Presumptions, Prejudice and Progress: The Dynamics of Violence Against Sexual and Gender Minorities in Conflict-Affected Societies

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Reposted from 16 Days Blogathon as part of LGBT History Month Highlights

Fidelma Ashe


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During a project that investigated how peace is imagined in societies emerging from conflict, I conducted a series of focus groups with LGBTI+ people in Northern Ireland. The focus groups explored the participants’ experiences of conflict-related harms and investigated the impact of the ongoing peace process on ameliorating those harms. As expected, the group discussions uncovered multiple layers of prejudice, inequality and insecurity during the conflict. They also exposed the persistence of past inequities in the present. The testimony of the research participants highlighted clearly that, despite over 20 years of peacebuilding, historical prejudices reinforced by the conflict have persisted and continue to shape the lives of sexual and gender minorities in the region.

In short, while the rest of Northern Ireland society experienced increased levels of security during the period of peacebuilding – which was facilitated by the 1998 peace accord – LGBTI+ people continue to experience high levels of personal insecurity combined with and compounded by social and political exclusion.

Context-specific case studies allow researchers to explore the local factors that shape the inequities, insecurity and violence that LGBTI+ people experience during conflict and after peace accords. Regional studies also provide local-level insights into the role that sexual and gender ideologies and practices play in shaping the broader contours of violent conflict. For too long, gendered bodies and sexuality have been framed as feminised, apolitical arenas with little connection to political conflict and its aftermath. Historical presumptions that sexual and gender inequalities are residual dynamics in conflict and conflict transformation have been shattered by critical analysts.

One need look no further than Joane Nagel’s expertly crafted analysis of the interconnections between ethnicity, conflict, gender and sexuality to appreciate the role that heterosexist ideologies play in ethno-nationalist boundary-making and antagonisms. As she notes:

“The borderlands that lie at the intersections of ethnic boundaries are “ethnosexual frontiers” that are surveilled and supervised, patrolled and policed, regulated and restricted…”

Those regulatory practices are shaped locally, but there are many cross-cultural patterns in terms of how conflict-related harms are produced and reproduced.

Combined local and cross-cultural analyses have dispelled the presumption that prejudice against LGBTI+ people in conflict-affected societies and in societies transitioning to peace is a product of free-floating historical norms about sexuality and gender identity that become reinforced during conflict. This reading of conflict-affected violence against sexual and gender minorities suggests that conflict exacerbates pre-existing violences against already ‘vulnerable’ minority groups. ‘Vulnerablity’ to violence during conflict is not an inherent state but is rather produced and reproduced socially, ideologically and politically. Recognition of conflict-related harms – including violence against sexual and gender minorities – must be framed within the conditions of the reproduction of those harms.

Ethno-nationalist communities, the state, and social institutions increase forms of insecurity for LGBTI+ through the maintenance of hierarchies that preserve and manufacture relationships of privilege and subordination. For example, ethno-nationalism has too often dismissed claims for sexual equality as inconsequential. State security policy can operate to facilitate violence against LGBTI+ people and increase levels of insecurity during conflict. Gender and sexual power-relationships within ethno-nationalist communities often lead to the exiling of LGBTI+ people from their homes.

When they seek relocation in other countries, sexual and gender minorities can face further violence and oppression. A report by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) published in 2016 found that:

“LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees are subject to severe social exclusion and violence in countries of asylum by both the host community and the broader asylum-seeker and refugee community.”

These are the concrete processes of inequality and violence that conflict research must address, and they are underpinned by economic inequities and inequalities in decision-making power that are actively maintained.

The Havana peace negotiation (2012–2016) – which led to the Colombian peace accord in 2016 – highlights how policies and laws can be included in negotiation processes and in the agreements that emerge. The Colombian accord addressed past inequities, violence, insecurities, and forms of economic and social marginalisation. The agreement not only recognized violence against LGBTI+ people as an aspect of conflict, it also recognized the role of local-level social hierarchies in supporting human rights violations within the transitional framework.

In addition, the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland exposes the advances that sustained struggle for legal equality can secure in the context of peacebuilding. Much can be done during peacebuilding to address the historical inequities and violences experienced by sexual and gender minorities. Despite these examples of significant advances in sexual and gender equality, it is important to note that in both Colombia and Northern Ireland, powerful groups have continued to frame demands for legal reform and political inclusion as reprehensible, and as a challenge to the moral integrity of the nation. Moreover, legal change does not invariably lead to reductions in prejudice or violence; Colombia’s murder rate fell to its lowest level in four decades in 2017, but government figures indicated no drop in the number of LGBTI+ people murdered in that year.

Purposeful action is required by national and international actors to address the ongoing violence experienced by sexual and gender minorities during and after conflict, and academics have a responsibility to ensure that those expressions of violence are recognised in conflict-focused and transitional justice research. In this respect, the framers of the Yogyakarta principles have charted a clear theoretical and policy-focused path for scholars and policy-makers.

Meaningful peacebuilding requires an approach that supports diversity, inclusion and equality for all identities affected by conflict. Peacebuilding cannot be reduced to the management of antagonistic ethnic-blocs. Those who have struggled to end ideological and material violence against LGBTI+ people during conflict and who have campaigned for their inclusion in peacebuilding processes have presented us with a version of peace that is inclusive, diverse and progressive. Conflict research must incorporate that vision because it represents a more meaningful form of peace for the whole society that challenges multiple expressions of violence, injustice and inequality.


Fidelma Ashe is a reader in politics and member of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. Her recent book, Gender, Nationalism and Conflict Transformation: New Themes and Old Problems in Northern Ireland Politics (Routledge) interrogates the role of gender and sexuality in shaping both conflict and peace.