The Earth Day Connection to LGBTIQ Human Rights

Vulnerable to Resilient: Building a stronger LGBTIQ community in the face of disaster

Earth Day, since its inception in 1970, has been a time to celebrate the environment and advocate for its protection. Occasionally, we need protection from Earth’s ecological systems when natural hazards turn into disasters among our communities.

When an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti, there was a death toll of around 230,000 while a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in New Zealand only had two casualties. What was it about the Haitian earthquake that made it much more deadly?

The physical characteristics of a natural hazard are important in creating a disaster, but vulnerability is also a vital component as to why disasters happen.

Vulnerability, in a disaster context, can be defined as characteristics that influence a person’s ability to respond, cope, recover, and adapt to the impact of a natural hazard. This vulnerability comes from their society and can result  in some people finding themselves more vulnerable than others when dealing with a disaster situation.

Following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, Azusa Yamashita created a guide on LGBTIQ needs in the context of disaster risk reduction. Her study revealed the invisibility of the LGBTIQ community in her home province of Iwate. Because of the lack of protections and inclusivity, she realized that being visible in a disaster could actually result in  higher vulnerability, such as denied access to medical attention, being seen as “suspicious” at evacuation shelters, and being unable to have their support system while in temporary housing.

Many in the LGBTIQ community experienced this first-hand during the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The amount of safe spaces available to them were quickly reduced, violence related to sexual orientation and gender identity increased, and many were denied access to emergency services, shelter, and food (IGLHRC, 2011).

How is the vulnerability of the LGBTIQ community to disaster being addressed?

In 2016, Cyclone Winston was a category 5 storm that impacted nearly 40% of the Fijian population. A post-disaster needs assessment, however, did not include any information on issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity in association with response needs.

The Edge Effect, the Rainbow Pride Foundation, and Oxfam Australia began research on the LGBTIQ community throughout Fiji, known as the Down by River Project, filled this gap and addressed the rights and needs of sexual orientation and gender identity minorities within disaster risk response and humanitarian aid. This involved story-sharing, community mapping, and dialogue meetings.

Participants described the discrimination they faced following Winston, saying:

“It is forbidden to be a lesbian in my church and the pastor preaches against it. After the  TC Winston, the church pastor said that Winston was caused by our sin, and I felt bad. It is not us who they should blame …” (Dwyer & Woolf, 2018 pg 8)

“T.C. Winston really damaged our village. Some went to church to stay, including my parents. No one in the village knew I was a lesbian, so when people in the church said bad things about lesbians I could just stay quiet. If they found out, the church would not be the right place for me.” (Dwyer & Woolf, 2018, pg 25)

The data collected by the Down by River Project helps show the economic and social impacts of Winston and why having this knowledge is so important.

How has the Fijian community improved since Tropical Cyclone Winston?

A key contributor to disaster risk reduction is Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office. Improvements could be made through an update to their disaster preparedness and response plans. Their website has minimal information on disaster preparedness, let alone addresses LGBTIQ needs, and their most current National Disaster Plan listed is from 1995. However, steps have been taken in the right direction.

In Fiji’s 2017 National Tsunami Response Plan there are references to groups with disabilities and other vulnerabilities, encouraging them to refer to their community leaders and other local organizations for more detailed assistance.

The aid of these local organizations was employed to address some of the damage that came from Tropical Cyclones Josie and Kemi which happened over the last few weeks. These storms, along with high amounts of rainfall and flooding, brought the need for disaster response and relief from all levels. What exactly were these smaller organizations doing to help?

Much of their assistance came from coverage of the cyclones via Twitter. Groups like femLINKpacific and DIVA for Equality synchronized trending hashtags such as #WomensWeatherWatch, #ProtectionWithDignity, and #WomenDefendCommons. Tweets also included vital information such as rainfall amounts, emergency contact numbers, and descriptions of potential hazards from the storms.

FemLINKpacific’s tweets focused on evacuation shelters, including age, gender, and disability to better coordinate resource needs, tagging local emergency management organizations to ensure proper reporting. They also emphasized that the Rainbow Pride Foundation had LGBTIQ assessment forms ready for humanitarian responders to ensure inclusive disaster risk reduction post cyclones.

DIVA for Equality’s mission is to create diverse opportunities and safe spaces for LBT women while also linking these needs to wider social issues, such as ecological justice. They set up an LBT hub for those dealing with the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Josie, letting their followers know of its location and available services. DIVA also documented LGBTIQ volunteers acting as first responders to the disaster.

Another organization in Fiji that brings together the worlds of LGBTIQ issues and environmental concerns is Haus of Khameleon. This organization works to end discrimination and violence against transgender people in Fiji and the Pacific through education and awareness while also implementing a climate and ecological justice program. It is through this kind of work from grassroots organizations that we can find improvements being made to reduce the vulnerability of the LGBTIQ community, not only in Fiji, but in countries all over the world.

Disasters do occur. And they will continue to do so as long as human society lives in and interacts with the natural world. We celebrate this environment on days like Earth Day, yet we must also remember to celebrate all of us who live within it. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. All of us can do something to change it.