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Companies and the fight for LGBTI equality

Enrique Anarte
June 12, 2019

As Pride season kicks off, the economic benefit of LGBTI acceptance for countries and companies seems to be more evident than ever. Yet is it only about rainbow money?

Deutschland Christopher Street Day in Köln
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

Pride season has started and some of the most important cities of the world, from Berlin and New York to Madrid and Tel Aviv, are preparing to wear the rainbow colors. Year after year, activists and allies — but also politicians and celebrities — march for equality in the anniversary of the Stonewall riots 50 years ago. Recently, companies have joined the party, too.

Yet the question is whether fighting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people is a party at all. Now that advertising and marketing campaigns are becoming more inclusive, sometimes featuring same-sex couples or nonbinary individuals, many ask themselves if companies can really be true allies in this battle for equality. Or have they just got on this train to make money?

Gay Pride parades: A tale of two cities

Tradeoff or real change?

Germany's biggest private bank Deutsche Bank is one of the companies that have publicly got more involved in LGBTI equality. They've joined the international network Open for Business, a coalition of companies that claim to be concerned about anti-LGBTI policies in many parts of the world and want to commit to diversity and inclusion in their workplaces.

"Our values and beliefs apply globally, everywhere we operate, not just in Germany," Gernot Sendowski, Director for Global Diversity and Inclusion at Deutsche Bank, told DW. "It is crucial we prove that we take LGBTI equality seriously, it will pay off in the end."

Indeed, numbers are starting to speak by themselves as research gets published. A case study by the World Bank in India determined homophobia costs the country between 0.1% and 1.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) a year. The country's Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality only last year, but gay sex is still illegal in 70 countries, according to the campaign group ILGA. Discrimination is way more extended though.

"This is starting to transcend old systems of belief," Kelly Widelska, head of Knowledge and Learning at the International Finance Corporation, told DW. Widelska, who's also a member of the World Bank task force on LGBTI equality, says that "economists and policymakers are directly identifying the cost of social exclusion on the economy." Due to this, she believes, there's already a shift underway in how politicians and directives approach inclusion: "It's a question of human capital; companies recognize that there is strength in diversity, the real challenge is how to build an inclusive environment, so everyone thrives."

LGBTQ rights have to be protected at work

Pressure mounting

In fact, businesses, or at least some of them, are starting to become key players in the global battle against discrimination of the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

When the Sultan of Brunei announced he wanted to enforce the death penalty on gay sex, many multinational companies — Deutsche Bank among them — put a ban on staff using the sultan's hotels. The Arab country backed down some weeks ago and has for now extended a moratorium on the law's implementation.

In a similar move, two years ago, Deutsche Bank announced it would freeze its plans to create 250 jobs at its North Carolina location after the US state enacted a legislation that invalidated existing protections of the rights of LGBTI fellow citizens.

United Nations human rights officer Fabrice Houdart has been working on this issue for years and his office recently succeeded at building an international code of conduct for companies regarding LGBTI equality. He told DW at least 253 big firms have already expressed support for these UN standards, including Germany's Deutsche Bank, DHL and Deutsche Telekom.

"What's important is that companies are coherent and they don't end up working in this issue only in countries where it's comfortable because of social acceptance. Human rights are universal and indivisible," Houdart said. In this sense, it's not only about tackling discrimination in the workplace, but also about taking a look at the supply chain and contributing to the public discussion on legislative change, among other things companies can do.

Lack of trust

Yet some activists fear that LGBTI rights can become some sort of marketing strategy, especially in countries with high levels of tolerance against sexual minorities, such as Spain or Germany. What's the balance between human rights, corporate social responsibility and marketing goals?

Deutsche Bank's Sendowski believes there can be a bridge between all these dimensions. "Clients, investors, indeed most people, understand when companies are doing things just for the sake of a good marketing campaign or are taking these issues really seriously, especially in difficult situations," he says, quoting the cases of North Carolina and Brunei.

However, the peak of allegedly LGBTI-friendly on social media as Pride season kicks off makes one think it is very easy to present one's firm as an ally, without necessarily having done much the rest of the year.

"It's very important to look at this issue of pinkwashing," Houdart underlines. He believes in the importance of firms when it comes to advancing social progress and therefore wants them to make an effort to restore a lack of trust in the private sector that, in his opinion, goes beyond LGBTI rights and applies to human rights in general.

"We have to give them the benefit of the doubt and hold them accountable."