Advocating LGBTQI rights across cultural and religious lines

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Advocating LGBTQI rights across cultural and religious lines

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • How can human rights advocates create awareness of LGBTQI rights in communities that do not recognize, or are hostile to, these individuals?
  • What is the role of international human rights organizations in working to change local social dynamics?
  • How can a meaningful dialogue be established when cultural values and the needs of LGBTQI individuals diverge?
  • What is the role of religious and cultural leaders in building awareness and advocating for LGBTQI rights?
  • What are useful strategies for creating LGBTQI allies?
  • Share stories of success
Frame the message!

This is a vast series of questions ! And obviously we are still struggling to find the answers, as the persistence of LGBTQIphobias shows. But recent analyses of LGBT campaigns have shown that the essential lessons are to:

- identify exactly who are the people we should target as the "conflicted middle": people who have a good potential to take the change journey

- research very precisely what values these people hold (are they more sensitive to the value of "freedom", or do they identify more as "loyal to a social group", etc ?), where their resistance lies (do they perceive LGBTQI people as a danger somewhere?), who they trust and whose lead they are ready to follow, etc. 

- based on this research, frame the message in terms of values, visuals, symbols, metaphors, messengers, etc.

There are many fascinating resources on framing, but the two essential ones I know are:

Use Families as a common ground

One fundamental aspect is finding a common ground with the people we want to persuade. Nobody wants to be told to change. People start changing when they identify with you, when they feel you share the same issues, the same values, the same concerns. 

"Family values" have for a long time been "left" to traditional conservative circles. In Georgia (Caucasus), the religious right has even started reclaiming May 17th, the international Day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, as the "day of traditional families".

But LGBTQI activists are now determined to claim family values back, and to show that family love is a value that connects us all, rather than divides us. The road is still long, as resistance to LGBTQI families is strongly engrained. But progress is in the making. A very interesting common reflection among activists has been captured in a recent publication: Using family as a frame in social justice activism: A guide for activists and funders in Europe

As this guide puts it " Instead of countering anti-equality arguments about a model or ideal family – heterosexual, white, religious, married, with children –, we argue it is time for social justice activists to talk about their families and their vision of family. This, we continue to argue, will be more effective than talking about rights alone. In the public mind, rights are for minority groups; family is for everyone."

iSo one answer to "How can a meaningful dialogue be established when cultural values and the needs of LGBTQI individuals diverge"

is to find a common ground to stand on. Moderately "hostile" people will  necessarily hold some values that will at some stage intersect with the protection of LGBTQI people, and their access to their rights.

Quoting the report again "if we can infuse societal debates with a progressive vision of family, then we can defeat the fearmongers and hate-peddlers who currently hold “family” hostage."

LGBTQI rights and cultural relativism

The demand for the recognition of LGBTQI rights in societies unaccustomed to certain norms and principles of human rights could be considered an attempt to shift standings of society along a spectre from strong cultural relativism( moral philosophy of society, its religious, legal and political practices, among other things) towards the universality of human rights. In cases when we have societies or states exhibiting strong cultural relativism, individuals can enjoy only a narrow scope of human rights. Those rights falling outside of firmly established norms and traditions or those vehemently opposed by authoritarian and conservative authorities are particularly restricted. Therefore, it makes sense for local human rights activists to strive for even the slightest adjustment of norms and traditions that contradict LGBTQI rights. Considering the fact that in authoritarian regimes, rather than being used to uphold existing community values, cultural relativism is often used to prevent the promotion and infiltration of standards and norms that could destabilise the regime as such, so compromise becomes difficult or impossible. In such a situation, the international community should employ diverse tactics towards the state to constrain it to obey international norms and standards, especially those that cannot be subjected to cultural relativism but are widely perpetrated by oppressive regimes, such as the right to life or prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.


For local human rights activists to achieve those adjustments in societies that do not recognise LGBTQI rights, they should gain the support of potential allies. Those allies could be different representatives of civil society, academics, journalists, initiatives that combat discrimination towards different groups, medical and social workers, lawyers, and psychologists, among others, so that wide public discourse regarding established culture and promoted LGBTI rights could be launched and further advanced with reference to diverse aspects of social, political and cultural aspects of society. Likewise, the role of the international community (namely INGOs and foreign governments that strive to contribute to bringing states into compliance with international standards and norms) could be cast in the form of providing certain knowledge and expertise, material support, and means for introducing concerns and recommendations for safeguarding LGBTQI rights while elaborating partnership and development aid agreements between the government in question and its foreign partners, or simply communicating those concerns and recommendations in any form possible before governments that abstain from direct communication with local civil society representatives or abandon its inclusion into public politics of the state.


