Lili Elbeas was a Danish transgender woman who became the first identifiable recipient of sex reassignment surgery when she transitioned in 1930. She eventually died from complications from a uterus transplant in 1931. Her story—dramatized in the film The Danish Girl—has always haunted me.
Today, there are many people like Lili across Asia and we need to ensure they are not excluded from the region’s development. Some of the region’s most marginalized and disenfranchised people are those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). International Women’s Day is an appropriate time to consider their needs.
At ADB’s first LGBT seminar in December 2016 we heard Philippine Congresswoman Geraldine Roman describe how she overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become a member of the House of Representatives and the country’s first transgender politician.
This is a rare feat not just in the Philippines, but anywhere. Only 20 transgender elected officials at any level held office in 2015, and just 126 from 30 countries have run for office since 1977.
Roman’s inclusion alongside Hillary Clinton and Beyonce in Time magazine’s list of 12 Inspiring Women of 2016 shows the depth of her following and how thinking on transgender issues has shifted over the last decade. But even this is not enough.
LGBT exclusion hinders economic development
The social status of transgender people is often tied to the status of LGBT people, and Asia and the Pacific is today a more tolerant place for them. The World Values Survey shows that from 2005–2009 and 2010–2014, people in the Philippines, the People’s Republic of China, Taipei,China and Singapore became more accepting in their attitudes about having LGBT people as neighbors. Japan and the Republic of Korea also became more accepting, while attitudes grew more intolerant in Malaysia and Thailand. Most people in our region, however, still believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable.
LGBT people are treated unfairly because they choose partners of the same sex, and because they are considered to be violating other traditional gender norms and roles. Equality for LGBT people should be considered as part of gender equality.
Equality and inclusion of LGBT people are also important economic development issues.
Discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals can hinder economic development. A recent World Bank report argues that there is clear evidence of the economic cost of stigma and exclusion of LGBT people in education, employment, family life, and health care in India. Professor Lee Badgett, the keynote speaker at our 2016 seminar, demonstrated how lost productivity from workplace discrimination, family constraints on labor force participation, and the cost of health disparities and HIV, depression, and suicide, cost the Indian economy between 0.1 and 1.4% of GDP each year.
Exclusion of individuals can mean less education, productivity and earnings, and greater poverty. Intolerance also results in poorer health, shorter lives, and lower female labor force participation. These, in turn, lead to economic pitfalls such as higher health care and social protection costs, lower economic output, and fewer incentives to invest in human capital.
Progress being made, but not enough
So, do LGBT people fully benefit from development, given the undeniable obstacles they face? I would argue not.
As a multilateral development bank, our first approach should be to ‘do no further harm.’ No one should be excluded from development. We need to ensure that we do not inadvertently exclude LGBT people from development opportunities. If we, as development practitioners, are aware of the issues faced by LGBT people, we may then more carefully consider the implications of how we design projects to ensure that everyone benefits from them equally.
Progress is being made in ensuring the development needs of LGBT communities are met. The World Bank has an Advisor for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity who serves as focal point for its work on these issues. USAID and Australian aid have taken similar actions.
We need more data and focus on LGBT exclusion in a development context. I am not recommending that we turn our attention away from gender equality for women. I am simply suggesting that LGBT issues be considered as part of the broad spectrum of gender issues.
Perhaps then, Lili’s story won’t find so many echoes in modern-day Asia.