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Ask an Expert: Q&A with Jay Gilliam on How USAID Is Engaging with LGBTQI+ Partners

Localization & Inclusive Development
Woman pinning a rainbow ribbon on USAID Administrator Samantha Power
Jun 30, 2022

Jay Gilliam is USAID’s Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator, serving as the Agency’s lead to elevate issues concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and other people of diverse genders and sexual orientations.

Jay Gilliam

As part of our Localization & Inclusive Development blog series, we spoke with Jay about how USAID works with LGBTQI+ partners.

Q: Could you please tell us about your role in the Agency?

I am the Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator for USAID. Appointed by the Administrator in November of 2021, my role is to help lead the Agency in ensuring that LGBTQI+ people are able to live to their full potential and are active contributors to transforming their societies and communities. 

Violence, discrimination, stigma, and exclusion negatively impact the lives of millions of LGBTQI+ people around the world and contribute to poverty and social instability. LGBTQI+ people face criminalization in nearly 70 countries—several of which can impose the death penalty. In many parts of the world, intersex people suffer from irreversible, harmful, and medically unnecessary medical interventions, often without fully informed consent. Transgender people face high barriers to legally change their name and/or gender marker, and are sometimes required to undergo forced sterilization or compulsory psychological treatment. Lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are victims of targeted sexual violence in some countries. Around the world, so-called “conversion therapy” and other efforts to change sexual orientation and gender expression subject LGBTQI+ people to psychological, physical, and verbal abuse.

Compounding these realities, LGBTQI+ people are often excluded from social benefits systems; lack explicit, unambiguous protections in antidiscrimination legislation; and are not afforded legal recognition of their relationships and families. LGBTQI+ people are often not represented in political parties or among elected officials. LGBTQI+ people may also experience rejection from families, religious communities, and other social networks. These factors limit their rights and access to essential services such as education, employment, and health care, and pervasive discrimination and exclusion prevent meaningful inclusion in broader development efforts.

These realities demand a firm, unequivocal commitment from USAID—and all development practitioners—to work with LGBTQI+-led organizations to break down barriers and ensure all LGBTQI+ people can thrive. 

Q: How does USAID work to promote LGBTQI+ inclusive development?

I am working diligently with my colleagues to ensure that USAID’s commitment to LGBTQI+ inclusive development is institutionalized and actualized. In 2014, USAID released the LGBT Vision for Action, which has been guiding our work for eight years now. The Vision has really set the tone for how we approach this work and how we want our colleagues and our partners to abide by the principles of “do no harm” and “nothing about us without us.” 

We are now embarking on the exciting process of updating that policy and hoping that we can issue the updated version next year. I made that commitment at last year’s inaugural Summit for Democracy. The new LGBTQI+ policy will be the Agency’s North Star for ensuring LGBTQI+ inclusive development and advancing human rights, including articulating aims for the future.

In addition to these Agency policies, from a programming perspective, we recognize the need to use every tool, every approach, and a combination of strategies to achieve full inclusion for LGBTQI+ people. Sometimes this means programs that are specifically set up to address the acute human rights needs of LGBTQI+ people, such as supporting legal aid for survivors of violence or providing assistance to transgender people to update their identity documents. In other instances, this means working with our development partners to ensure that LGBTQI+ people are accessing resources to further agricultural growth or to create resources to address anti-LGBTQI+ bullying in schools. 

We have been proud to issue two sectoral guidance documents on Resilience & Food Security Programming and Education Programming that further elaborate strategies and approaches to ensuring LGBTQI+ considerations are integrated throughout USAID’s programming.

We are constantly advocating for both standalone and integrated programs at USAID, because the needs are so great and the global funding for LGBTQI+ people is so low. Globally, donor governments contribute less than 4 cents out of every $100 of international development efforts and assistance for LGBTQI+ equality work. For many LGBTQI+ organizations, no funding is available within their own country. We recognize that USAID and other international donors must play a constructive role in funding local efforts and addressing the disproportionately high levels of poverty among LGBTQI+ people. 

LGBTQI+ inclusive development ensures that our policies and programs are tailored and targeted to meet these realities and deliver for LGBTQI+ people. 

Q: How should development partners approach “do no harm” when it comes to working with LGBTQI+ organizations?

The best way to “do no harm” is to build and cultivate strong, trusting relationships with LGBTQI+ activists, groups, and other directly impacted individuals. Always ask the LGBTQI+ community for their inputs and validation of the approaches you are considering. It may be the case that the priorities or issues we at USAID have identified differ from what they want to be doing. 

Although it might be challenging to work in some environments where security and safety is a big risk, we often hear from the community that it's not an excuse to do nothing. LGBTQI+ community-based organizations, activists, and individuals will provide guidance and suggestions for how they want to be engaged. There are other great examples of operationalizing “do no harm” in our guidance on integrating LGBTQI+ considerations in resilience and food security. Within USAID, we also have developed a variety of resources and training for staff.

Q: What role do partnerships play in advancing LGBTQI+ inclusive development and human rights around the world? 

