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International Social Work

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LGBTQIs at the UN: Arguments
DOI: 10.1177/0020872817702706
and counter-arguments

Nick J Mulé
York University, Canada

Maryam Khan
York University, Canada

Cameron McKenzie
York University, Canada

This article explores the anti-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex)
campaigns’ rise to power at the United Nations (UN), nation state sovereignty (of the member
states), and criminalization LGBTQI assembly and association. Emphasis is placed on how these
arguments are implemented and affect the social and political landscapes of LGBTQI rights
promotion. Findings from primary interviews (conducted with UN bodies, agencies, and affiliates)
are critically analyzed. The article concludes by challenging the arguments posed against LGBTQI
rights being taken up as human rights from a social justice perspective and social work’s role in
protecting and supporting these marginalized populations in the international arena.

Criminalization, family values, LGBTQI, sovereignty, United Nations

This article explores the anti-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex)
campaigns’ rise to power at the United Nations (UN) from the perspective of inside UN actors. We
discuss the implications of traditional family values, nation state sovereignty (of the member states),
and the criminalization of LGBTQI assembly and association. In this article, we are using LGBTQI
as an identity umbrella term. We acknowledge that this terminology, like other terminologies, has its

Corresponding author:
Nick J Mulé, School of Social Work, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, ON M3J 1P3, Canada.
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limitations to capturing the diversity and fluidity that exist in these ‘communities’ (Kugle, 2014). It
should be noted that the participants, as well as the UN literature, mainly use the terminology sexual
orientation, gender identity (SOGI).
LGBTQI recognition and liberation have been constructed as a culture clash (Brewer, 2008;
Fetner, 2008) and as morally against traditional and religious family values (Brewer, 2008; Fejes,
2011; Fetner, 2008; Green, 2000; Lehr, 1999). According to Girard (2007), the UN in its fight for
human rights has been a site where issues related to sexuality, gender, and ‘the role of the family’
are continuously being debated (p. 312). The framing of sexual orientation as human rights is still
highly contentious at the UN due to normative assumptions of citizenship and sovereignty, reli-
gion, gender roles, and cultural traditions (Corrêa et al., 2008), and the notion of gender identity
remains controversial as a ‘highly marginal category’ (Waites, 2009: 141).
The Religious Right is deployed as an umbrella term, which refers to a movement (conglomer-
ate of groups and organizations) that seeks to preserve the ‘traditional’ family and is anti-gay
(Warner, 2010), anti-abortionist (Fetner, 2008), and anti-feminist (Buss and Herman, 2003). In
contemporary times, the mainstream discourse ‘family values’ is synonymous with conservative
religious beliefs that seek to make static the nuclear, heterosexual family (Waites, 2009). The ‘fam-
ily values’ campaign and its heteronormative discourses are a part of a larger global anti-gay move-
ment, constitutive of pro-traditional family, anti-abortionist organizations, spearheaded by
right-wing religious groups (Brewer, 2008; Fetner, 2005). This movement sees its overarching goal
to preserve heteronormative ideals as dictated by religion and undertakes a conservative perspec-
tive on life, family, society, and religion (Brewer, 2008; Fetner, 2008). The Religious Right is not
a monolith (Fetner, 2008; Green, 2000), and differences exist in how certain groups and denomina-
tions go about defending the ‘natural family’ and how the UN is viewed (Buss and Herman, 2003).
For some, the UN is an evil organization that requires an overhaul; others deem the UN as a good
institution that has been infiltrated by evils such as secularism, feminism, and socialism (Buss and
Herman, 2003).
This movement is not restricted to those affiliated with the Christian tradition; it also welcomes
conservative Muslim and Jewish groups that foster similar ideological frameworks (Buss and Herman,
2003). ‘For many [Religious Right groups] the prospect of an interfaith orthodox alliance is the vehicle
by which a “natural” family politics is possible at this otherwise evil [UN] institution’ (Buss and
Herman, 2003: 52). In this way, the Religious Right commands political power throughout its global
networks and fosters allies from various orthodox religious communities (Buss and Herman, 2003). It
is important to note that LGBTQI persons of faith (Dessel et al., 2011; Fetner, 2005; Stonewall, 2015),
as well as the ‘devoutly religious’ who do not subscribe to homophobia and transphobia (Brice, 2014;
Levy, 2014; Stonewall, 2015), challenge infiltration by the Religious Right.
The ‘family’ is a central focus in measuring the moral decline by the Religious Right, and as a
result the preservation of the nuclear, heteronormative family is grounded in morality-based argu-
ments against the inclusion of LGBTQI rights as human rights (Fejes, 2011; Green, 2000; Lehr,
1999). The Religious Right’s presence at the UN seeks to undermine the issues raised by LGBTQI
and women non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate for global protections for these
persons and communities (Buss and Herman, 2003). Mainly, US-based Religious Right agencies
have set up offices that deliver ‘missionaries’ throughout the globe (Fetner, 2008: 5). As a result,
the Religious Right has allies in many member states in its fight to hinder LGBTQI rights, recogni-
tion, and promotion (Beresford et al., 2007). American Religious Right groups support the anti-gay
movements in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, the Cameroons, and Nigeria (Beresford et al.,
2007; Buss and Herman, 2003; Petchesky, 2007).
Member states deploy many strategies to obstruct LGBTQI rights (Chase, 2016), and these
obstructions happen for many reasons – for instance, as a political strategy to assert one’s right to
Mulé et al. 3

