The United Nations (U.N.) serves as one of the premier advocates for LGBTI human rights around the world through both research of abuses and guidance for businesses and governments to adopt better practices, including around employment.
To help our partners better understand existing U.N. initiatives, Out & Equal hosted a webinar on Wednesday, March 14th titled “U.N. Initiatives to Engage the Private Sector in Advancing LGBTQ Equality” as part of our bimonthly Global Webinar Series. The webinar included presentations from two U.N. representatives: Fabrice Houdart, a Human Rights Officer at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who provided information on the office’s Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business; and Edmund Settle, a Policy Advisor with the U.N. Development Programme in Bangkok, who discussed the U.N.’s multi-country study “Being LGBTI in Asia.” The webinar was attended by 200 participants from 15 unique countries, representing over 100 organizations, government agencies, and private companies across a broad range of industries.
Fabrice began by stressing that the U.N. strongly believes the private sector can have a huge impact on human rights internationally, including for LGBTI people. But it can often be difficult to know where to start. The Standards were thus designed to help guide companies as they improve their practices in several areas of operation, considering how businesses interact with communities (governments and lawmakers, local communities), their own work places (staff and trade unions), and the market (shareholders, suppliers, and customers).
There are five guidelines that make up the U.N.’s Standards: (1) Respect human rights at all times; (2) Eliminate discrimination and (3) provide support in the workplace; (4) Prevent other human rights violations within the marketplace; and, perhaps most ambitiously (5) Act in the public sphere. Rather than requiring companies to sign the Standards and implement each one in every market—something Fabrice recognized as a difficult and extensive feat—the U.N. instead asks companies to publicly express their support. Doing so signals to others that a company takes LGBTQ inclusion seriously, which can make all the difference when companies are worried about embracing inclusion for fear of isolating customers.
Shifting from standards to research, Edmund then presented on the UNDP’s initiative “Being LGBTI In Asia,” which gathers information from LGBTI people in China, Thailand, and the Philippines, including their experiences of workplace discrimination. The study has so far found that between 20-30% of LGBTI people in these three countries could report specific instances of discrimination at work, and that, like in other countries, this affected their job satisfaction and likelihood to remain in a workplace. Only around 30% of those who experienced discrimination then felt they were able to report it, suggesting many did not feel their company would take proper disciplinary action—a fair assumption when most companies in the studied countries do not explicitly include LGBTI-people in their corporate policies.
Where initiatives like the Standards give companies important guidelines to implement better policies for LGBTQ employees, projects like “Being LGBTI In Asia” provide the U.N. and other grassroots organizations with the types of data that governments and large corporations respond to. Both Fabrice and Edmund therefore recommended supporting data-collecting initiatives on LGBTI issues in country around the world as one main way companies could support U.N. work, since it gives organizations like the U.N. the information necessary to effectively advocate.
A full recording of the webinar can be found here. For those questions that were not answered during the webinar, responses can be found below.
Do you have advice for companies looking to provide LGBTQ HR benefits in countries that do not have LGBTQ-inclusive equality laws?
Fabrice: Companies can ensure anti-discrimination policies and enact diversity and inclusion commitments even in these countries. Many companies have found ways to ensure they respect the human rights of LGBTI people in ‘hostile environments.’ A company covers rent and cleaning fees for a two-bedroom apartment to maintain the appearance that same-sex partners are living in separate rooms. One multinational avoids making informal agreements with host governments where these may be subject to being overturned when the government, or its attitude, changes. If same-sex relationships are illegal in a country and the country will deny a visa or residency permit to the same-sex spouse of an employee, the same company assists the employee in question by providing additional leave to return home and maintain the familial relationship. Often civil society and employee resource groups can help guide the companies in navigating these complex issues.
Edmund: I hope follow-up with global networks such as Out & Equal or Open for Business would help. Some companies are already providing same sex benefits for their employees although there are legal protections. This might be an area of data collection which might be considered by our global networks moving forward.
