Out in the World: OutRight launches humanitarian and global development program

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023
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OutRight Action International's Amie Bishop, left, and Maria Sjödin announced the agency's new Humanitarian and Global Development Programs. Photos: Bishop, courtesy OutRight; Sjödin, courtesy LA Blade
OutRight Action International's Amie Bishop, left, and Maria Sjödin announced the agency's new Humanitarian and Global Development Programs. Photos: Bishop, courtesy OutRight; Sjödin, courtesy LA Blade

OutRight Action International is launching a new humanitarian and global development initiative.

Amie Bishop, MSW, MPH, was tapped as its first director.

Bishop announced her new position in a January 6 post on LinkedIn. On January 20, OutRight Executive Director Maria Sjödin confirmed the new program and that Bishop was appointed to lead it. Sjödin said the program started January 1.

In her post on LinkedIn, Bishop wrote her new role would consist of focusing on "specific projects such as our emergency grantmaking and LGBTIQ inclusion advocacy work in Ukraine, as well as on broader advocacy efforts to ensure that LGBTIQ+ needs are better addressed in humanitarian and global health/development programming."

OutRight has not updated its Global Programs page or issued a news release announcing the new program and director as of February 1. However, Bishop's biography on the organization's website was updated with her new position and program.

Bishop and Sjödin spoke with the Bay Area Reporter in exclusive separate interviews about Bishop's new role with OutRight and the new program in January.

The need

"The fact of the matter is that LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups, tend to fare worse in any kind of disaster," Sjödin told the B.A.R. in a phone interview January 20. "That goes for natural disasters as well as war."

Bishop and Sjödin both told the B.A.R. that OutRight learned through documentation, research, and emergency funding to its partners on the ground during COVID-19, the United States and NATO allies' withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Bishop, a 62-year-old lesbian, is a veteran public health and social work academic and researcher. She told the B.A.R. in a January 10 interview that the gap didn't exist because humanitarian organizations didn't want to help LGBTQ people at a time of crisis. Rather, it's a lack of knowledge of working with LGBTQ people and understanding "pre-existing harmful norms" before the crises and a "do no harm" policy, which seeks to avoid exposing people to further risk through action.

"It's because [humanitarian staff] don't know how to meaningfully and safely engage with LGBTI communities around the world," Bishop said, adding that the lack of "societal discrimination and exclusion that exists before [a] disaster or just not understanding the degree to which [discrimination occurs] that then further marginalizes people during [a] crisis."

"Ironically, ending up doing nothing, of course, exacerbates harm. It's the opposite of 'do no harm,' but unfortunately, that's kind of how it plays out," she added.

During the early part of the COVID pandemic, OutRight saw LGBTQ people were quickly among the first to experience food and housing insecurities due to the types of jobs — many low-paying and lacking stability — they had. Bishop and the OutRight team also discovered through partners on the ground that LGBTQ people were oftentimes denied humanitarian aid because their families weren't legally recognized. She documented that in "Vulnerability Amplified: The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTQ People," as the B.A.R. previously reported.

It "really shows that there's a lot of need here to ensure that LGBTQ people are reached by humanitarian efforts," said Sjödin, 52, who identifies as a nonbinary lesbian.

Sjödin cited the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' recent findings about the rate of displacement of people globally by the end of 2022.

"The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said there are over 300 million people that need humanitarian assistance in 2022, compared to 274 [million] in 2021. So, this is an increasing problem," they noted.

Bishop agreed, saying, "Unfortunately, we're only going to see an increase, I think, particularly related to climate change."

Bishop believes for development and humanitarian organizations to succeed in the long term, awareness of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities' needs in crises must be committed to and institutionalized.

"This has to be embedded institutionally within organizations doing this work," she said. "It can't just be in the moment of crisis. It has to be a commitment to really understanding pre-existing harmful norms and practices ... aimed at certain populations before [a] crisis even strikes.

"If you don't understand that, you're going to have a very hard time being successful in responding to crises," Bishop continued, stating that LGBTQ activists and organizations exist around the world. "They need to be given space and brought into processes to be respected for what they know, what they can do for their own communities, and what support they need to do that."

The program

Bishop and Sjödin both made it clear that OutRight is not going into the business of providing direct humanitarian aid and development work. The organization will continue its mission as a global LGBTQ human rights organization, identifying issues and ways to improve queer lives around the world through research and reports, diplomacy, and advocacy.

The new program's mandate will expand upon OutRight's work to bring an LGBTQ human rights lens to the scope of humanitarian and development work. The program's aim is to address the growing need to close the gap and support LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities when crises hit.

OutRight will achieve the program's goal through data collecting, research, and reporting; advocacy; education; and funding and strengthening the capacity of partner organizations around the globe as well as new partnerships in the humanitarian and development fields.

"We would like to play a bigger and more consistent role in documenting the ways in which LGBTQI populations are, or are not, being included in the context of crisis," said Bishop. "And, also lending our advocacy abilities to local movements to push for greater inclusion.

"We're not asking for special rights. We're not asking for special outreach. It's part of comprehensive action that has to commit to identifying people who are at special risk and have special vulnerabilities," she added.

