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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Queer and Postcolonial Perspectives on Development and Climate Change

While neoliberal policies can contribute to an improvement of LGBTQI+ rights, patriarchy and heteronormativity remain ingrained in market policies. Reforms and development strategies aimed at economic growth tend to further increase minority populations’ marginalization. Alongside these neoliberal policies, environmental extractivism has led to an increase of socio-environmental conflicts (1) which suggests that climate change requires us to rethink concepts of modernity and progress including the neoliberal logic underlying development strategies.

Since marginalized populations (i.e., racialized, sexual and gender minorities) are particularly vulnerable to the repercussions of climate change, and can provide different valuable insights, climate change solutions and development strategies can only be sustainable, just and holistic if they consider diverse marginalized perspectives.

LGBTQ+ Rights in Development

Among feminists as well as within development studies and work different approaches and disagreements exist: While some argue for fundamental structural change, others emphasise the use of education and legislative reforms, or economic growth to counteract discrimination and inequalities (2). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the World Bank focuses not only on the impact homo- and transphobic discrimination has on LGBTQ+ people’s wellbeing, but on the economy. In the context of queer people’s rights and freedoms, the World Bank’s narratives and proposed solutions are heavily centerd around economic and health factors such as employment opportunities and access to financial as well as health services (3, 4, 5).

In their 2021 report Equality of Opportunity for Sexual and Gender Minorities, the World Bank presents data on laws and regulations which impact LGBTQ+ people’s economic inclusion in sixteen countries (6). The data is heavily quantified and while it provides a comprehensive overview of governments’ (lack of) efforts to protect LGBTQ+ rights, contextual informationi.e., on the socio-political and economic impact of postcolonialityis missing from the report.

An economy-based narrative raises the question if this approach to fighting discrimination against gender and sexual minorities is indeed targeted at individuals’ wellbeing or at the overall increase of the economy’s wellbeing through "assimilation" of queer people "into a capitalist society", as activist and journalist Cy Lecerf Maulpoix puts it (7).

Neoliberal development approaches can positively impact LGBTQ+ rights since as economic structures and labor realities change, social structures change as well (8). Marriage and children are no longer societal and financial necessities. Increasing urbanisation provides liberties and creative spaces which enable people belonging to sexual and gender minorities to explore and live their identities. Yet, simultaneously, heteronormativity and patriarchy have become deeply ingrained in market ideologies. Thus, a narrow focus on economic growth and poverty eradication which sees gender equality and non-discrimination only as a means to and end, or conflates gender issues with women’s poverty can never provide holistic solutions. As a result it will not succeed in alleviating inequalities (9, 10).

Marginalized Experiences of Neoliberal Reform

Means such as anti-corruption strategies need to consider national socio-political and historical contexts or else risk to cause developments which are directly opposed to the intended outcomes. Jonathan Murphy and Oana Albu warn that "he imposition of rapid neoliberal economic reforms in a postcolonial state such as Tunisia […] will likely result in expanded […] opportunity for economic capture by elite networks" (11). Moreover, the power imbalance between newly created state institutions and powerful Western economic institutions is likely to result in economic opportunities for foreign capital rather than the Tunisian people.

Feminist activists add to this criticism by arguing that the state’s approach to gender equality is characterized by tokenism. Women’s rights are used by politicians to legitimize their return to power after the revolution while corruption persists at an especially high cost for gender and sexual minorities (12). Similarly, Adam Hanieh argues that the World Bank only appears to focus more than before the revolution of 2011 on the social inclusion of marginalised populations, accountability and public engagements in their relations with North African countries such as Tunisia (13). Essentially, the neoliberal logic of competition and open markets has remained the same, and development narratives of livelihood improvements for the marginalized serve as justification for pro-market reforms.

The omission of the postcolonial context of countries such as Tunisia, as visible in the World Banks report, supports the spreading and reinforcement of Westernat times (neo-)colonialistconceptualisations of queer identities and experiences (14). Instead, the specific sets of data which was gathered, the data gathering methods that where used and the thereof constructed narratives are used to guide and legitimize the World Bank’s development policies of which it is questionable if they do indeed benefit those who are claimed to do so (15).