rule as a sovereign nation without interference from other member states, primarily the European
Union and the United States (Ayoub and Paternotte, 2014). In other words, this is mainly to exer-
cise sovereign power in front of nation states that have placed LGBTQI rights on global and local
agendas (Ayoub and Paternotte, 2014; Bosia and Weiss, 2013). Another reason is to preserve the
traditional (heterosexual) normative order (Ayoub, 2014) and to prevent a ‘slippery slope’ of moral
societal decline, which is seen as being connected to the recognition of LGBTQI rights (Bosia and
Weiss, 2013).
The obstructions are orchestrated through state-sanctioned discrimination and violence
enforced through criminal legislations (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015). This
involves the criminalization of forming coalitions or advocacy groups that discuss issues related
to sexual and gender diversity and LGBTQI rights (Ayoub and Paternotte, 2014). These anti-
propaganda laws ‘restrict the rights to freedom of expression and assembly’ (United Nations
Human Rights Council, 2015: 13). Examples are Russia’s ‘anti-gay propaganda law’ (Ayoub and
Paternotte, 2014: 1) and Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation (Johnson, 2015). In fact, strides
are being made in ‘Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, the Republic of Moldova … and Ukraine’ in relation to
these anti-propaganda laws (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015: 13). Furthermore, in
certain member states, such laws coincide with placing prohibitions on NGOs that receive over-
seas funds to discourage pro-LGBTQI international collaboration and network building (United
Nations Human Rights Council, 2015).
During the research and review process for this article, questions and issues related to homona-
tionalism that situated the UN as a colonizing body imposing Western ideas of gender and sexual-
ity globally repeatedly arose. In response, we would like to highlight the very important work of
human rights defenders across the nation states, in tandem with the UN, that are working on decol-
onizing non-normative gender and sexual identities in their respective countries. The LGBTQI
human rights defenders and their allies continue to persistently bring awareness to the past and
present examples of same-sex attractions and relationships inherent in tradition, language, and
culture prior to colonial and imperial occupation (Vance et al., in press).
Despite the ongoing setbacks, the UN has made its position on undertaking LGBTQI rights as
human rights to member states through the Free and Equal Campaign. The Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon and his office endorse this campaign, which is an ‘ongoing campaign to end homophobia
and transphobia and to defend the rights of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex
people around the world’ (United Nations Office of the Deputy Secretary-General, 2014: para 10).

