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12 Oct 2009

LGBT equality at the workplace? (For now only in America)

Impressions from the 2009 Out & Equal Workplace Summit held in Orlando, 6-9 October 2009.

Last week, I attended the 2009 Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Orlando. Out & Equal is a non-profit organisation founded on the principle of promoting LGBT equality in the workplace. The conference attracted over 2000 attendees (growing tenfold from the first summit in 1990), who spent four days networking, brainstorming, sharing best practices, recognising leaders and celebrating the advancement of equal rights for LGBT employees of major US corporations.

In recent years, there had been an increased recognition for the importance of valuing diversity in the workplace. The 2010 Human Rights Campaign's 8th Corporate Equality Index reported: "The majority of Fortune 500 companies have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1995 and have offered partner benefits since 2006. More than one-third prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. The number of companies that received top ratings on the HRC Foundation's Corporate Equality Index rose from 13 in 2002 to 305 in 2010."

Keynote speaker Sharon Allen (one of Forbe's 100 Most Powerful Women) said during her plenary address: "The importance of valuing diversity and treating everyone equally is essential in unlocking the value and full potential of human talent... It allows our employees to be who they truly are". Sharon "happens" to be Chairman of Deloitte. Her impassioned speech and outspoken support for her LGBT employees and what they did at Deloitte to systematically remove discriminatory barriers and building an enabling environment made it easy to imagine marching to her drumbeat. It was human, inclusive, and valued people for who they were.

What was equally remarkable was how the conference was being held at Disney's Coronado Springs. Apparently, hosting such a large gay event such as Out & Equal was only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the great lengths that Disney goes to in support of the LGBT community. Disney also hosts the annual GayDays festival, and actively promotes Disney Resorts as a destination for the celebration of same-sex gay marriages. All this despite attracting the ire and calls for boycott from conservative "family values" groups. Yet none of it has tarnished the image of Disney, if anything, the unwavering commitment by what is arguably one of the most powerful brands in "family entertainment" brands has only broadened their appeal as a company that valued inclusiveness and treated everyone as equals.

During the course of the week, I listened to inspiring speeches by law professor Kenji Yoshino (legal scholar and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University school of Law) who spoke about the importance of authenticity, and the parallels between the stages of his personal coming out - introduced the concepts of "Conversion/Passing/Covering" as phases of gay integration with mainstream society - with that of the LGBT civil rights movement; and that of Kevin Brockman, who shared his personal journey of escaping his small hometown to the bright lights of New York, and was able to achieve what he has because he never had the need to hide who he was, bringing authenticity and passion to his job. (Kevin is head of all communications for all of ABC-Disney which includes a slew of divisions and media properties including ABC News, ABC Daytime, Disney Channels, ABC Family, SOAPnet, the TV animation division, Buena Vista, etc.) ; I also got to hang out with Julie Dorf, founder and director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) from 1990 to 2000, and Henry Pacecho from the Council of Global Equality, and meet Michael Guest, America's first openly gay, Senate-confirmed Ambassador (to Romania, 2001-04). He ended his 26-year diplomatic career in December 2007 after having sought, without success, to end the US State Department's discriminatory treatment of the partners of gay and lesbian Foreign Service Officers in foreign postings.

Despite this brimming over of optimism and self-congratulatory pats on the back, there remained a sobriety over the cognisance of the work that remained ahead over everyone. Even though the presence of Fortune 500 companies at O&E2009 was impressive, many of them have yet to start extending their diversity policies and same-sex partner benefits to their international operations. IBM appeared to be an early leader in doing so, they were sponsors of the World OutGames and Human Rights Conferences in Melbourne (2008) and Copenhagen (2009), and will be a lead sponsor of the 2010 EuroPride (Warsaw, Poland). 

Accenture, UBS, MetLife, Deustche Bank each shared early progress in establishing gay affiliate employee groups (euphemistically named Employee Resource Groups or ERGs), but few had the degree of visibility they had back Stateside. Many cited fears of breaching cultural taboos or breaking domestic laws as reasons for not pushing LGBT inclusiveness. But I personally saw that as a poor excuse for not extending the corporate benefits for same-sex partners to their international employees. Evidently, it was still early days and much work was left to be done.

Having said that, the US corporations represent enormous potential as allies in the continuing struggle for equality in Asia. We (gay rights advocates and corporate America's ERGs) all share a common vision - the equal treatment of our fellow human beings, free from discrimination. If we focused on this simple principle, mountains may yet be moved.

Ads as seen in the 
2009 Out & Equal Workplace Summit programme book (PDF)

As more corporations and governments in Asia wake up to the same realities of valuing their human capital, they will come to the same conclusions that Sharon Allen and so many of her peers have done in the past few years in the US. That principle is this: All humans are the same, they want to belong, they want to feel valued, and they will give all that they have if they are recognised for their contributions. If they can do so without compromising their identities, by not living double lives and "passing" for being heterosexual, then the rewards can be reaped from nurturing and celebrating the richness of diversity that is the human condition.

Just a cursory glance of the sponsors of the Out & Equal 2009 Summit gives me hope. These companies aren't just talking the talk - they seem to be walking the walk - empowering their employees to achieve their full potential by recognising their value for who they fully are, including their LGBT identities.

Dr Stuart Koe is the founder and CEO of Fridae.

A full list of the sponsors are displayed below. 


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 ILGA Asia - Fridae partner for LGBT rights in Asia IGLHRC - Fridae Partner for LGBT rights in Asia