Sjödin added that development is another area on which OutRight has increasingly focused.

The program will also use the "framework of development" to examine ways to "ensure LGBTQI people can be included in development efforts more broadly when it comes to combating poverty or promoting access to education, access to health, [and] all of those things," they said.

"We have been able to broaden our work. Lean into being a nimble organization that can take on new things even in a world in crisis," Sjödin said about OutRight, which has a budget of $18.3 million, according to its 2021 IRS Form 990. "I'm very proud of that."

Bishop said her salary is just above $142,000. As a former deputy executive director, Sjödin earned $190,074 in salary and benefits, according to the agency's 2021 Form 990. A spokesperson wouldn't comment on Sjödin's salary when they were appointed executive director last summer.

OutRight distributed about $6 million in emergency grants funded by the private sector since the beginning of the pandemic, along with other programs and outreach efforts, said Sjödin. Half of the funds raised have been for Ukraine, Outright confirmed.

OutRight is powered by 32 staff in 11 countries, 20 board members in four countries, more than 600 volunteers, and 48 partnerships working on many campaigns and outreach efforts, according to the organization's 2021 annual report.

The organization tapped into its base again to respond quickly to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said Bishop. About $3 million has been raised to aid LGBTQ Ukrainian organizations since the beginning of the war. About $2.5 million has been disbursed to around 39 LGBTQ organizations since the war began, OutRight confirmed. Sjödin added that OutRight received donations from over 80 countries to support the effort. Twenty-seven of the groups that received funding were in Ukraine. The rest of the groups were in bordering countries, like Poland, and were helping queer Ukrainian refugees, especially during the early months of the invasion when people were fleeing the country.

Bishop noted that 100% of the donations for the emergency fund were distributed without any fees.

Bishop and Sjödin were unable to disclose the new humanitarian program's budget because it is still being developed.

"I don't know if I can speak to a budget," said Sjödin. "It is a new program ... we're also sort of consolidating a few different pieces of work."

Up for the challenge

"I'm really excited about this position," said Bishop.

She looks forward to working with activists on the ground; LGBTQ, development, and humanitarian experts from various countries; and governments and global leaders.

"I think that we will continue to contribute to what I hope is a growing ... demand for better responsiveness from a range of governments and U.N. mandates that will result in a push forward at a global, national, and policy level," said Bishop, referring to the United Nations.

Bishop, who is based in Seattle, has a long history with OutRight. She served on the agency's board of directors for nine years from 2008 to 2017 before being tapped by OutRight to serve as a research consultant. During her four-year tenure in that role, she authored groundbreaking reports, such as the organization's May 2020 COVID-19 impact report and "Harmful Treatment: The Global Reach of So-called Conversion Therapy," published in 2019, among others. The B.A.R. previously reported on both reports.

Bishop has more than 25 years of experience working in global health and development. She held several roles at PATH, a global health equity organization, focused on HIV, tuberculosis, and women's health from 1989 to 2014. She's worked in more than 20 countries, including Ukraine. In addition to her work at OutRight, Bishop is an adjunct clinical instructor at the University of Washington's Department of Global Health.

"She is particularly well-suited to taking on this role where cooperating with institutions that are in the development field, but not necessarily focused on LGBTIQ, is going to be critical," Sjödin said.

Test country

Ukraine has become an ideal site to develop a test model for OutRight's LGBTQ humanitarian work. Bishop and Sjödin noted there were many LGBTQ organizations OutRight worked with when the war erupted, and it was familiar ground for Bishop.

Sjödin said OutRight is working on identifying "some models on how to advocate within the mainstream organizations that are delivering humanitarian support because what we're hearing from Ukraine is that they are not really reaching LGBTIQ people."

Stories from OutRight's partners on the ground echo gaps in humanitarian aid to LGBTQ people experienced during the early days of the pandemic, such as transgender people's access to hormone therapy.

Sjödin said, "If they provide medication for, say, diabetes, they should also be able to provide hormones for trans people. It's not something that you can just ignore in a crisis situation."

Bishop recognized that OutRight can't respond to every emergency around the world, but the organization's strength is its partnerships.

"It's not possible for us to be active in every emergency that happens around the world, but the strength of OutRight is our partnerships," she said. "Also our work at the global level in terms of advocacy.

"We don't necessarily have to be physically engaging like we are in Ukraine," she continued, but "it may provide an example of how this work can be done effectively, in a particular crisis setting."

The program is already staffing up in Ukraine, according to Bishop's LinkedIn posts.

End goal

The ultimate success of the program in Sjödin's mind is if it not only saves LGBTQ lives but accomplishes a similar impact OutRight achieved in the 1990s with human rights organizations recognizing LGBTQ rights are human rights.

"In the 1990s, where we were part of the effort to get human rights organizations to take LGBTIQ people seriously," Sjödin said, noting that at the time, none of the major human rights organizations had departments dedicated to LGBTQ people. Today, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other leading human rights organizations have LGBTQ divisions.

"We haven't seen that development in the humanitarian field," they said. "That is what we want to achieve five or 10 years from now. I would want all large humanitarian organizations to know how to reach LGBTIQ people and to ensure that they're included."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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