Talking About LGBT Issues

I completely agree with Joel’s discussions of framing and common ground.

At MAP, we believe that ideas, and how they’re expressed, are at the center of all movements for change. Success in driving equality for LGBTQI people requires a clear and compelling approach to messaging and communications. MAP explores the principles of effective communications for the LGBTQI movement and our allies so that, together, we can help people understand the importance of change.

To reach the public, LGBTQI advocates need to:

1)      Develop compelling messages

2)      Identify their priority audiences

3)      Select and train spokespeople

4)      Target the right media

5)      Take other steps to communicate effectively

To help address the first step, developing compelling messaging, MAP has developed research-based resources designed to help shape discussions—and help them better understand key issues of LGBTQI people.

In conversations about LGBTI issues, it can often be easy to fall back on abstract jargon or angry rhetoric that can derail discussions with those who are not familiar with the issues. But it is far more effective for LGBTQI organizations, community members, and allies to work toward building common ground with moveable audiences, showing them how their actions (or inaction) can hurt LGBTQI people, and helping them understand issues of LGBTQI equality through the lenses of their own values and beliefs.

Equality for LGBTQI people is really about basic human values and needs: the ability of everyday people to pursue health and happiness, earn a living, be safe in their communities, and take care of the ones they love. And when we move away from abstract, technical language and toward discussions that connect people to common ground and common values, true understanding can take root.

MAP’s Talking About LGBT Issues series is geared toward helping those who are conflicted or undecided better understand the issues, and toward helping them recognize the importance of and need for their support. For more information on our messaging research, see here:

MAP resources

These resources are an absolute MUST READ for all campaigners!

LGBTQI Orgs Can Fight Misinformation with Facts

One key role of international human rights organizations is education. Education can take many forms, but because there exists an exceedingly large amount of misinformation about LGBTQI people, education is particularly important to progress LGBTQI rights. Combatting misinformation and dispelling myths are essential to breaking down barriers and promoting LGBTQI rights.

As an example, one myth propagated in some areas is that challenges facing LGBTQI people have all been defeated (some of which was a result of marriage equality being secured in the U.S.) – and groups like IDAHOT are doing great work by raising awareness of the homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia that exists worldwide with facts and stories.

Another example of a myth about LGBTQI people is that bisexuality does not exist and/or that bisexuals are not a part of the LGBTQI community. This myth contributes to bisexual erasure and leads to stigma and discrimination against bisexual people perpetrated both within and without the LGBTQI community. For example, we know that while more than half of the LGBT community identifies as bisexual, bisexual people experience alarming rates of invisibility, societal rejection, violence, discrimination, and poor physical and mental health—often at rates higher than their lesbian and gay peers.

To combat this particularly damaging myth, it is crucial for organizations and advocates to educate the LGBTQI community on bisexual issues and lived experiences. MAP has published a resource on this topic, Invisible Majority: The Disparities Facing Bisexual People and How to Remedy Them, which examines the “invisible majority” of the LGBTQI community, the nearly five million adults in the U.S. who identify as bisexual and the millions more who have sexual or romantic attraction to or contact with people of more than one gender. The report shows how bias, stigma, discrimination, and invisibility combine to create serious negative outcomes for bisexual people, and it provides concrete recommendations for change.

Although there are far more myths that exist about LGBTQI people, the two highlighted above exemplify how evidence-based research and story-telling can and should be utilized to combat “alternative truths.” 

Very useful handbook

In addition to the very interesting resources already mentionned, I'd like to recommend the great Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities. It is a very good crash course into how to frame a message. It particularly explores the difference between intrinsic values (care, concern for others, self-acceptance) and extrinsic values, based on ego, fear and greed, which a lot of campaigns focus on, as they tend to produce "quick wins", eg donations or signatures on petitions. But as this handbook argues, these values tend to backfire in the long run, as they reinforce the fundamental worldviews which create the problem in the first place

How some values relate to the LGBTQI agenda

As said before, framing your argument in terms of fundamental values is key to winning over hearts and minds.

I wanted to share some insights into how some fundamental values relate to LGBTQI issues. This is very subjective and I don't intend to do more than merely share some tentative thoughts. I would be very happy to hear comments on these thoughts. 

