality as flexible, ever-shifting, and not linearly related to biology. Beyond and alongside LGBTI inclusion, queer-informed perspectives try to establish new ways of doing development and new ways of changing institutions to move beyond upholding heterosexuality as the global norm for sexuality. Despite sustained engagement by academics, activists and advocates on using queer theory to inform development for at least 20 years, queerness has still not gained traction within the mainstream development sector (Mason, 2018).

A queer-informed approach to development is important for several reasons. First, as Jolly (2011) argues, thinking about heteronormativity can help us understand how heterosexual norms structure access to resources. People who fall outside heteronormative relationship structures or gender identification, for example, can struggle to access the capital, income, health care, housing or social protection they need. Second, understanding how the gender system privileges masculinity and heterosexuality can help development practitioners better tackle inequalities (Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). Sexuality is deeply woven into the structure of all societies and is part of the fabric of inequalities, which we need to understand in order to work towards social justice (Pereira, 2009). Finally, deconstructing and avoiding heteronormativity not only helps meet the specific needs of and supports LGBTQI people, but it also frees everyone from gendered constraints. Using heteronormativity and queer insights can help development practitioners to be more effective, reach more people in better ways, and challenge underlying inequalities in social structures.

Queer theory and gender norms

Queer theory scholars suggest that gender is fluid, flexible and subject to change – not rooted in an essential male or female (binary) gender identity. They also suggest that structures and institutions within society work to normalise, naturalise, support and privilege heterosexuality above other forms of sexuality. Taken together, these ideas show that the binary gender system is a heterosexist one, which privileges masculinity and straightness over femininity and queerness (Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). These arguments based in queer theory have been examined by development researchers and occasionally in development projects, but do not appear to have substantially changed the approach of any major development actors (Mason, 2018). The gender and development discourse continues to focus on cisgender,  heterosexual women, and upholding the gender binary (Weerawardhana, 2018). LGBTI-focused interventions are usually based on human rights principles, which can be problematic from a queer perspective. In order to claim rights, people also have to claim an identity. For most people, this means self-identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This can further marginalise those who either cannot or do not want to identify with those categories.

Queer theory shows that LGBTQI people are often considered to break or transgress gender norms. For example, gay men are sometimes seen as gender deviants if they are perceived as feminine or effeminate, or perform a ‘woman’s role’ during sex. 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.). However, some groups of LGBTQI people uphold different versions of gender norms, which fall outside the traditional male–female binary. For example, the hijras of India, who are a ‘third gender’ group, have an accepted cultural place and traditional gender norms of their own (Puri, 2010). A queer theory perspective shows that gender norms are varied, and that LGBTQI people can both uphold and transgress those norms. 

Where queer sexual orientation and gender identities do transgress gender norms, the literature shows that violence is a common response, ranging from verbal harassment and bullying to physical fights and even sexual violence and murder (Smith, 2018). Rejection of LGBTQI youth by their families, and broader social exclusion, is common, especially in contexts where homosexuality is considered a sin or against tradition (such as Jamaica) (ibid.). LGBTQI people may find themselves excluded from school, unable to access decent employment, and politically ignored. Access to appropriate health care can be difficult for LGBTQI people due to a lack of services sympathetic to their needs and to fear of being discriminated against by service providers (Eldis, n.d.). LGBTQI youth, ethnic or religious minorities and other excluded groups are especially vulnerable as they may not have sufficient economic or social resources to be resilient. 

Evidence on norm change

In this context, norm change usually refers to where societies have become more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQI behaviours, practices, gender expression and identity. Few interventions for LGBTQI people in developing countries frame their results in terms of norm change, although norm change is often implicit in anti-discrimination or service provider training interventions. For the most part, gender norms change gradually over time, and it can be hard to identify what exactly has prompted subtle shifts (Muñoz Boudet et al., 2013). The literature suggests that a multi-pronged approach is most likely to effect change (Vaitla et al., 2017) – supporting LGBTQI people with their immediate needs such as counselling and health care, while at the same time addressing discriminatory attitudes of others and the social institutions which support discrimination (such as school policies). 

International agreements such as the Yogyakarta Principles and the United Nations (UN) anti-discrimination resolutions have provided the human rights framework for norm change for equality of LGBTQI people. Activists have drawn on these principles to argue for national legislative change, or for LGBTI rights advocacy through the legal system. Changes in legislation are often, though not always, the end outcome of a long process of gradual social acceptance for a new norm, such as in the case of India’s decriminalisation of homosexuality (Singh, 2016). The global literature generally suggests that legal changes alone are not enough to bring about norm change, but are a necessary component of broader strategies. 

