Heteronormativity in the International Development Sector and Why We Need to Get Over It


LGBTQIA + Health

After enduring sexual violence in the DRC conflict, Steven Kighoma fled to Uganda where he became an activist with the NGO, Men of Hope Refugee Association, supporting male victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The experiences of male victims include rape, being forced to watch family members being raped, being beaten on the genitals, and enduring other kinds of abuse. Compounding their trauma, men who have suffered sexual violence in the region are often seen as not properly masculine and face homophobic violence and criminalization, regardless of their sexual orientation. In addition, they face exclusion from survivor support services which assume that only women face sexual violence.

The biggest challenge is “the ignorance of the government, the medical institutions, the community, not knowing a male victim of sexual violence exists,” says Kighoma. “There is a confusion when you talk about male victims of sexual violence. People confuse it with homosexuality.”

As Kighoma says, being a male victim of sexual violence is not the same as homosexuality. Sexual violence can happen to people of all sexual orientations. So why am I writing about sexual violence against men in an article for pride month? Because the same kinds of systematic discrimination that make things worse for male victims of sexual violence also make things worse for LGBTIQ+[1] people. One of the many lessons from Kighoma’s experience is that whatever your gender or sexual orientation, heteronormativity can make things worse.

What is heteronormativity and how does it make things worse?

Heteronormativity is more than just the belief that particular stereotypical forms of heterosexuality are the default, preferred, or normal mode of relationships and expression; it’s also the systematic privileging of those kinds of relationships and expressions.

People who don’t fit these expectations face social disapproval, exclusion from health and education systems, and economic disadvantages. For example, health services may discriminate against pregnant women who are not in heterosexual marriages. In Bangladesh, transgender people face high levels of harassment in school which may cause them to drop out and limit their opportunities for education. If they are open about their desires, lesbians in the informal economy in Peru may jeopardize the community relationships on which they depend to take part in the informal economy. And lesbians and gay men in Zimbabwe may be thrown out of their homes if they openly seek same-sex relationships.

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