Interview with Stephen Wood

Stephen Wood is an international development researcher within the Gender & Sexuality cluster at the Institute of Development Studies. His current research is around sexuality and poverty, the intersections of gender, sexuality and other forms of disadvantage, plus the evolving nature of global LGBTI movements. He can be found on Twitter as: @StephenWoodUK and on his YouTube Vlog series “Global LGBTI Politics”

What led you to study, write and defend questions about gender, LGBT and sexuality?

I guess my starting point was growing up in a deprived, poor part of north-east England and becoming aware of my difference from those around me as a gay youth in the early 1980s. The impact of the Thatcher Government in dismantling jobs and livelihoods in communities like mine was something I heard about before I even understood politics and I had a strong sense of how the rhetoric of equality and fairness we heard on the news didn’t translate through the prism of lived lives.

Being raised in a family where women were the driving force in leading, setting the tone, yet being lumbered with the vast amount of domestic and emotional heavy lifting really hung heavy on me, so when I eventually escaped and moved to London to study, I already felt on an instinctual level that I understood how gender and sexual equality were parallel and interlinking injustices I wanted to put my energies into challenging.

Already in 2012 you talked about the legislative fights for equality, its progresses and regressions in western societies. You stated that through the Sexuality & Development Programme in the IDS you are developing ways to make sexuality and law progress. Do you think the legislative fights for equality are changing people’s minds concerning LGBT rights?

For those of us who live in the West, the narrative of sexual equality has always rested on incremental change through the work of social movements, solidarity with others and the translation of that into measurable Parliamentary legislative change. As a strategy, it has made sense and even the recent (contested) agreement to appoint an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by the UN Human Rights Council has the potential to go some way towards pushing for legislative change in many countries with represessive legal regimes for homosexuals.

That said, resorting to law reform can be a messy, dangerous and at times unproductive route towards these changes. Here at the Institute of Development Studies, we held a workshop (with an outstanding collection of reflections from participants) with a lot of the key thinkers and activists engaging in these movements and what came up from the diversity of voices was the need to interrogate the implications and shortcomings of cleaving to a legal route to equality that doesn’t account for social justice, solidarity movements and the engagement in different political spaces and movements, such as art, intersectional activism and movement building. In some contexts such as Ethiopia, there just isn’t the civil society space allowed to operate in ways that can apply pressure on Government safely.

In 2012 you said that the discussion of pleasure was still a matter out of many debates. Although some time has passed, how harmful can this failing be in discussing pleasure? Since 2012 have you seen a lot of developments about this theme?

As someone working with the aid / development world, trying to talk about sexual pleasure when discussing issues of sexual and reproductive health can be like banging your head against the same brick wall that LGBT activists have in taking their issues seriously. In spite of a great deal of convincing research and the inspiring work of such organisations as The Pleasure Project and Love Matters that are producing innovative, engaging strategies for talking to (particularly young) people about issues of sex, choice and pleasure in their sexual health strategies, a regressive and judgemental attitude that alienates target populations still holds sway.

Much of the sex education that is taking place amongst those starting their sexual lives globally is now coming from online pornography sites, places not known for gender-equitable sexual behaviour and conspicuous safety around condom use. One of my colleagues at IDS, Pauline Oosterhoff, is increasingly exploring dialogue with pornography gatekeepers and producers in order to have these conversations at the sharp end of modern sexual education. It is an exciting time to really reframe our understanding and expectations around sexual pleasure, but remains very contested amongst political and religious convservatives.

In your recent research you talk about sexuality and poverty and about the politics to reduce poverty. What differences do you see between people who live their sexuality in poverty and those who live it beyond poverty? In what way can this study help reduce poverty among the marginalized communities?

Those people with non-normative sexual and gender identities, young women who find themselves excluded as a result of their sexual behaviours and those who work within the sex industry to make ends meet can find the factors that lead to poverty magnified. The likelihood of such maginalisation, such as exclusion from education, discrimination in the workforce, being forced to migrate to areas where they arent known and having a lack of networks and support to strengthen their social mobililty tends to be higher.

If we want to reduce the sheer number of people living in poverty in either Western societies or the Global South, we need to understand that certain exclusions and marginalisations experienced by people intersect in ways that compound the livelihood that they live in poverty. In purely instrumentalist terms, you can argue that poverty alleviation strategies and programmes that fail to understand the particular circumstances and implications of exclusion for sexual minorities will not reach as many people and run the risk of not being successful (or for conservatives, not good value for money). Personally, I find that argument problematic, but at the same I’m happy to work with whatever rationale can get people behind concrete improvements to the lives of poor queer people. The options, opportunity and physical safety for those with access to resources, whilst not nullifying the discrimination they face daily, are much higher than for those without.

What motivated you to know more about the problematics of sexuality among poor and wealthy people and the marginalized communities?

I think traditionally, when looking at sexual rights internationally, there were two main entry points for engagement – you either worked with others fighting for human rights in coalition or explicitly on LGBTI equality or you used reproductive health and HIV/AIDS as a way to reach and engage in with young people, women and men who have sex with men (MSM). Examining sexuality and poverty as an entry point was until recently, not something that a lot of time was expended upon – thanks to the work of IDS, Lee Badgett of the Williams Institute and even actors such as the World Bank, it is becoming a legitimate area of study.

One of the most striking insights I received when I first started travelling and collaborating with sexual rights activists in the global South was the realisation that the same establishment and elitist tendencies we see in our own LGBT movements are just as prevalent in places like the Philippines or India, for example. Prominent LGBT organisations can, in many cases, be lead by richer gay men (not always, but lesbian, bi and trans leaders still remain under-represented) with a world-view of LGBT life that has more in common with places like the US and Europe than the needs of poorer, marginalised domestic sexual and gender minorities. This can be reflected in their priorities. It isn’t that surprising that in countries where the majority lives in poverty, that the ability to become a public activist is financially and politically easier if you come from particular classes or castes, so I’m not criticising it per se, but saying that (as is the case in the UK), the voices and demands from the grassroots are heard less than they should.

How do you see the present and future of sexuality and LGBT fights?

As you might suspect from the answer above, I think one of the key planks for sexual equality moving forward is a critical analysis of the power and class divisions faced by (and amongst) sexual and gender minorities. The time for thinking that LGBT people are richer, have more disposable income and are more mobile should be a thing of the past. That also means interrogating neo-liberal, individualistic narratives of citizenship and not buying wholesale into economic models that promote entrenched inequality.

I’m also very interested in how online and digital forms of citizenship and activism are changing the ways in which we campaign for global sexual rights. These are without their pitfalls either – I think those of living in the West need to take a long hard look at how we engage in solidarity with activist movements in other parts of the world to ensure we act in solidarity, placing the strategies of those we aim to support from and centre and always mindful of the unforseen political and security implications of what we do.

Thanks for your time, and all the best wishes for your work.

Project Let’s Talk About Sexuality
Interview: Pedro Marques
Translation and Correction and: Jú Matias


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