Theoretical frameworks
Our conceptualization of human rights has a wide-ranging scope and transcends legal frameworks.
Legal recognition is key, particularly for the protection of LGBTQIs who are the targets of ongoing
hostility, threats, and persecution in many parts of the world. However, pursuing rights-based
claims can have limiting effects and can be used to propel identity politics and further their social
construction. The pursuit of human rights via the narrow path of legal rights only results in a
restricted framework that inevitably reproduces the status quo, not transforming it, hence falling
short of achieving social justice (LaViolette and Whitworth, 1994). As Morrissey (2013) argues,
‘corrective rape’ imposed on Black South African lesbians serves as a ‘weapon of hate’ in a social
political context where LGBTQIs are promoted and have protections in legislation (p. 74).
A wide-ranging understanding of human rights provides an expanded awareness, sensitivity,
and legitimization of LGBTQI people, particularly when undertaken from an intersectional lens,
not limited to reproductive rights, well-being, health, sexuality, gender expression and identity,
cultural identity and rights, and self-determination (Human Rights Watch, 2009; Saiz, 2005; Sauer
4 International Social Work 00(0) 

and Podhora, 2013; Teifer, 2002). Additionally, an intersectional lens refers to the ways in which
socially constructed identity categories interact and overlap to afford varying levels of privilege
and discrimination based on societal norms (Puar, 2007). Furthermore, when employing a broader
human rights perspective, an affirmative stance that creates room for more liberationist processes
is made possible. This stance then parallels with an anti-colonial framework and critical anti-
oppressive approaches that ultimately work toward emancipation (Altman, 2001; Mulé, 2008;
Mullaly, 2007; Warner, 2002).
An anti-colonial theorizing affirms that all discourse and knowledge are situated in a specific
cultural, gendered, socioeconomic class, and histories are constructed within relations of power
(Baskin, 2009; Dei et al., 2000). This theorizing sheds light on how colonial and imperial legacies
impact knowledge production and representation and places emphasis on decolonization and
resistance strategies of indigenous people and communities (Baskin, 2009). Anti-colonial theory
further ‘provides room for colonized peoples to voice and theorize their oppression. Anti-
colonialism is centered on taking up the struggle of any colonized peoples and reclaiming their
identities after a colonial encounter’ (Ilmi, 2012: 120). This is significant for social work practice,
andragogy, and pedagogy for many reasons. For example, in Canada, social work has a history of
collusion in the marginalization of First Nation, Métis, Inuit communities locally in various forms
(i.e. Christianization of sexual and gender expression, residential schools, etc.) (Baskin, 2009).
Many human rights defenders, LGBTQI persons, allies, and communities are creating awareness
of how colonial legislation and encounters led to the criminalization and abhorrence of sexual and
gender expression in currently non-supportive (homophobic and transphobic) member states. The
work of activists is to decolonize ways of thinking and being that replicate and maintain the colo-
nial order (status quo) of the prohibition of LGBTQI recognition and rights and to hold assembly
(Lennox and Waites, 2013).
In the realm of anti-oppressive approaches, critical social work aims toward social justice by
challenging social, political, cultural, and economic oppressions (Mullaly, 2007). Critical social
work recognizes large-scale structural, systemic processes and their implications on social
locations as experienced by individuals and communities (Healy, 2001). Specific to LGBTQIs,
gender and sexual diversity need to be recognized as salient characteristics (Mulé, 2008) and
queer liberation as not to be compromised in the face of varying social pressures (Mulé, 2015b).
A combination of reflexivity and co-participatory practice relations (Healy, 2001) espoused by
critical international social work can contribute to addressing the plight of persecuted LGBTQIs
A queer liberation perspective favors an intersectional approach to race, religion, class, (dis)-
ability, and so forth in conjunction with gender and sexual expression. This perspective centralizes
issues related to sexual and gender orientation, which in turn challenges normative conceptualiza-
tions that seek to oppress the LGBTQI persons and communities (Mulé, 2010, 2016). A queer lib-
eration perspective honors the self-identification of gender and sexual expression and works
toward fostering a society that operates on inclusivity and respect, which is cognizant of neoliber-
alism (Mulé, 2010, 2016) and homonationalism (Puar, 2007). This is imperative to observe in
working with former colonial member states, to acknowledge and respect local identifications of
what the developed world refers to as LGBTQI persons and communities.