From Economic Development to People’s Wellbeing

The World Bank is criticized for its generalizations that underly development strategies and which are derived from particular experiences, as well as for its work with governments rather than citizens themselves (15, 16). To these points can be added that the conditions which are imposed on countries which receive loans by international financial institutions such as the World Bank but also transnational corporations and powerful states worsen the precariousness of marginalized populations such as LGBTQ+ communities. These conditions include drastic financial cuts in state budgets which are often made in areas such as education and gender equality (17). Gender and sexual minorities are the first and most affected by such measures while reforms aimed at increased global trade and economic growth benefit first and foremost (Western) donor countries.

Thus, while World Bank policies appear to include more and more considerations regarding the non-discrimination of sexual and gender minorities, the continued neoliberal and state-centric logic which are at their core are likely to reinforce inequalities. Martha Nussbaum recommends that such economy-focused development approaches be replaced by approaches based on capabilities (18). In this approach she includes life, health and bodily integrity as essential focal points, as well as imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, relationship with nature, and control over one’s environment. This set of capabilities does not only take into consideration the material wellbeing of people but also their emotional wellbeing and their opportunity to live authentically. It is an alternative to a narrow focus on economic goals which may well result in more holistic and effective solutions, if not for the global economy then for people.

Vulnerability and Resilience to Climate Change

Queer people, like other marginalized groups, are often more vulnerable to climate change than more privileged populations (7). Vulnerability to climate change (events), according to Helle Rydström and Catarina Kinnvall, is defined as the extent to which a person or a group is (in)able to anticipate such events, resist and recover from their impact (19). This definition already alludes to climate change events not being natural disasters in and of themselves. Rather, these disastrous events are always taking place in a social context of power relations and socio-political decision-making that contribute to the amplification or reduction of populations’ vulnerability (20).

Climate change will ultimately affect everyone. However, social factors and inequalities have as a consequence that marginalized people – i.e., poor people, racialized, sexual and gender minorities – experience the effects of climate change first and more severely (7, 21). Yet, it is not only pre-existing inequalities that increase vulnerabilities but also political and humanitarian response to climate change events and crises. Heteronormative underpinnings of development and crisis management run the danger of privileging (heterosexual) nuclear families and cisgender people and thereby exclude queer persons from essential services and aid.

In other words, LGBTQ+ people’s experiences of vulnerability to climate change events are characterized precisely by their experience of belonging to a sexual and/or gender minority (22). Pre-existing social factors may lead to a greater risk of poor mental and overall health as well as decreased access to public services and a greater vulnerability to violence. In the event of a disaster, these vulnerabilities, inequalities and marginalization are further reinforced. Disasters lead to an increased need for certain services or access to certain institutions which is at times denied to or made more difficult for LGBTQI+ people, or which is connected to discrimination-related anxieties and thereby further reproduces existing inequalities (23).

Homelessness, Hurricanes and Covid-19

Lecerf Maulpoix (7) illustrates LGBTQI+ people’s overproportioned vulnerability to climate change events using three examples.

(1) With 40% of homeless people identifying as LGBTQI+ (in 2014) compared to 3.7% of the overall adult population (in 2014; 7.2% in 2022), LGBTQI+ people are overrepresented among the USA’s homeless population (24). They are among the first to be affected by events such as extreme heat, wildfires and floods.

(2) After hurricane Maria in 2017, many queer Porto Ricans encountered increased difficulties obtaining their daily medicine.

(3) In France, the most vulnerable to the social and economic repercussions of the covid-19 pandemic, which Lecerf Maulpoix describes as an ecological crisis of sorts, are working class people, migrants, racialized people and LGBTQI+ individuals (especially transgender people). Additionally, the impacts of the pandemic are added on top of and at times reinforce pre-existing constant exposure to, i.e., homelessness and violence both within families as well as society.