Can you tell us more about the criteria used in collecting data in the Standards, specifically when you referenced the statistics around discrimination within 193 countries?
F: My slide was specifically a graph on the criminalization of homosexuality over time. It showed how it grew with colonization, rapidly went down during the 90s due to a variety of factors, and is now stabilizing at around 70 countries criminalizing homosexuality. Data collection is incredibly scarce when it comes to LGBTI people (I recommend reading the paper “Investing in a Research Revolution for LGBTI Inclusion”). The few statistics available to use on the impact of stigmatization and discrimination on LGBTI people are staggering. More than half of LGBT youth experience bullying, leading one in three to skip or drop out of school; suicidal thoughts are almost ten times more likely among trans youth and four times more likely among gay and lesbian youth. UNDP and the World Bank have been leading an effort in defining LGBTI-specific indicators that can be the basis of consistent data collection in countries that are interested in this work. (This must be done with Member States that are welcoming of, or at least open to, data collection for addressing LGBTI inclusion.) The project, titled the LGBTI Inclusion Index, can also serve as a platform for advocacy about the importance of this work and LGBTI inclusion in development.
How do companies align themselves with the U.N. Standards?
F: Companies are encouraged to carry a due-diligence exercise to start the process of examining the impact of their operations on the human rights of LGBTI people. We actually decided early on not to ask the supporters to sign off on the document (as companies did for the Women Empowerment’s Principles as an example), as we do not believe any company can fulfil all standards in all markets. The support we received from more than 83 companies at this point is more of an expression of support as well as an acknowledgement that the ‘early supporters’ are on a journey to respect and promote the human rights of LGBTI people.
How can the U.N. drive change for LGBTQ people in the Gulf region?
F: The U.N. cannot “drive change” on these issues. Local grassroots movements will eventually drive change. What we can do is provide support, whether it is from the U.N. or the private sector. We must work together to design new ways to achieve progress. Faster progress. Our success will lie in organization, in long-term planning, in consistency of action over years, and in the scale of financing. We must design an innovative and comprehensive strategy. This should include:
- empowering and funding local LGBTI groups,
- pushing legal changes through the court systems and international law,
- challenging stereotypes and prejudices against LGBTI people in the media and through public awareness campaigns,
- encouraging business and faith-based leaders to play their part,
- funding research to better understand the experiences of LGBTI people, and
- creating escape routes for LGBTI people whose lives are in danger.
I am proud that our office is contributing to change through our Free & Equal campaign, which challenges negative stereotypes and promotes equal rights and fair treatment for LGBTI people everywhere. Since its launch in July 2013, U.N. Free & Equal has become one of the United Nations’ most successful and popular global campaigns. In 2016 alone, it reached 1.5 billion people worldwide. For example, in 2017, on the International Day against homophobia and transphobia, we launched a mini-video campaign called #cultureoflove that highlighted how LGBTI people have a place in traditions and families.
E: It is important to note that local communities and governments drive change. The UN can support local efforts by developing the data needed to make rights-based arguments for change, introduce international norms, and best practices from other countries. Internationally, the UN continues to call for decriminalization and non-discrimination of LGBTI people through the UN Secretary General’s office and the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
We’re really trying to get the Asian countries where we have operations to push our LGBTQ plan forward. To you make any of your studies and reports on Asia available?
E: Yes, please email me directly at Edmund.email@example.com. I will be happy to share what we have and are planning in our next phase.
Is anything being done to support transgender employees in Thailand who have undergone their SRS and want to change their legal gender? Currently their ID has to remain the same.
E: UNDP is currently working with the Thailand Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to draft a national legal gender recognition bill which would address change of gender on legal documents. In early May we will launch a national study on Trans legal gender recognition in Thailand, and we will hold a national dialogue with the Thai trans civil society and several ministries to inform the drafting process. Please join our Facebook or Twitter page to keep up to date with the release of new materials and news from the region.