I took the 6 fundamental values identified by Haidt in the moral foundation theory, but my comments could apply to other classification of values (e.g; Schwartz or Maslow)


In evolutionary terms, care for children was essential for the survival of human groups, and this care response has become generalized so that many people care about strangers and about nature…. Politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, advertisers, and all sorts of lobbyists and campaigners seek to direct the care response to serve their priorities. Many political struggles thus involve continual attempts to trigger the care response for desired goals and to inhibit it for undesired ones.

Indeed most strategies to marginalize sexual and gender minorities rely on proving that these groups don’t deserve care. This is done by:

-       identifying them as not being part of society (either because they are unwanted, or because they come from ‘outside’)

-       labeling them as dangerous


This strategy often goes with the promotion of “care” towards members of society which are seen as in need of protection. In this case mainly children, hence the often raised argument about “protecting children from propaganda/enrolment”.



Cross-cultural research has shown that everywhere children develop very early a sense of fairness when they are treated worst than their peers. They somewhat later develop a consciousness of fairness even when they are treated better.

This value is obviously central when appealing to people to think or act differently.

Fairness is a real major argument in LGBT campaigns, which insist a lot on the fact that it is “fair” and “just” to treat people equally but it is often difficult to trigger, as it implies that the public needs to have a high moral assumption of the target group and situate the group in the “Care zone”. To generate this assumption is difficult with highly stigmatized groups like LGBTI people

So, interestingly, the fairness value is a double edged sword: it can trigger change  when people perceive the sense of unfairness, but it can also lead to denigration of the victims when people react with a kind of “they probably brought it on them somehow” reaction, in accordance with the “just-world bias” examined later in this paper.



The value of liberty, and resistance to oppression, is a strong value and it has been a strong angle in campaigning for sexual and gender minorities. Indeed, many campaigns have used the “freedom to love” argument, and it can be argued that the whole concept of Pride marches mainly rests on the value of liberty.

The difficult thing with “liberty” is that it has a high degree of variance amongst societies and that it also fluctuates a lot within a given society. The more a society rests on economic and social cooperation, the more the value of liberty will be counter-balanced by the value of “loyalty “ (see below). Hence its variation in times of crisis, when obedience towards a leader will be placed more highly than liberty on the value scale.

So again, we have a double edged sword here: liberty carries a very strong emotional potential, but it can backfire badly if this liberty is sees as working against the common good, which is very easily achieved when the campaign focus is a group perceived as socially marginal (which our opponent will do everything they can to ensure)

So campaigning around liberty arguments should probably associate systematically the notion of “no-harm”.



This foundation stems from the need to form and maintain coalitions to compete with other groups for resources that can help assure continuation and success.  It drives group members to value loyalty, patriotism, sacrifice, and trustworthiness and to loathe those who betray the group. It leads people to be team players, and it is triggered by perceived threats or challenges to the group. Associated emotions are group pride (for country, sports team, ethnic group, etc.) and hatred of traitors.


Loyalty is obviously connected to the value of care, in a reciprocal relationship: you are loyal (only) to the ones who care for you and you care (only) for the ones who are loyal to you.

But loyalty has this additional dimension of obedience and it is therefore a central value for all societal construction and it is centerpiece in many campaigns, from political elections to brand promotion. Essential to the notion of loyalty are therefore the existence of a community, and the existence of leaders.

“Loyalty” has understandably been used much more by the opponents of sexual and gender diversities in order to cement the social “in-group” but it has also been used creatively in LGBTI campaigns, eg in the marriage referendum campaign in Ireland, where patriotism and loyalty to a certain image of Ireland has been hugely helpful in driving support.

But the value of loyalty has a strong implication for LGBTI campaigners not so much in terms of messaging but in terms of mobilization tactic: many campaigns will feature participation to a campaign as an act of loyalty to the group.

The value of loyalty also has obvious implications in terms of leadership management and movement building and campaigns without a charismatic leadership (whether people or brands) will find it difficult to mobilize.



This foundation evolved from the need to maintain social order and create beneficial relationships through hierarchies. It drives people to be aware of and respect rank and status. This foundation is triggered by anything that is construed as an act of obedience, disobedience, respect, disrespect, submission or rebellion, with regards to authorities perceived to be legitimate. It is reflected in, for example, the elevated status given to acknowledged experts and professionals and in the deference shown to superiors. It is also triggered by acts that subvert traditions, institutions, or values that provide social stability.

Again, a principle that will work much more often against sexual and gender diversities, especially when they are framed as a challenge to the authority of a system. It appears that one of the major drivers of the opposition to same-sex marriage is that it undermines the authority of the majority group, as this authority is defined by its privileges over other groups. Opening marriage rights to same-sex couples meant taking some of these privileges away from the majority group, which was framed by opponents as an attack on authority.