Rights-based activists have achieved norm change through framing, awareness-raising, providing training and developing allies. Framing issues in locally relevant terms – whether those are rights or cultural traditions – has been successful in encouraging policy-makers to consider LGBTQI topics. Raising visibility and establishing contact between LGBTQI people and others has helped change attitudes towards LGBTQI people (West and Hewstone, 2012). Training public service providers, such as the police, teachers, and health care staff, has been successful in improving service provision and changing individuals’ attitudes, which may lead to wider norm change. In schools in the global North, peer group mentoring has been successfully used to develop heterosexual allies and champions for change who can intervene in cases of harassment (Wernick et al., 2013).

It is important to note that in some countries in the global South, people see LGBT rights as a Western cultural imposition – for example, in Malawi and Uganda (Mwakasungula, 2013). Nigeria, Gambia and Burkina Faso have recently strengthened legislation against homosexuality, on the basis that it is ‘foreign’ to their culture. This must be understood in the context of post-colonialism (Gosine, 2015), where LGBT rights are seen as foreign, Western values, and the enforcement of acceptance as an assault on national sovereignty (Ibrahim, 2015). 

Aims of this guide and a note on terminology

This topic guide is primarily intended for policy-makers and practitioners who may not be familiar with a queer theory approach to norms. It provides an overview of some important ideas and ways of thinking about how gendered social norms affect LGBTQI people in developing countries, moving the discussion beyond a rights-based approach to be more inclusive of all kinds of non-normative sexualities and genders. The guide aims to summarise the main theoretical points of a queer approach to gender norms, to identify the key issues and challenges affecting LGBTQI people, and to provide some examples of where norm change has happened. 

This topic guide uses the acronym LGBTQI to describe a group of people who practise a broad spectrum of non-heterosexual sexual behaviours, and non-cisgender gender expression and identities. Occasionally, LGBT or LGBTI is used (without the ‘Q’), which refers specifically to the discourse of sexualities and genders as concrete identities, often described with reference to international human rights. Queer sexualities and genders are often positioned in opposition to the LGBTI discourse and sometimes should be separated out, not merged. It is also important to note that LGBTI discussion conflates sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual) with gender identity (transgender and intersex), although these issues are separate and distinct. Where possible, this guide disaggregates discussions by gender and orientation, in order to highlight the different experiences and subjectivities contained within the acronym. However, this guide does not include asexual or aromantic categories, as there is not enough literature on these specific subjectivities in literature from the Global South. See terminology guide below for detailed definitions.

Similarly, important work from feminists and queer scholars of colour has highlighted the need for thorough intersectional analysis. This guide recognises the heterogeneous experiences of LGBTQI people of different ethnicity, religion, class, age, ability and geographical location. Where possible, these social indicators of exclusion and inclusion are detailed in the text. As a rule, the literature on LGBTQI people in the Global South tends to only identify ethnicity and class as additional axes of life experiences, and, to a lesser extent, age. No studies were found which include ability.



Bisexual: A person who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction to persons of the same and a different sex or gender.

Cisgender: A person whose gender identity and gender expression match the sex they were assigned at birth and the social expectations related to their gender.

Cisnormativity: Refers to the practices and institutions that legitimise and privilege those who are comfortable in the gender belonging to the sex assigned to them at birth. On the other hand, this norm systematically disadvantages and marginalises all persons whose gender identity and expression do not meet social expectations.

Gay: A person who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction only or primarily to persons of the same sex or gender. The term historically referred primarily to men but is used today by people of all genders as a self-descriptor. 

Gender expression: Refers to the way in which an individual outwardly presents their gender, typically through the way one chooses to dress, speak, or generally conduct themselves socially. The way an individual expresses their gender is not always indicative of their gender identity.

Gender identity: A person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body, which may involve, if freely chosen, modifications of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means. 

Hate crime: Offences that are motivated by hate or by bias against a particular group of people. This could be based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age or disability. 

Heteronormativity: A set of lifestyle norms, practices and institutions that: (1) promote binary alignment of biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles; (2) assume heterosexuality as a fundamental and natural norm; and (3) privilege monogamous, committed relationships and reproductive sex above all other sexual practices. Heteronormativity is discussed in detail in the Queer theory and gender norms section. 

Heterosexual: A person who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction only or primarily to persons of a different sex or gender; usually refers to women who are attracted to men and men who are attracted to women (only or primarily).

