Opinion: As a leader who is gay, I urge our development sector to do better – Women Deliver

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Opinion: As a leader who is gay, I urge our development sector to do better

By Maliha Khan | Devex | 9 April 2024 

NEW YORK, 9 April 2024 | From day one at Women Deliver, my openness about being gay marked a first in my professional journey in global development. After spending over two decades in this sector, I know that we can and must do better at addressing the near silence on sexual orientation both internally as organizations and in our external work.

My identity as queer, an immigrant woman of color, and a Muslim deeply influences every aspect of my life. This intersectionality isn’t just a buzzword but a lived reality, forcing me to constantly navigate which facets of my identity to highlight in different contexts, whether personal or professional. It’s a relentless, exhausting balancing act, made necessary by the world’s limited understanding and appreciation of the richness and complexity of intersecting identities.

Coming out as gay isn’t a one-time event. It's a daily decision, a continuous negotiation about whether to reveal parts of yourself that aren't immediately obvious or to keep them hidden and avoid potential harm. It’s also very contextualized, and people who identify as queer can be very “out” in some aspects of their life while going completely back “in the closet” in others.

Growing up in Pakistan, immigrating to the United States, and working in the global development sector for the past 20 years, there have been many instances where well-meaning leaders failed to see beyond their own heterosexual privilege or recognize the need for policies to protect people like me. I have experienced situations where exposing my sexuality would have meant compromising my safety without recourse; where who I am and who I love has conflicted with my ability to take the next step in my career.

To name just one of countless examples: In the earlier days of my career, I worked for a humanitarian organization operating in over 70 countries. At one point I was identified as a “high potential” employee and sat down with my supervisor and human resources to discuss my next position, which would prepare me for future leadership roles. The consensus was that moving into a regional leadership role would be the best route.

However, as we reviewed a long list of potential postings, it became clear that accepting any of the proposed paths for advancement would jeopardize my safety and that of my family. I wasn't, and never will be, willing to make that compromise.

Today, despite holding a leadership position at Women Deliver, I remain very conscious of when, to whom, and where I come out.

You may wonder why I’m sharing this. As an LGBTQ+ individual leading one of the most prominent international NGOs working toward a world where every girl and every woman — anyone who has lived experience as a girl or woman, or identifies as a girl or woman — has full control over her body and her life, I want people to know that while we have undoubtedly come a long way, we have so much further to go.

The global development sector, for the most part, has become relatively accepting of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities in their global north-based central or head offices.

However, in most other contexts, their approach to staff members who identify as queer leans toward “don’t ask, don’t tell” at best, with instances of outright discrimination and prejudice in the worst cases. There’s an undeniably stark contrast between the extensive preparation our sector provides on topics like gender, ethnicity, religion, and physical security, and the near silence on sexual orientation both internally as organizations and for our external work.

This omission is both surprising and disheartening given the difficulties LGBTQ+ individuals face globally. It underscores a lack of organizational support specifically tailored to the unique challenges of sexual-minority employees.

We need a more nuanced approach to managing our staff identities in diverse contexts. I am not advocating for a disregard of local sensitivities, but for a more thoughtful consideration of when and how it might be safe and appropriate to be open about our sexual orientations.

To achieve this, several steps are essential:

  • At the most basic level, we must implement protective policies. Diversity, equity, and inclusion – or DEI – initiatives, nondiscrimination policies, and grievance reporting procedures are just a start. To truly create an environment in which people feel they can show up every day as their full, authentic selves, we need to go beyond policy change.
  • Shifting workplace culture is harder, but even more important. International organizations can start by clearly signaling that all sexual and gender identities are celebrated and championed within their walls. Making conscious choices, beyond mere box-checking or performative actions, means weaving LGBTQ+ issues, considerations, and visibility into the fabric of an organization.
  • Ensuring the safety of LGBTQ+ staffers goes beyond the concept of “safe spaces,” as such spaces don’t truly exist. As leaders, making the safety of staff belonging to gender and sexual minorities as high a priority as that of all other team members is non-negotiable. This requires being proactive in preventing LGBTQ+ staff from being bullied, discriminated against, or sidelined as they are always, in almost any context, more vulnerable.
  • Finally, representation matters. It’s the most crucial and, at the same time, challenging aspect of organizational change. As a sector, we need to move beyond lip service and actively yield power and make space for LGBTQ+ leaders who, in a very literal sense, live, breathe, and understand what empathetic and inclusive change looks like.

Workplaces and convenings where advocates can show up as themselves, knowing that who they are is not only accepted, but celebrated, are essential to the work of changing the world for the better; to laying the groundwork for a future where equity is the norm and not some far off aspiration.

At the closing ceremony of the Women Deliver 2023 Conference, this rang truer for me than ever. As a Pakistani woman, standing in front of thousands and openly thanking my wife and son was one of the most moving moments in my life and career. Moments like this remind me that hope is real and change is possible — but only if all people are championed and included in the vital work of changing the world.