Multiplicity of Experiences and Intersecting Identities

While the LGBTQI+ community as a whole is constantly facing discrimination and violence based on patriarchal and heteronormative structures, it would be misleading to conclude that experiences and vulnerabilities are the same among all LGBTQI+ people (22). Racialized and migrant LGBTQI+ people face additional discrimination due to their race/ethnicity or citizenship status. Queer men tend to have access to more privileges than queer women due to the patriarchal structuring of society. LGBTQI+ sex workers face further stigma and discrimination on grounds of their (criminalized) profession.

An increasing number of queer people are joining climate movements and seek to combine LGBTQ+ and environmental activism (7). This is unsurprising considering the reinforcement of queer people’s vulnerability through climate change combined with an understanding of climate change and the extractivist logic at its root as an infringement of human rights, or as an obstacle to people’s capabilities (1, 18). Yet, the social (middle-class) and racial/ethnical (white) homogeneity, as well as heterocentrism (if not homo- and transphobia) of many environmental and climate activist groups poses an obstacle to a holistic strategy for change.

Lecerf Maulpoix describes the French climate movement as, in his experience, largely lacking the inclusion of minorities in debates (7). These debates are often centered around white heterosexual cis-men who are experienced in activism and often have ties to big, hierarchically structured organizations leading to virilist and heterosexist discourses. Within these discourses still exists a binary thinking of culture/nature, man/woman, hetero-/homosexual which despite appearance are not natural but normative and socio-politically created.

On this basis homo- and transphobia take shape under the pretext of "defending a fantasized and sacralized nature" and consequently equally naturalized bodies and identities (7). One of the cases that illustrate these processes is an analysis of transphobia through the lens of body politics. Body politics understands bodies not only in biological terms but as political sites of social experience (15). Through the naturalization of bodies based on a static male/female binary – and their reduction to reproductive biological functions – sex reassignment surgery and hormones are conflated with transhumanism and the creation of post-human cyborg through technology which is as such necessarily opposed to (an unchangeable heteronormative) nature.

The challenge of merging LGBTQI+ activism (as well as other minority populations’ interests and struggles) with the (Western) climate movement illustrates Chandhoke’s argument that civil society movements do not inevitably lead to increased democratization and equality (25). Without the inclusion of minorities and minority perspectives, it is not possible to fundamentally change society (7, 21). Instead, their exclusion enables the continued reproduction of violence and inequality. Their inclusion, on the contrary, supports the reduction of marginalized populations’ vulnerability (19).

It would be wrong to blame Western white heterosexual cis-men for the entirety of social and environmental problems (26). Yet, it is undeniable that it is them who profit most from the othering of racial/ethnic, gender and sexual minorities, and the exploitation of nature and non-human life, or in short from capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. The acknowledgement of minority perspectives helps to deconstruct colonial and heterosexist patterns of reasoning and develop new perspectives on human/Earth relationships, bodies and our collective dependence on technologies (7).

The heterogeneity of the LGBTQI+ community (as well as other minority populations) and experiences makes it difficult, if not impossible, to develop uniform and universal queer/ feminist/ decolonial/ anti-racist ecological thought. However, according to Tunisian philosopher Soumaya Mestiri, the goal should not be to overcome these at times contradictory differences. Instead, the aim should be to recognize (and listen to) each other’s individual standpoints so that people with different experiences and priorities can nonetheless support each other and thereby change society in a sustainable and just way (12).

Written by Merle Emrich.

Cover photo by Alex Jackman.


(1) Raftopoulos, Malayna (2017) ‘Contemporary Debates on Social-environmental Conflicts, Extractivism and Human Rights in Latin America’, The International Journal of Human Rights, 21(4), pp. 387-404.

(2) Sardenberg, Cecilia M. B. (2006) ‘Back to women? Translations, resignifications and myths of gender in policy and practice in Brazil’, in Cornwall, Andrea, Elizabeth Harrison & Ann Whitehead (eds.) Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges, London and New Delhi: Zed Books, pp. 48-64.

(3) World Bank [1] (n.d.) Sexual orientation and gender identity, accessible here.

(4) World Bank [2] (n.d.) Equality of Opportunity for Sexual and Gender Minorities, accessible here.

(5) SOGI Task Force & Dominik Koehler (2015) ‘LGBTI people are (likely) over represented in the bottom 40%’, World Bank Blogs, accessible here.

