Excluding LGBTI People Hurts National Development. Here Are Three Reasons Why.

The number of people in Asia willing to identify as LGBTI on a survey is sizable and increasing among younger generations. Photo: Tanushree Rao
The number of people in Asia willing to identify as LGBTI on a survey is sizable and increasing among younger generations. Photo: Tanushree Rao

By Susann Roth, Lee Badgett

Development efforts should provide all individuals, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community, with the opportunity to live with the identities they choose.

People can experience discrimination and exclusion due to a variety of reasons, including age, social class, income, ethnicity, religion, disability, and gender. Exclusion captures numerous contexts where stigma, discrimination, and societal norms keep particular groups on the margins. 

Often, excluded individuals are subjected to poverty resulting from barriers to good jobs, limited opportunities in education and employment, and poorer health outcomes. Inequality and poverty are exacerbated by exclusion and limit development.

In particular, exclusion extends to individuals who don't conform to conventional gender and heterosexual identities. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community are frequently discriminated against. 

Some common experiences across countries demonstrate the global nature of exclusion: Young LGBTI people face bullying from other students in schools. Some jobs are off limits, and employers are less likely to hire LGBTI people, even where discrimination is illegal. In the marketplace, LGBTI people face barriers to housing, credit, and even shopping malls. This kind of treatment can lead to worse physical and mental health for LGBTI people, which is exacerbated by barriers to getting appropriate health care.

 In some countries in Asia and the Pacific, same-sex behavior is even criminalized, justifying discrimination and undermining the dignity and sense of worth of LGBTI people.

While it's easy to argue that this only affects a small fraction of the population compared to other marginalized groups, recent research finds the number of people willing to identify as LGBTI on a survey is sizable and increasing among younger generations.

A 2021 survey of 27 countries, found that 9% of respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or ‘other’ in the non-heterosexual category. In addition, 2% of respondents identified as transgender or something other than male or female.  

Although private surveys like that one confirm that we’re talking about a sizable group, we still need better data at the national level, and we’re learning how to do that. Several high-income countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand have added sexual orientation and gender identity questions to health and economic surveys, and India and Nepal include a third gender category in their 2011 censuses.

LGBTI people have the same human rights as other people, protected by a range of international declarations and conventions.

Accurately estimating the size of this population is one goal of data. In a sense, survey data also allow LGBTI people to speak collectively about their lives, revealing how stigma and exclusion affect their educational attainment, health, and employment, for example. Governments and international finance institutions can help to identify problem areas to target with policies and development assistance. 

Despite data gaps and discriminatory laws and norms, the inclusion of LGBTI people needs to be added to the development agenda. Here are three reasons why:

1. Inclusion promotes economic development:  Exclusion of the LGBT community leads to a loss of human capital that reduces GDP. Studies have estimated that effect to be around 1% or more in countries like India, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Kenya, South Africa, and the Caribbean. At a global level, a 1% loss would be equivalent to the GDP of economies like Turkey or the Netherlands. 

2. It's a fundamental human right: LGBTI people have the same human rights as other people, protected by a range of international declarations and conventions. This includes the freedom of expression, which allows individuals to develop their own unique voices. 

3. It's an investment in the future: As automation and artificial intelligence continue to enhance human capabilities, societies and companies will need new ideas and creative leaders at the heart of vibrant economies that work for all. LGBTI people have skills, ideas, and creative perspectives to offer in every sector. Diversity drives creativity and encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving, which are crucial for communities, societies, and countries as development challenges become increasingly complex. 

 If development is the goal, then exclusionary social norms and systems will need to change. Development efforts should provide all individuals, regardless of the sexual orientations and gender identities, with the opportunity to live with the identities they choose. 

Only a society in which everyone can contribute will be able to meet the challenges of the future.