Qualitative semi-structured interviews were undertaken to gather the data featured in this article.
We met with UN representatives at four of five UN bodies: the Economic and Social Council
(ECOSOC), The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),
Mulé et al. 5

the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and UN Women. Interviews with
representatives from the Security Council could not be secured. We were able to interview Special
Rapporteurs and the staff from the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, who are
not identified in order to respect their confidentiality and that of their portfolios. In total, 12 partici-
pants were interviewed. Extensive efforts were made on the part of the researchers to reach poten-
tial participants, as the latter were neither easily accessible nor most amenable. Participants were
purposively identified based on their roles at the UN and the likelihood of a connection between
their position and LGBTQI issues. All five bodies were contacted from September 2014 to June
2015 via ongoing email, social media, and cold calling and included snowball sampling. This study
received ethics approval through the York University Ethics Review Committee. Informed consent
forms provided electronically were signed by all participants on condition of confidentiality, ano-
nymity, and a review of our written works prior to publication. Noteworthy is that participants
withheld their consent about disclosing their position except the name of their respective
UN-affiliated body. All interviews, which took place between October 2014 and June 2015, were
held in person, over the phone, or via Skype.
To analyze the data, we undertook macro-sociological discourse analysis (Van Dijk, 1985a,
1985b) along with the qualitative data analytical instrument (Ritchie and Spencer, 1994) regard-
ing institutional dynamics (internal UN systemic hegemonic norms), currently favored ideolo-
gies (policy development and who it’s developed for), and differing cultural perspectives
(perceived cultural clashes between varying cultural groups and LGBTQIs). This qualitative
perspective captures both linguistics (words chosen) and how their associated values through
expressed thoughts contribute to macro-sociological perspectives. This allowed us to engage in
meaning-making on the part of the participant in relation to the identified themes that emerged
from the study. Important information on worldviews, decision-making, and knowledge associ-
ated with the subject matter, in this case LGBTQI human rights, provide insightful observations
on UN discourses and systemic discourse.

All participants discussed the importance of grounding their work in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, which was instated in 1948. This is but one treaty alongside ‘other human
rights treaties, all of which deal with the role of the family, the question of marriage, and equality
between the sexes’ (Girard, 2007: 312). The UN’s Born Free & Equal Campaign, which outlines
‘the core obligations that States have toward LGBT persons, describes how the United Nations
mechanisms have applied international law’ (OHCHR, 2012: 10). This campaign also addresses
how member states can respond to and address rights, violations, and concerns of sexually and
gender-diverse individuals.
As highlighted in the literature review, the interview participants discussed a number of ways
in which non-supportive member states have obstructed and blocked discussions and rights
related to LGBTQI persons. As P10 from the OHCHR highlights, ‘we have to work with [mem-
ber states] governments, so we have to work a very delicate line in terms of being able to con-
tinue to do our work’. All participants further expressed this tension regarding the ongoing
surveillance of LGBTQI persons. One of the many ways LGBTQI persons are persecuted is the
procurement of prohibitive laws and sometimes the death penalty, resulting in the criminaliza-
tion of their existence:

In Nigeria following passages of law, there were reports of, specifically, attacks on men seen as homosexual.
However, in Uganda following passages of law, there were reports of attacks on – across a range of
6 International Social Work 00(0) 

specific identities. In South Africa, there are specific reports of attacks on lesbian, bisexual and transgender
women, in terms of sexual violence and rape.

Another way in which LGBTQIs are persecuted is through targeted violence. As P5, a Special
Rapporteur, states,

I have from time to time been made aware of situations in which members of the LGBTI community have
been subjected to torture or threatened with torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment … we have
intervened, for example, in cases of countries that have been entertaining the possibility of establishing the
death penalty for gay and lesbian people … Then in one of my thematic reports, one dealing with torture
in health care settings, I alluded to the practice in some states of forcing intersex people, mostly, to undergo
surgeries altering their sexuality … I considered that cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Many participants made a clear link between criminalization, discrimination, and violence
against LGBTQI persons. For instance, in some member states the emphasis is placed on marriage
equality, yet for many other member states the priority is decriminalization and anti-discrimination.
P2 commented on the strategy of ‘condemning all violence’ used by the Secretary-General in
advocating for LGBTQI rights:

I think that the Secretary-General has found it’s effective to just call countries out on, ‘Well, do you
support violence?’ Nobody’s going to say they support violence. ‘Do you support suicide?’ Well, in that
case, you have to decriminalize, because it creates an atmosphere where it’s okay to hurt gay people, if it’s
criminal. Just the physical safety of people, that’s something everyone should be able to agree on.

