Development is making strides in promoting LGBTIQ+ programming & leadership, but there is room for growth

By Sabra Ayres


Juan Manuel Sanchez, a Chief of Party for Creative Associates International in Central America and member of the LGBTIQ+ community, has led programming with LGBTIQ+ youth in the region. In celebration of Pride Month 2022, we asked Sanchez to share his personal experiences and thoughts on how the development industry is responding to LGBTIQ+ issues around the globe.

Creative’s Chief of Party, Juan Manuel Sanchez

How did you get into the development industry, and what do you attribute to your success?

: I worked in the public sector for 12 years, and then joined the Millennium Challenge Corporation´s projects. I have since dedicated the last seven and a half years to development work. I have achieved my success by merit. Because I have demonstrated the talent it takes to make things happen, and that is my greatest added value. I say what I think and feel, and I raise my voice when necessary. My maternal grandmother taught me to be fair, compassionate and to treat everyone equally. It is that mix of talents, family values and my history that makes me who I am today.

I don’t really enjoy social labels; I think they are discriminatory. I never stood up in front of my family to say I was gay. As a young man, I found my path and followed it.  In school I was bullied, and in my professional life I have been personally attacked by some leaders in the organizations I have worked for.

That is why I say that my life is a story of resilience, which I proudly share, built on the love of my family, the support of mentors throughout my life, friends who have always been there for me, and work colleagues whose values and attitudes are compatible with my own. The world, companies, colleagues are not perfect, and it helps me a lot to understand that when people make fun of me, try to discredit me, or have tried to discriminate against me, it is not about me but about them, their personal history, their upbringing at home, and their education. This allows me to put a distance from everything that does not add value to my life.

Belonging to both the development aid and LGBTIQ+ communities, I have used my skills, networks and knowledge from the positions I have held in the different projects and organizations to raise awareness and to create opportunities to support other LGBTIQ+ people. “I want, I can and I deserve” is my personal mantra, and one that I pass on to every LGBTIQ+ youth and every person. Life is to be lived and not suffered. As human beings we must dignify life itself.

Although society is evolving, sometimes our time and society’s time do not coincide, however, that cannot stop us. If I change, my family will change, my country will change, and the world will change.

You’ve worked with programs to support LGBTIQ+ youth in in Central America. Could you describe the focus of that programming and why it was important at that time and space?

Sanchez: Countries in the Central America region are conservative. This presents many challenges for the LGBTIQ+ community but, in my opinion, there are two that are most relevant. The first great challenge is that in many countries there are no statistical data or public entities that handle data or qualitative information about LGBTIQ+ people. Although there are civil society organizations that work with this population segment, it is not enough to reveal the problems and needs of this population that must be addressed from public policies and with a public-private approach

The second challenge is cultural and the existing social norms, which make LGBTIQ+ people vulnerable to violence or discrimination from childhood. This can have a huge negative impact on self-esteem and self-confidence, which are central to the successful transition from child to youth to adult. It is not the LGBTIQ+ youth who must become straight, it is the environment that must become more supportive and respectful.

The first thing I have promoted within the projects where I have worked, and particularly in the last five years, is to monitor the LGBTIQ+ youth who participate in our programs. Knowing where they are, what they need and how they feel is just as important as knowing how many of them there are. The point is to break the social invisibility of this group and to respond to their own needs.

The second is to promote safe spaces where young people can feel that they are respected and valued. And third, I am a firm believer that the best help that can be given to a person is to teach them to create positive mindset and to increase their level of emotional resilience in an environment that will change very slowly, but where there are still opportunities for LGBTIQ+ youth to grow. 

What were some of the major challenges of working with these vulnerable groups in Central America? Any specific examples of roadblocks or hurdles your programming faced?

Sanchez: One of the main challenges is that the young people themselves do not want to self-identify, which limits the capacity of the program to know their limitations, expectations and respond through with supports and services. Usually only 4 percent of this population has been identified as participating in programs, even though from experience it is known that there are more young people who prefer not to self-identify because of the social stigma that an LGBTIQ+ person faces. 

Another challenge is to bring this group to the forefront of the vulnerable groups that are served by the projects. Many times, project teams focus on other vulnerable groups, because they are the most obvious groups to work with without implying a higher level of accommodation in the technical team itself.  I encourage each member of my team to be informed, to learn what needs to be learned about each vulnerable group, to improve what can be improved and always, always answer the question: how would I like to be treated?

Has incorporating programming activities focused on LGBTIQ+ into development projects increased or improved during your time in the industry?

: Throughout the industry we see how there is more interest in advancing LGBTIQ+ rights and supporting people to reach their full potential, particularly in the health and civil society capacity building projects. In Central America, Creative’s past projects have worked to empower LGBTIQ+ youth, develop life skills, increase their job readiness, amplify their voices and to sensitize companies on good practices of inclusion to generate that supportive environment.

There is always room for improvement. Most programs and projects are designed and implemented with a rights-based approach, which is correct. However, it is not enough just to teach people about their rights and existing laws. It is necessary to promote changes in the educational model to prepare LGBTIQ+ people for the challenges of life, and to reinforce mechanisms to minimize homophobic and transphobic bullying.

It is very positive that more LGBTIQ+ leadership in the political and social spheres is visible, and that governments or companies move towards positive actions with the creation of units, or leadership positions, or inclusion strategies, to create a more supportive environment for our community. However, we must always be vigilant of the social/political manipulation that can slow down the real shift towards a more inclusive society.

Finally, it is important to make visible the contribution of the LGBTIQ+ community to the economic growth and social cohesion of countries.

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