By Barbara Frankel
The Obama administration's shift in policy to support LGBT rights globally is a significant human-rights victory that will have long-term repercussions for companies doing business abroad. It is particularly relevant in countries where LGBT people must remain closeted for fear of ostracism, prison or even death.
The announcement, which came yesterday in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Human Rights Day and a memorandum from President Barack Obama, sets the stage for a more specific series of U.S. actions for countries that do not move to create equality for LGBT people. Although her speech was short on details, she did say that the administration would use the "tools of American diplomacy," including the promise of foreign aid, to encourage countries to be inclusive. She mentioned reporting LGBT abuses in the State Department report and a $3-million fund to work with LGBT organizations globally.
These may seem like small steps initially but they are the harbinger of a changing governmental attitude about LGBT rights that mirrors the inclusivity of several leading corporations. In the United States, several corporations on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list have led the way in establishing domestic-partner benefits and advocating for same-sex marriage and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Globally, a handful of companies, led by IBM, have been working to create a more inclusive workplace, especially in some Asian countries where being openly LGBT destroys not only careers but lives as well. The companies have done this by including orientation in mission statements and cultural-competence training, publicly stating their support for LGBT rights, and creating LGBT employee-resource groups wherever possible. IBM received DiversityInc's award last month as the Top Company for Global Cultural Competence.
DiversityInc recently completed its 2011 Global Diversity survey of 17 countries in Europe, Asia and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The survey found that, overall, European countries were more inclusive for LGBT rights, and several have legalized same-sex marriage. Asian countries generally ignore LGBT issues culturally. The most egregious is Malaysia, in which "homosexuality" is against the law and cannot be mentioned.
This has presented significant challenges for companies doing business in Malaysia and other countries that do not recognize LGBT rights. As one of our survey respondents noted about Malaysia: "Malaysia still retains its colonial-era penal code criminalizing sodomy, and fundamentalist Islamic nations have a heavy influence on the nation's laws, politics, cultural norms and societal attitudes, especially LGBT." And another bluntly stated: "Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia. We cannot work on this topic."
The companies we surveyed, most of which have their corporate headquarters in the United States, take more proactive approaches to LGBT inclusiveness in the European countries. For example, sexual orientation is mentioned in the local country's diversity and inclusion strategy in 31 percent of the European countries, compared with 17 percent of the Asian countries and 22 percent of the BRIC countries. By contrast, it is included in 100 percent of the diversity policies of U.S. companies on The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. And while 17 percent of the companies in the European countries have public relationships with LGBT organizations there, only 2 percent of the Asian and 10 percent of the BRIC countries do. Again, 100 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies in the United States have public relations with LGBT organizations, such as GLSEN, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), PFLAG and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
The key here is that progressive corporations usually lead the way in changing both governmental and societal perceptions of inequities. As the U.S. government shifts to a more activist position on LGBT rights, the timing is perfect for companies with global presences to be outspoken and directed in their efforts.
For more information on our global survey and our upcoming 2012 global survey, click here.
Here is media coverage of Clinton's speech and responses from LGBT organizations:
The New York Times reporters in Geneva and Washington, D.C., provide firsthand reporting of the pro-LGBT-rights initiative announced yesterday by the Obama administration and the potential backlash.
In this Los Angeles Times article, Clinton is cited as linking gay rights to other social-equality issues, such as women's rights, racial equality and religious freedom.
The Huffington Post provides a full-length transcript and video of Clinton's address in Geneva.
HRC President Joe Solmonese met with Clinton in Geneva prior to her speech. He shares his thoughts on the initiative.
The New Civil Rights Movement provides Clinton's prepared remarks on LGBT rights from the conference in Geneva that celebrated International Human Rights Day.
The global foundation, which is aimed at advancing social justice, announces its support of global LGBT equality.