A few participants identified how member states can experience challenges in addressing norma-
tive understandings of religious doctrine. It should be noted that not all religious organizations are
transphobic and homophobic since there exist religious organizations that are pro-LGBTQI:

We have to keep the human rights agenda intact. Just as freedom of religion or belief is not a human right which
per se is against LGBT rights, I would also say the opposite. LGBT rights are not other agenda-related. More
recent human rights movements are not – and should take religious diversity issues on board. We have to
overcome these antagonistic views. But I mean, working in the field many people have, these antagonistic
views, thinking that religious tradition means you have to fight LGBT, and sometimes [this is] the other way
around. People working on LGBT issues think they have to fight religion and also freedom of religion or belief,
which is sometimes mistaken as endorsing those views, as the homophobic views. (Special Rapporteur, P7)

Some member states are not accepting of LGBTQI persons as it is not seen as part of the
‘traditional-culture’. Both P5 and P8 discussed the challenges around nation state sovereignty in
which local culture, values, tradition, and religion are used to override nation state obligations to
international human rights law. As P8 from OHCHR states, ‘[W]e constantly remind them of their
international legal obligations and international human rights law, and we also try to keep bring-
ing it back to the violations, to the violence, to the discrimination, and building up the case
to change’. This becomes prominent when intersecting issues such as reproductive health and
women’s rights come up against the normative understandings of gender and sexuality. One
participant from the Office of the Secretary-General undertook an anti-colonial analysis on the
contemporary sociopolitical and cultural contexts of many member states:

The homophobia that came to Africa came through colonialism, and that’s where the UN has a strength of
being an international organization … it’s not just Western values. That’s a red herring … ‘the West is
invading us with their values’. These are human rights values. They’re universal values.
Mulé et al. 7

The work carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration
with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has engaged member states
(that prohibit SOGI) by actively advocating on behalf of LGBTQI communities through a social
determinants of a health lens. For example, P3 from ECOSOC stated the following:

HIV is a really good entry point for talking about the impact of criminalization, whether it’s against men
who have sex with men, trans people, sex workers, drug users. Increasingly, our work really does focus on
key populations, looking at the kind of linkages particularly around criminalization, but also other kinds
of linkages. . . . the work we do around sex worker rights very explicitly makes sure that trans women and
men sex workers are part of who we’re talking about.

Furthermore, P4 from UN Women articulated how certain language is used to discuss women’s
rights, sexuality, and gender identity in the context of reproductive rights and violence against

Intimate partner violence, they want to hear, ‘domestic violence against a partner’, even though those are
two different things. They [member states] don’t want ‘intimate partner’, for various reasons. One, because
a girl shouldn’t be in intimate relationships unless they’re married. So you should only be talking about
domestic violence because you’re talking about a husband … When you talk about sexual reproductive
health and rights, you can only talk about sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. You
cannot talk about sexual rights, because it automatically goes to LGBT issues, even though sexual rights
is much broader than that. You’re not talking about sexuality. It’s much broader than talking about lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender.

The rhetoric of ‘western values’ is often invoked by member states in a misguided attempt at
maintaining sovereignty when countering LGBTQI rights being taken up as human rights. In fact,
all the participants discussed how non-supportive member states employ this strategy:

It’s a long-term struggle, so you just have to keep at it … it’s not about Western values; it’s about human
rights. It’s about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all of these countries have signed up
on. When you join the UN, you sign on to the Charter, and you sign on to the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. (P2, Office of the Secretary-General)

Overall, working within the UN system can create challenges when advocating for and address-
ing LGBTQI rights. The problem can be multifarious and can exist from the bureaucratic nature of
the UN system to addressing policy changes in both international and local laws and respecting the
sovereignty of member states. As demonstrated, all participants had to be creative within their
mandates or position to pave inroads for addressing LGBTQI rights within member states and
affiliates. Furthermore, the work is complicated by ‘traditional’ and ‘conservative’ understandings
of family values and its grounding in normative religious rhetoric.

