Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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Sexual orientation and gender identity

9 min read

Across the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people face discrimination, stigmatization and targeted violence as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the challenges faced by those who belong to both a sexual minority and a marginalized ethnic, religious, linguistic or indigenous community are even more complex. These people frequently are confronted not only by a range of prejudices and human rights violations from society at large, but can face ostracization or exclusion from their own communities too.

These unique difficulties, sustained by homophobia, racism and religious hatred, have persisted even in countries where campaigns for LGBT, minority and indigenous peoples’ rights have been waged with some success. And though members of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples may share common histories of oppression, their aims and values have not always been inclusive of those who may be considered ‘the other’ in their midst. Indeed, they may often be in sharp contradiction – a situation that can lead not only to heightened societal discrimination, but also exert a deep and lasting psychological toll.

Societal discrimination

The poverty, invisibility, segregation and violence that characterize the lives of many minorities and indigenous peoples are typically magnified for LGBT people within them. The difficulties of ‘double discrimination’ mean that, even if sections of society have developed more inclusive attitudes to sexual orientation, religious belief or ethnicity, their stance may not be uniformly progressive. Hence the recent example, widely reported in Indian media, of a mother in Mumbai who placed an advert in a local newspaper to identify a potential groom for her gay son. While the advert was celebrated as a milestone for LGBT recognition in India, it was also criticized for stating – despite stipulating that caste was no bar – a preference for a man from the Brahmanic Iyer community.[i] This incident will come as little surprise to many LGBT people belonging to minority or indigenous communities who have found that relatively progressive views on ethnic discrimination, for example, may not necessarily translate to a similar stance on LGBT rights.

The pressures experienced by minority and indigenous LGBT people are not only created by dominant norms and power structures, but are also imposed from within their own communities. In South Africa, for example, the black population – historically the country’s most marginalized population, who still struggle with the legacy of the apartheid era today – is still largely concentrated in unsafe, poorly serviced settlements with high levels of crime and insecurity, especially for women. However, in this context the country’s black lesbian population are particularly vulnerable due to the prevalence of ‘corrective rape’ – a practice commonly inflicted on girls and women suspected to be lesbian. This is despite South Africa having one of the most progressive frameworks for LGBT groups in Africa.

Sexual violence is often used as a way for more powerful members of society to control those they perceive to be beneath them – a situation that places minority and indigenous women at risk of sexual assault or harassment not only from majority men, but also male members of their own community. A similar dynamic can drive sexual abuse against minority or indigenous LGBT people who, already marginalized on account of their ethnicity or religion, have limited access to formal justice or other forms of protection. As one gay Dalit explained to MRG, ‘If somebody is below them they feel happy. Maybe they consider it an honour, that “I have fucked him, now he will be subservient to me all his life, he will not lift his eyes in front of me”… They think, “He is a soft target, he will not tell anyone.”’[ii]

Conflicting identities

Despite the many challenges they experience, minority and indigenous communities have often been able to draw considerable strength from a shared sense of identity. The same is true of LGBT activists who, through effective mobilization and awareness raising, have managed to promote a powerful collective consciousness. Yet for those belonging to both groups, these identities can come into conflict, at times meaning they struggle to be fully accepted by either community. Many are also confronted by the painful decision to ‘choose’ one or the other, with lasting consequences. In the words of one Orthodox American Jew, describing his expulsion following his outing as a homosexual, ‘My community was gone, and my community was my world. It was what had sustained me for years.’[iii]

In Europe, while in many countries the long established repression of sexuality has in recent years given way to a more liberal environment for LGBT groups, sections of the Muslim community still view homosexuality as taboo. Nevertheless, some Muslim commentators have also argued that Islam itself is not inherently homophobic, but only certain interpretations of its beliefs.[iv] In fact, most religions include interpretations that are hostile to homosexuality, as well as positive examples of tolerance and inclusion, but it is sometimes the case that minority communities adhere to more restrictive applications of their faith due in part to their particular customs or because of pressures arising out of circumstances such as poverty, migration or displacement. Indeed, maintaining these beliefs may be seen by some as a means of protecting their cultural identity from assimilation.