Heterosexism: A term to describe all forms of discrimination against people who encompass lesbian, gay, or bisexual sexual orientations. It is more inclusive than the term ‘homophobia’.

Homosexual: A person who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction only or primarily to persons of the same sex or gender. Many members of the sexual and gender-diverse community consider the term offensive and stigmatising because of its clinical history and its associations with criminalisation and pathologisation.

Homophobia: A range of antagonistic attitudes and feelings toward people who identify or are perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. Homophobia may take the form of antipathy, contempt or prejudice, and may be expressed through words or actions. In the case of states or institutions, it may take the form of discriminatory laws or policies.

Intersex people: Intersex people are born with physical or biological sex characteristics (including sexual anatomy, reproductive organs and/or chromosomal patterns) that do not fit the traditional definitions of male or female. These characteristics may be apparent at birth or emerge later in life, often at puberty. 

Lesbian: A woman who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction only or primarily to other women. 

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender): A collective term for people who are attracted to people of the same gender, people with gender identities that differ from the sex assigned at birth, and people with non-binary identities. The term is inclusive of groups and identities, and encompasses sexual orientation and expression, as well as gender identity and expression. In some cases, LGBT can be a problematic category as it lumps women, men and transgender people together, even though the issues they face are sometimes drastically different. However, LGBT exists as a collective concept that is used for political, social and economic organising in many parts of the world. 

LGBTI: An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex. It sometimes includes additional letters to refer to other orientations and identities, such as ‘Q’ for queer/questioning, ‘A’ for asexual or aromantic, or the plus symbol (LGBT+). Specific identities are usually added in order to intentionally include and raise awareness of those identities. The ‘plus’ is usually used to indicate inclusion and awareness of all other diverse expressions and identities, without trying to name and categorise them all; it sometimes includes straight allies.

LGBTQI+: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex. This is an internationally recognised term that describes a wide range of sexualities and genders. We do not intend to use this restrictively, but rather as an umbrella term to indicate the vast array of sexualities and genders that exist in the world. See Aims of this guide and a note on terminology for more detail. 

Non-binary: Identifying as either having a gender which is in-between or beyond the two categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as fluctuating between ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or as having no gender, either permanently or some of the time.

Men who have sex with men: Men who have sex with men Term used in HIV/AIDS prevention, rarely in other activist circles. It was coined for prevention purposes where the identity of a person does not matter – only the sexual practice.  

Queer: An umbrella term commonly used to define lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other people and institutions on the margins of mainstream culture. Historically, the term has been used to denigrate sexual and gender minorities, but more recently it has been reclaimed by these groups and is increasingly used as an expression of pride and to reject narrow reductive labels. Queer can be a convenient, inclusive term when referring to issues and experiences affecting the many groups subsumed under this umbrella. Because it is still used to demean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, those who do not identify as queer are urged to use the term with caution, or not at all.

Sexual minorities: Refers to groups whose sexual orientation is not strictly heterosexual, or whose sexuality is not exclusively expressed through heterosexual relations. Those who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual are the most readily identifiable sexual minority groups; however, the term can include anyone who engages in same-sex sexual relations, even if they may identify as heterosexual. 

Sexual orientation: A person’s physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction towards other people. Sexual orientation is distinct from gender identity. Sexual orientation comprises three elements: sexual attraction, sexual behaviour and sexual identity. Sexual orientation is most often defined as heterosexuality to identify those who are attracted to individuals of a different sex from themselves, and homosexuality to identify those who are attracted to individuals of the same sex as themselves.

Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI): Often used in the form ‘diverse SOGI’ as a catch-all term to describe non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people. 

Third gender: An umbrella term for a gender other than man or woman. Third gender can refer to being both a man and a woman, neither, or any other gender identity or role. Some societies legally recognise three or more genders. 

Transgender: An umbrella term used to describe people with a wide range of identities —including transsexual people, people who identify as third gender, and others whose appearance and characteristics are perceived as gender atypical and whose sense of their own gender is different to the sex they were assigned at birth. 

Trans man or boy: Trans men identify as men but were assigned female when they were born. Variant: FTM (female-to-male).

Trans woman or girl: Trans women identify as women but were assigned male when they were born. Variant: MTF (male-to-female).

Transphobia: Negative cultural and personal beliefs, opinions, attitudes and behaviors based on prejudice, disgust, fear and/or hatred of trans people or against variations of gender identity and gender expression. Institutional transphobia manifests itself through legal sanctions, pathologisation and absence of or inadequate mechanisms to counter violence and discrimination.


Book traversal links for Executive summary and terminology

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