Based on the participant narratives, three major arguments are being promoted by a number of
nation states in their opposition to LGBTQI populations in the latter’s efforts at gaining recognition
and legitimization at the UN. Family values usually driven by ‘traditional’ culture and sometimes
religion, a politicized sense of nationalism as exercised through sovereignty, and discriminatory
legislation as implemented through criminalization are all used as forms of argumentation when
addressing LGBTQI matters as human rights issues. Underscoring these arguments are ongoing
8 International Social Work 00(0) 

tensions fueled by past and present colonial and imperial projects which have sought to prohibit
sexual and gender expression in contemporary non-supportive member states (Lennox and Waites,
2013; Morrissey, 2013). In fact, very few participants applied an anti-colonial lens to understand-
ing the current situation regarding many non-supportive member states on these issues.
Some nation states approach their membership in the UN with a strong nationalistic sense of
culture, mores, values, and traditions as important aspects of their state identity, without room for
change or social progress. This approach creates a conflict, for such nation states are prioritizing
their traditional values over the human rights principles the UN develops and establishes with its
member states. In other words, member states sign treaties and other internationally recognized
human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as part of their mem-
bership, yet will revert to their anti-LGBTQI perspectives when human rights concerns regarding
these populations arise. What is lost in this process is a focus on the social determinants of the
health of their populace, in this case LGBTQI people, for an inability to understand and attend to
the structural implications on their health and well-being undermines their potential and that of
society (Fish and Bewley, 2010; Mulé, 2015a; Mulé et al., 2009). At the crux of this conflict is
whether such nation states are open to movement in the form of change or whether they are com-
mitted to a steadfast position – in their minds – to protect and preserve their traditions.
Hence nation states will assert the aforementioned arguments based on hegemonic cultural
norms, sometimes influenced by religions that uphold systemic and institutionalized heterosexism
and cisgenderism encased within national geographic borders. In the last number of years, both
India and Russia – with India’s repeal and review of Section 377 (Lawyers Collective, 2014) and
Russia’s anti-gay propaganda legislation (Elder, 2013) – have demonstrated state-driven and sanc-
tioned forms of systemic heterosexism and cisgenderism. A more sinister form of heterosexist and
cisgenderist colonialism is when missions such as that led by American Scott Lively go into a
country such as Uganda and foster hate toward LGBTQI people, influencing their policies to the
point of proposed anti-LGBTQI legislation that initially imposed a death penalty then shifted to
imprisonment involving extensive incarceration (Sexual Minorities Uganda [SMUG], 2016).
There was limited critical awareness among our participants about the many Religious Right
organizations and groups that have set up field offices in certain member states and travel from the
United States and Canada to propel anti-LGBTQI initiatives (legal, cultural, and social).
Additionally, there exist schools of social work in the United States that promote anti-LGBTQI
agendas and graduates of these programs also engage in international practice (Reamer, 2013).
Whether state-driven based on traditional values and norms or externally influenced by hate mon-
gering, it is a clashing of values and a power struggle that are at play. Legally, the Yogyakarta
Principles (2007) provide a set of guidelines for legislative inclusion of LGBTQI people.
Socially, heteronormativity and anti-LGBTQI ideations are against the code of ethics and state-
ment of principles in social work (International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW] and
International Association of Schools of Social Work [IASSW], 2004), and it is through maintaining
anti-colonial and queer liberationist frameworks that we can acknowledge our role in the subjuga-
tion of and realize our potential in the emancipation of LGBTQI persons and communities globally
(Mulé, 2016).
Yet same-sex desires and individuals who do not feel aligned to their biologically assigned sex
at birth exist throughout the world, regardless of whether there is a language to identify them, an
organized community, or a subculture recognized or not by a society’s mainstream culture.
International social work recognizes this existence as a form of diversity that requires protection
against discrimination, criminalization, and all their associated consequences (i.e. arrests, detain-
ments, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes executions). The social work discipline has a strong
set of values and principles premised on the concept of social justice that speaks to respect and
Mulé et al. 9