Partnerships play a really important role and have since the very early days of USAID’s work on LGBTQI+ inclusive development. One of the first partnerships with an LGBTQI+-led organization was called the Global Development Partnership, launched in 2014. Implemented by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the public-private partnership leveraged resources from private foundations, USAID, and other government donors like the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to advance the shared objective of strengthening the capacity of LGBTQI+ leaders and civil society organizations (CSOs). The partnership played a really important role not only for us being able to mobilize resources from the public and private sector, but also in terms of internally making the case that it's really important for USAID to be investing in LGBTQI+ movement work. Seeing that other partners from outside of USAID were willing to commit with us in doing this work made a big difference.

In 2019, we were pleased to support a new iteration of the partnership with Astraea: the Multi-Donor LGBTI Global Human Rights Initiative, which brought together Sida, Global Affairs Canada, as well as private foundations. Also, at the Summit for Democracy I announced a new partnership that we're going to be launching later this summer that will similarly bring in private partners to deliver on LGBTQI+ inclusive development.

Q: What unique challenges do LGBTQI+-led organizations face in seeking partnerships with USAID?

First, a lot of LGBTQI+-led organizations are quite small, some of the smallest, I think, in terms of the groups that USAID is endeavoring to work with. Because they are small, they often have very few staff—maybe one or two paid staff. Oftentimes, organizations are volunteer-led by community members. These constraints make it particularly hard for LGBTQI+ organizations to complete USAID’s stringent reporting and administrative requirements, as the staff are on the frontlines responding to urgent needs of communities. 

Another challenge is that often the places that we work are some of the most challenging contexts for LGBTQI+ advocacy work, particularly in countries where same-sex relations and transgender people are criminalized. Organizations advocating on behalf of LGBTQI+ people may be denied official registration. So, the organization lacks legal status, which is a hindrance in terms of working with USAID. 

Finally, the social environment may make it particularly challenging for USAID to openly work with LGBTQI+ civil society, as it could attract negative attention from society and/or the authorities.

Q: How does the Agency work with those organizations to overcome these challenges?

I mentioned the example of public-private partnerships, and that has been a really important way to be able to do this work. Through these partnerships, we always endeavor to find an LGBTQI+-led organization as an implementing partner. They can effectively serve as a trusted intermediary between USAID and LGBTQI+ groups around the world. In this way, the implementing partners can take on the fiscal responsibility and the reporting requirements that we have. They are also well-positioned to re-grant to local LGBTQI+ groups. These “intermediary” partners also help to build the capacity of local LGBTQI+ organizations, including strengthening financial management systems and other internal systems and policies, so that later these organizations can get to a place to potentially receive and manage more USAID resources.

Across the Agency, some Missions issue purchase orders and fixed amount awards to get out small—but manageable—resources to local groups. These types of awards enable organizations and activists to focus on the programmatic work and addressing the urgent needs of communities, rather than get held up with administrative procedures.  

Q: How does the Agency's emphasis on localization influence your work with LGBTQI+ communities and organizations? What are the synergies and challenges?

 The opportunities are really vast. The Administrator’s focus on localization and wanting to make USAID more accessible to our local partners in-country goes hand-in-hand with my own priority of making USAID more accessible to LGBTQI+ organizations locally where we work. The efforts from USAID’s localization team really support what we are trying to do in terms of finding ways to lessen the restrictions on being able to take USAID resources and finding other ways to get our resources out to local groups. In terms of how we've been able to overcome some of our challenges or work around them, I think there are really important lessons that we are sharing with those carrying out the localization agenda. 

Q: What advice do you have for organizations in the LGBTQI+ space that are interested in partnering with USAID?

I think about this in two ways: one, in terms of speaking to LGBTQI+-led organizations and, two, in terms of our traditional development partners that want to do more LGBTQI+ work. 

For LGBTQI+-led organizations, reach out to our team in Washington at lgbtqi@usaid.gov. We're based in the Inclusive Development Hub and have folks that can connect you with our Mission colleagues. We can also be really imaginative in connecting you with USAID resources. I would also tell LGBTQI+-led organizations to make sure you're connected to USAID in your country and make sure you understand USAID’s country priorities. If a Mission is focused on education, that can be a really great opportunity to think about the ways you want to be working with LGBTQI+ learners or school administrators to make those spaces free from bullying or harassment and more inclusive. Lastly, what I would say, for LGBTQI+-led organizations, is to continue to think beyond just the human rights work and think about the development work that we're doing at USAID. This includes education, economic empowerment, democracy building, and so on. There's so much work that we are doing, and oftentimes, LGBTQI+ groups are doing that same work. So, let us find ways to support and bolster the efforts that you're doing. 

For our traditional development partners, I think the best way to get involved in LGBTQI+ work and programming is to make sure that, as you are using USAID funds to advance LGBTQI+ human rights and inclusive development, you are really committing to partnering with and sub-granting to LGBTQI+ organizations. That means getting to know the local LGBTQI+ partners in the countries where you are, understanding what their needs are, what their strategies are for advancing human rights and development for the community, and then making a commitment to resource to those groups as much as possible. This is all about driving home “nothing about us without us.” 

As we are working in this space, we want to be partnering. We want to be working with local groups and have them lead the efforts for what we want to do together and be able to support those efforts as much as possible.

Get a snapshot of your organization’s current capacity to work with USAID by taking the Pre-Engagement Assessment on WorkwithUSAID.org. This 47-question self-assessment will help you understand your organization's readiness and provide resources to help build your capacity.

Follow USAID’s work on LGBTQI+ inclusive development on Twitter @USAID_LGBTQI.