In the US, similar issues are faced by Orthodox American Jews. Gay community members are reportedly excluded on a regular basis due to their sexual orientation, forcing some to even sign up to so-called ‘curing ceremonies’.[v] Among the country’s African American population, too, Christian beliefs within the community are at times contributing to the stigmatization of its LGBT members – despite the historic role of local churches in bolstering the civil rights movement. ‘I have learned that whom we shout out and pray to on Sunday as an oppressed people does not have any relation to whom we damn, discard, and demonize,’ Irene Monroe, an African American activist, has written. ‘The black church is an unabashed and unapologetic oppressor of its LGBT… community.’[vi]

In turn, LGBT communities are not themselves immune towards discrimination against certain ethnic or religious communities. For example, African Americans in Chicago have still reported being refused entry to gay night clubs[vii] – a commonly reported form of racial discrimination in the US. More generally, LGBT communities may bring together sexual minorities but still fail to include those from religious or ethnic minorities. As one gay African American put it, ‘”gay” meant “white”, and everybody else was kind of visiting.’[viii]

Activism and political representation

Though in many countries progressive measures have been taken to encourage greater minority or indigenous representation through the use of quotas, as well as commit more generally to expanding LGBT representation in the public sphere, there has generally been very little representation by those belonging to both groups. Notwithstanding some inspiring exceptions – such as the groundbreaking election in January 2015 of Madhu Bai Kinnar, a transgender woman and Dalit, as mayor of Raigarh in India – for the most part minority and indigenous LGBT people have been largely sidelined from decision-making. In India, LGBT and Dalit rights groups have tended to operate independently, leaving little opportunity for collaboration or consideration of multiple discrimination.[viiii] Despite the shared struggle of lower castes and LGBT groups against deep-seated hierarchies, there has been very little in the way of shared mobilization. According to one Dalit lesbian activist, living at the intersection of caste, gender and sexual identity, ‘gay politics in India has not even begun to grapple with caste; Dalit politics remains as homophobic as any other politics; feminism in India is lesbophobic and homophobic and implicitly upper caste.’[x]

These problems are further exacerbated by the added difficulty of having to engage multiple communities, creating considerable difficulties for organizations seeking to navigate a range of beliefs. Groups such as Imaan, a UK-based group that aims to engage LGBT Muslims and their families to explore issues around sexual orientation within Islam, seeks to challenge homophobic attitudes among British Muslims without alienating significant sections of the community, nor inadvertently reinforcing popular stereotypes about Islam among non-Muslims.[xi] Nevertheless, LGBT Muslim groups have been able to successfully persuade other community members to reconsider their views on issues such as homosexuality. Recently, for instance, activists launched a public campaign in Whitechapel, an area of London with a large Muslim population, to help promote greater tolerance within the community and persuade mosques to welcome gay Muslim worshippers.[xii]


Minority and indigenous LGBT people face a unique struggle that frequently positions them in opposition not only to the prejudices of wider society but also those of their own community. Even among activists, there has often been far too little in the way of engagement between minority or indigenous communities and LGBT groups. Nevertheless, as these barriers begin to lower with a recognition of their shared challenges, LGBT people belonging to minority and indigenous communities may finally begin to receive greater recognition within their own communities and from society at large.

There have also been many inspiring examples of LGBT minority and indigenous activists drawing on their own traditions to combat homophobic and transphobic attitudes, such as the public art created by the Manu Project in New Zealand by indigenous and migrant LGBT youth. And minority and indigenous identity can also provide a powerful platform to mobilize LGBT groups in different areas. The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), for example, has been able to mobilize LGBT people from a diverse range of communities across the US to encourage greater solidarity and collaboration. The NQAPIA’s 2013 National Summit, hosted in Hawai’i, explored indigenous responses to LGBT issues and the impacts of colonialism on the situation today.[13] Indeed, many minority and indigenous communities, recognizing the disastrous legacy that colonialism has had on attitudes towards LGBT people, have been able to find positive models and messages of inclusion from their pre-colonial history.

Peter Grant

[i] Baudh S., ‘Groom for groom’, The Indian Express, 25 May 2015.

[ii] Quoted in Hoare, J. (ed.), State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011, MRG, London, pp.145-146.

[iii] Jordan, Y., ‘Pride reflections: confronting my anti-gay bully’, Huffington Post, 19 June 2012.

[iv] Hasan, M., ‘As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality – but I oppose homophobia’, New Statesman, 20 May 2013.

[v] Besen, W., ‘Chaim Levin is giving hope to LGBT Orthodox Jews’, Huffington Post, 2 February 2016.

[vi] Monroe, I., ‘MLK reflection for LGBTQ justice in the black church’, Huffington Post, 16 January 2012.

[vii] Manske, N., ‘Black LGBTQ stories: are black gay men just special guests in a white gay world?’, Huffington Post, 6 February 2012.

[viii] Ibid.

[viiii] Baudh, op. cit.

[x] Tellis, A., ‘Dalit, feminist and gay?’, The New Indian Express, 13 December 2008.

[xi] Imaan, ‘Press statement: we can’t defeat homophobia with Islamophobia’, undated, retrieved 20 February 2016.

[xii] Murphy, J., ‘Gay Muslims campaign a Whitechapel station to encourage support for LGBT worshippers’, Evening Standard, 21 October 2015.

[xiii] NQAPIA, ‘Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and immigration take center stage at LGBT summit in Hawai’i’, 2 August 2013.

Photo: LGBT Muslim placards at London Pride 2010. Credit: R/DV/RS.