dignity of the individual inclusive of their sexual orientation (IFSW and IASSW, 2004). Derived
from values and power, influenced by religious faiths and border-bound regionalism, such systems
can quickly devolve into politics of resentment in the international arena. This tension extends to
the degree of autonomy nation states believe they have despite their membership within the UN.
LGBTQI affirmative international social work can provide alternative approaches that recognize
and value differences and diversity toward a politics of inclusion. This is where critical social work
comes into play since it seeks to bring social justice for all and opposes the various oppressions and
their intersections (Healy, 2001) at micro, mezzo, and macro levels (Mullaly, 2007). Having an
intersectional analysis and multifarious dynamics of oppressions, critically-oriented social workers
can work toward advancing LGBTQI awareness and rights through many forums, such as capacity
building, activism, advocacy, offering social support, and community organizing to name a few.
For example, ‘co-participation’ and ‘social transformations’ are understood as important consid-
erations in critical social work practice (Healy, 2001: para 2).
Considering the persecution gender non-conforming individuals face, the social work profes-
sion can further its recognition of social locations to include gender identity and expression.
Additionally, it needs to be much more transparent regarding its defense of LGBTQI people, which
is not publicized on either the IFSW or the IASSW websites (i.e. that the IFSW has engaged in;
Bailey, 2012). It is important that the social work profession and its role in the international arena
(Fish and Karban, 2015) at the UN be seen to actively support LGBTQI rights.
A recent example on the part of the UN that presents an opportunity for international social
work bodies to play a collaborative role is in a landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution,
adopted 30 June 2016 in Geneva, that passed a mandate to assign an Independent Expert on SOGI.
This expert will mainly work toward assessing the protective mechanisms currently in place (inter-
nationally) for LGBTQI persons and also to identify and target the main causes of persecution and
violence perpetrated against LGBTQI persons and communities (OHCHR, 2016). Both IASSW
and IFSW can support the work of this SOGI Independent Expert through community engagement,
information sharing, policy design and development, and evaluation of assessment tools regarding
protective mechanisms and underlying causes of LGBTQI violence and persecution. It would be
an opportunity for IASSW and IFSW to both apply and further develop its ethical principles.

The findings of this research study, via the narratives gathered, reveal that although LGBTQI peo-
ple have made a number of significant gains at the UN, their struggle for recognition and legitimi-
zation continues to be stymied by three arguments used as adversarial tactics. These include
traditional family values, nation state sovereignty, and criminalization. UN staff and Special
Rapporteurs interviewed for this study shared numerous examples of how these arguments are
deployed by certain UN nation state members to the detriment of LGBTQI people, particularly
those being persecuted. A population being targeted based on a characteristic (i.e. LGBTQI) for
discrimination, stigmatization, harassment, threats, and/or violence is clearly a human rights issue,
which through the work of LGBTQI human rights defenders is increasingly being taken up at the
UN. International social work, which includes work at the UN, is already premised on a social
justice perspective and as such needs to be explicitly inclusive of gender identity and expression
and more transparent about its support of LGBTQI people.

The lead author received a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
(SSHRC) of Canada to conduct this study.
10 International Social Work 00(0) 

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Mulé et al. 13

Author biographies
Nick J. Mulé, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Social Work, seconded to the School of Gender,
Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University where he teaches policy, theory and practice. He pub-
lishes and has research interests in the areas of social inclusion/exclusion of gender and sexually diverse
populations in social policy and service provision and the degree of their recognition as distinct communities
in cultural, systemic and structural contexts. He also undertakes a critical analysis of the LGBTQ social move-
ment and the development of queer liberation theory. Additionally, Nick is a psychotherapist in private prac-
tice serving gender and sexually diverse populations in Toronto.
Maryam Khan is a Ph.D. candidate in the school of Social Work at York University in Toronto, Canada. She
has over ten years of clinical experience in mental health, and addictions working with children, queer youth
and adults in various interdisciplinary settings. As a qualitative and mixed methods researcher, she is passion-
ate about social policy and analyses, race and racialization, sex work, Islam and sexual diversity, intersec-
tional identities and identity politics, social policy and access to healthcare for racialized trans and queer
persons, cultural imperialism and privilege, gender and sexuality, anticolonial thought and decolonization.
Maryam has also taught part-time at Centennial College, Seneca College and York University in their social
work departments.
Cameron McKenzie (M.S.W) is a PhD candidate in Health Policy & Equity at York University in Toronto,
Canada. His research has focused on northern issues, disability, and the queer and trans community. His cur-
rent doctoral research examines how LGBTQ community health organizations perceive and experience their
role in policymaking. Cameron also has a private practice and teaches in the School of Social and Community
Services at Humber College in Toronto.