Nevertheless, the notion of authority can be an important trigger for campaigns in contexts where legal or judicial changes were secured in socially hostile settings, and where social transformation campaigns could base part of their messaging on the authority of the State, the Congress or the courts.



This moral value is the lesser known

Haidt postulates that cultures invest certain objects and ideas with irrational and extreme values.  Some objects and ideas are regarded as sacred while others are intuitively repulsed as disgusting and abhorrent. According to Haidt, the evolutionary origin of the Sanctity/Degradation foundation was the need for an instinctive mechanism that would lead early humans away from parasites and pathogens — in other words, away from rotting food, human waste, decaying corpses, etc.

Haidt argues that religion and the concomitant creation of sacred symbols served to bind individuals into large cooperative societies. The notion of sanctity is therefore closely linked to authority (it takes a source of authority to define what is sacred) and to loyalty (obedience to the sacred is the expression of the loyalty towards the group)

Sanctity is important for LGBTI campaigners, as it lies at the heart of the stigma that has been built against sexual and gender minorities. A lot of our opponents’ strategy is to generate and maintain a feeling of dislike or disgust. So we are constantly confronting the notion of sanctity.

While it is extremely tempting to combat the very notion of sanctity by leveraging other triggers that are meant to trump it, like “rights”, it is very unlikely that such a strong foundation can be bypassed.



Acknowledge change journeys

I guess a lot of people have seen that German Chancellor Merkel has announced her change of heart of same-sex marriage


Right, it's clear that the real reason for this is that widespread pressure has made it politically impossible for her to resist any longer, esp as the opposition was going to use this stubborn resistance to an issue most Germans support as a major argument in the upcoming elections.

Still, this shows how important it is to create the story of a change journey, so that a) it gives leaders a chance to move without loosing face and b) it allows conflicted people to model their own change. So people can say "I'm like Merkel, I changed my mind". Once the head of government does sthg, it just becomes more acceptable for all.

Obama's own change journey was a key milestone in the debate on same-sex unions in the US and clearly paved the way for the Supreme Court decision:

Talking about LGBTQI issues

In addition to the above outlined principles of effective communications for the LGBTQI movement proposed by MAP (thanks Alex for mentioning them), I should add that depending on the extent of the acceptance and adoption of human rights standards and principles by certain societies and states, as you are all well aware, it is particular hard to use a human rights approach in LGBTQI advocacy in states with authoritarian regimes.


Aside from the fact that LGBTQI rights activists are at high risk or systematically subjected to intimidation and harassment by the authorities for their human rights work, their communications with the wider public, who do not yet understand and exercise human rights as such, often remain clumsy or unappreciated. It is more likely those initiatives, their messages and actions (having little or no relationships with governmental institutions or the legal and law enforcement systems, access to education, academia, and the national media, among other things) are nowhere to be seen, or remain confined to rather narrow circles of partners, allies, and target groups triggering few, if any, significant changes of conditions for LGBTQI people.


Therefore, it is essential to think not only of the priority audiences or compelling messages, and here Alex made a correct point asserting that the interests and needs of LGBQI people could be easier understood through the lines of people’s own beliefs and values, but to be willing to integrate into general development processes instigated by other civil society initiatives and their coalitions, whether they are of human rights, educational, political, artistic, environmental, economic, humanitarian, and other natures. Simply extend away from a position of us vs. them, our needs and rights vs. their needs and rights; rather adhere to the positing of the solidarity of all people of the society in question, expressing our concerns for their needs and rights no less then ours.   


Re: Talking about LGBTQI issues

Really fantastic point by Katsiaryna: "Simply extend away from a position of us vs. them, our needs and rights vs. their needs and rights; rather adhere to the positing of the solidarity of all people of the society in question, expressing our concerns for their needs and rights no less then ours." 


You are definitely right in underlining that my comments were made for a context in which you have the physical and legal space to develop a proactive message that is specific to the issue you want to campaign on . Many activists don't have that luxury. Still, having a values-based approach, that takes some distance with the actual change objective and looks at the broader values involved, is also a valid approach in alliance building. When we look at the women's movement, it seems to me that at the "leadership" level there is a lot of convergence between political ideas but that at grassroots level this convergence doesn't happen. Maybe because grassroots activists don't always access the conceptual debates that help to forge this convergence. Approaching allies in terms of common values, and not in terms of common causes, can maybe take these alliances a notch further