International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia (IDAHOBIT).

4 min read
CE Rosie Wheen at a Pride in Water event
Image: WaterAid/Pride in Water

Rosie Wheen, Chief Executive, WaterAid Australia

I remember where I was standing at the annual flower show Floriade in Canberra two decades ago when my brother told me he was gay. I was the first family member he told and as I look back now, it breaks my heart the weight he felt in these conversations. As if this was somehow bad news he was breaking to us.

This experience has impacted me deeply as a sister and as a leader and informs WaterAid’s approach to inclusion and addressing discrimination against the LGBTIQA+ community.

31 years ago - on May 17, 1990 - the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) celebrates LGBTQIA+ people globally, and raises awareness for the work still needed to combat discrimination.

Such discrimination – being gay classified as a disease - baked into systems, perpetuates stigmas that impact the daily lives of so many, including the lives of my family on that day at Floriade.

Much progress has been made for the rights of the LGBTIQA+ community in many parts of the world, but not all. At WaterAid, we see the intersection of the right to water and sanitation and LGBTIQA+ rights. An example of this is our work in Timor-Leste, through our project Building collaboration: WaterAid’s foundational approach to reaching and including people who are sexual and gender minorities in Timor-Leste.

We know from our work in the Timor-Lese that sexual orientation, gender identity and expression such as lesbian, gay and transgender is considered highly taboo (“tabu los”). The human right to water and sanitation for all, and seeing gender equality as integral to this, is a core part of WaterAid’s approach to strengthening WASH systems in Timor-Leste. To achieve this, we developed a women’s empowerment and gender transformative framework that also incorporated specific sexual and gender minority (SGM) inclusion components.

Our framework focused on the fact that SGMs experience specific WASH challenges. This includes access to WASH facilities for trans women and extends to safety for lesbian or bisexual women and the menstrual hygiene management needs of trans men. To build approaches towards reaching and including people who are LGBTIQA+ WaterAid’s Timor-Leste team led a consultation with SGM rights groups in Dili.  WaterAid met with as many grassroots rights groups as possible, to understand the challenges and opportunities impacting them and their members and to seek their advice on approaches.

Throughout 2019-2020, one local rights group facilitated two internal workshops on SGM inclusion for WaterAid. The first workshop was for WaterAid staff only, where SGM rights group representative shared their experiences and an overview of what work they do in communities. A second workshop was held later, and WaterAid local partners joined too.

The local rights group shared an overview of what sexual orientation and gender identities mean in Timor-Leste. They shared case studies form communities about discrimination and guidance on positive terminology and ways to do inclusion. From this work, the team has a deeper understanding and stronger partnerships to ensure the work WaterAid is doing improves SGMs WASH outcomes.

Beyond this ongoing work in Timor-Leste, we also know that if we want to achieve transformation in our work with communities, we need to do the internal culture work. We know that culture counts. By that I mean ensuring as an organisation, we have a culture that strives to reflects the gender and socially just world we want to live in and that we do the work individually to understand our biases at WaterAid, like at a recent all-staff meeting in the lead up to IDAHOBIT, where a session was ran reflecting on the history of the day and offering actions that each person could do.

We also know that as an organisation there will be ways that we can do better to ensure that our staff from the LGBTIQA+ community feel safe at WaterAid, including simple measures such as including pronouns in our email signature, through to seeking feedback on some of the structural issues that may impact on staff. For example, we recently had feedback that our security and travel briefings to staff did not include information or opportunities to discuss specific risks for LGBTIQA+ staff that were travelling. We are actioning that.

We will continue to work on self-reflection and learning along with our culture and systems so that we continue to deliver transformational WASH. I also know that my leadership is key and it must be visible. My ambition as a sister, mother and leader is that my language, behaviour and actions are constant signals that inclusion and addressing discrimination are at the forefront of what I do.