(6) Cortez, Clifton, John Arzinos & Christian de la Medina Soto (2021) Equality of Opportunity for Sexual and Gender Minorities, accessible here.

(7) Correia, Mickaël (2021) ‘Cy Lecerf Maulpoix : « La lutte climatique demeure encore très blanche et hétérocentrée »’, Mediapart (24 July 2021), accessible here.

(8) Bosia, Michael J. (2014) ‘Strange Fruit: Homophobia, the State and the Politics of LGBT Rights and Capabilities’, Journal of Human Rights, 3(3), pp. 256-273.

(9) Kabeer, Naila (2015) ‘Gender, Poverty, and Inequality: A Brief History of Feminist Contributions in the Field of International Development’, Gender & Development, 23(2), pp. 189-205.

(10) Holmes, Rebecca, Nicola Jones, Fouzia Mannan, Rosana Vargas, Yisak Tafere & Tassew Woldehanna (2011) ‘Addressing Gendered Risks and Vulnerabilities through Social Protection: Examples of Good Practice from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Peru’, Gender & Development, 19(2), pp.255-270.

(11) Murphy, Jonathan & Oana Brindusa Albu (2019) ‘The politics of transnational accountability policies and the (re)construction of corruption: The case of Tunisia, Transparency International and the World Bank’, Accounting Forum, 42(1), pp. 32-46.

(12) Bienaimé, Charlotte (2019) ‘Luttes féministes et LGBT en Tunisie’, Un Podcast A Soi (20), accessible here.

(13) Hanieh, Adam (2015) ‘Shifting Priorities or Business as Usual? Continuity and Change in the post-2011 IMF and World Bank Engagement with Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42(1), pp. 119-134.

(14) Obendorf, Simon (1999) ‘Homosexual Rights and the Non-Western World: A Postcolonial Reading of Homosexual Rights in International Human Rights Law’, Third World Legal Studies, 15(7), pp. 179-204.

(15) Harcourt, Wendy (2009) Body Politics in Development, London: Zed Books Ltd.

(16) Young, Robert J. C. (2003) Postcolonialism: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

(17) RESULTS (2011) Make it Right: Ending Crisis in Girls’ Education, accessible here.

(18) Nussbaum, Martha (2005) ‘Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities’, Journal of Human Development, 6(2), pp. 167-183.

(19) Rydström, Helle & Catarina Kinnvall (2019) ‘Introduction: Climate Hazards, Disasters and Gender Ramifications’, in Kinvall, Catarina and Helle Rydström (eds.) Climate Hazards, Disasters and Gender Ramifications, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-20.

(20) Enarson, Elaine & Bob Pease (2016) ‘The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Thinking about Men and Masculinities’, in Enarson, Elaine & Bob Pease (eds.) Men, Masculinities and Disaster, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 3-20.

(21) MacGregor, Sherilyn (2010) ‘A Stranger Silence Still: The Need for Feminist Social Research on Climate Change’, Sociological Review, 57, pp. 124-140.

(22) Gorman-Murray, Andrew, Scott McKinnon & Dale Dominey-Howes (2016) ‘Masculinity, sexuality and disaster: unpacking gendered LGBT experiences in the 2011 Brisbane floods in Queensland, Australia’, in Enarson, Elaine & Bob Pease (eds.) Men, Masculinities and Disaster, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 128-139.

(23) Rahman, Sadequr (2013) ‘Climate Change, Disaster and Gender Vulnerability: A Study of Two Divisions of Bangladesh’, American Journal of Human Ecology, 2(2), pp. 72-82.

(24) Jones, Jeffrey M. (2022) ‘What Percentage of Americans Are LGBT?’, Gallup, accessible here.

(25) Chandhoke, Neera (2007) ‘Civil Society’, Development in Practice, 17, pp. 607-614.

(26) Pulé, Paul Mark & Martin Hultman (2019) “Industrial/breadwinner masculinities: Understanding the complexities of climate change denial”, in Kinvall, Catarina and Helle Rydström (eds.) Climate Hazards, Disasters and Gender Ramifications, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 86-100.


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