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International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, Biphobia: Corruption & discrimination impeding global LGBTQI+ equality

Progress calls for addressing discriminatory corruption & its effects

Image: Transparency International, courtesy of Andrea Fonseca and Javier Villaraco

Today, 17 May, is the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It’s a day to recognise that while the rights of the LGBTQI+ people have significantly advanced in recent decades, progress remains patchy and geographically uneven.

Just as the gradual expansion of anti-discrimination legislation offers optimism, tragedies like the recent honour killing of 20-year-old gay Iranian Alireza Fazeli Monfared serve as a stark reminder of the work ahead. The past year has also put an incredible strain on LGBTQI+ communities, as governments in all regions of the world neglected them in their responses to COVID-19 pandemic.

Corruption and discrimination are both significant barriers to achieving an equal and inclusive future, but have so far been studied in isolation from one another, with little research being done on the nature of the relationship between them.

The link between the two phenomena is painfully evident in Russia, which is one of the countries where LGBTQI+ people still live in fear.

In a case documented by the Russian LGBT Network, Fedor, a young man from Krasnodar, was subject to entrapment, physical assault and threats of criminal charges from police officers extorting bribes. Police officers were waiting for Fedor when he arrived at the apartment of a man he had met on a dating app. Claiming that the man he was meeting was a minor, the officers took Fedor to a police station where they assaulted and threatened him with criminal charges, unless he paid them off.

Fedor’s story makes up one of the several illustrative cases featured in a forthcoming study by Transparency International and the Equal Rights Trust. It investigates the interplay between corruption and discrimination, and the impact these dynamics have on individuals and groups subject to discrimination on different grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Greater exposure to corruption

Due to stigma against them in many countries, LGBTQI+ people are at a greater risk of becoming victims of coercive corruption – the kind where those in power use threats or force to extort money or even sexual bribes.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, is a common but largely invisible form of corruption. It happens when people are coerced into paying a bribe with sexual acts rather than money. While women are disproportionally targeted, men, transgender and gender non-conforming people are also affected.

The deafening silence around sextortion

Consider contexts where people’s sexual and gender identities and behaviour are criminalised. When a person’s very identity, or perceived identity, becomes a crime, it creates an environment that leaves them greatly exposed to abuses of power. Discriminatory legal contexts enable unscrupulous officials – often the police – to abuse their power for private gain.

In a modern twist on age-old homophobia, police officers around the world have resorted to cyber-attacks and used dating apps to identify and entrap gay men and transgender women, in particular.

In contexts where their identities are criminalised, LGBTQI+ people already have limited ways of forming communities and meeting each other. Meeting people offline is significantly harder for LGBTQI+ people in many other settings due to the lack of welcoming queer spaces and visibility. In the United States, for example, the Pew Research Centre found that LGBTQ adults use dating apps nearly twice as much as straight adults. This makes the use of dating apps to harass LGBTQI+ people feel especially sinister.

Corruption preventing redress for discrimination

LGBTQI+ people are often unable to challenge the discriminatory corruption they face as a result of the same reasons that make them vulnerable to it in the first place. The very environment that enables discriminatory corruption, such as widespread anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment, prevents people from seeking and achieving redress.

In many countries, there are also no channels for queer people to seek redress. And in places where such channels exist, other barriers can stop people from using them, such as having little trust in public officials, having little hope that justice will be done and, most importantly, having to disclose their LGBTQI+ identities and private life in a potentially queerphobic environment.

These concerns are not unfounded. Fedor, for example, filed a formal complaint with the help of the Russian LGBT Network, but the authorities have reportedly so far refused to open an investigation.

Leaving no one behind

We already knew that corruption and discrimination were two major obstacles to the achievement of sustainable and inclusive development. Our upcoming study with Equal Rights Trust aims to demonstrate that discrimination and corruption are not just correlated but that, in fact, there is a causal and a mutually reinforcing relationship between the two. It shows that corruption is impeding progress towards equal treatment and remains a vehicle for discrimination, and investigates how this affects communities at risk of discrimination across nine countries.

These findings bring home the need to tackle the two phenomena together, if countries are to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, underpinned by the commitment to leave no one behind.

To achieve a world free from corruption, we must fight discrimination too, and vice versa. Otherwise, we risk leaving the people who are most vulnerable to abuses of power – LGBTQI+ people, but also women, racial and ethnic minorities at risk of discrimination and other marginalised communities – further behind and perpetuating structural inequalities. We cannot have fair and just societies unless everyone can enjoy equal rights and protection.

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