Confronting Intolerance Today: LGBT Rights

By Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director LGBT rights program Human Rights Watch

When you discover that you are gay, bisexual or lesbian at a young age, it takes courage to come out. You are on your own. Your family is usually heterosexual, you know you will be an exception to the rule. You stand out and take a risk.

When I was discovering my sexual orientation I was about 14 years old and was still in high school. I had a few friends in my class, but was afraid of rejection. So I hid my true feelings and tried to be as straight as possible. Only about 10 years later I dared to take the step of opening the closet door. That was when I felt safe, I had a partner and I was not dependent on my parents anymore. Several years ago I went to a reunion of my high school class. Two of my high school friends appeared to be gay as well! This discovery was emotional. We could have supported each other, we could have experimented with each other. We have missed the opportunity to build a strong friendship, based on truth and trust. Instead we were afraid. We used all our energy for the wrong reasons. Looking back to our teenage years we came to the conclusion: we missed a role model. In our case a famous, bright, strong gay man who was out. Someone we could have looked up to and who would have inspired us.

The environment

Everyone has the right to privacy. I am not proposing that everyone who knows he/she is LGBT should express his/her sexual orientation or gender identity. It all depends on the environment.  It all comes down to TRUST, the willingness to become vulnerable to one another by sharing sensitive information. In business an employee wants to assess the risk of coming out. Can I trust my manager? Can I trust the organization I work in? Surely, coming out is a risk. It could mean discrimination, the end of your career. On the other hand, suppressing your true feelings and emotions cost you a lot of energy and might be harmful for your health. You might develop physical complaints. I know men and women who led a double life who developed depression or suffered a heart attack.

Role models in business

Many studies have shown that employees who are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity are healthier, more committed, more productive and better colleagues at the workplace. It means leaders in the organization should explicitly support diversity, support LGBT employees, and introduce equality in labour conditions for all employees. I am not only talking about recruiting, but also in retaining and advancing the talents of LGBT employees.

The disclosure dilemma

The dilemma of disclosure does, of course not only exist for employees in a business environment. It also applies to citizens of a country. Of the 193 UN member states about 77 still criminalize homosexual conduct, and in about 5 capital punishment exists. Being openly gay is difficult in many societies.

In Russia for instance, the Putin administration has begun a witch-hunt on LGBT people. The anti-gay propaganda laws make it impossible to speak publicly in a positive way about homosexuality when minors are present. The government has restricted the rights of LGBT people to adopt children. A recent law which proposed removing parental rights from openly gay or lesbian parents has been withdrawn, but might be re-introduced in the Russian duma (congress) after the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Human Rights Watch is researching violent attacks on LGBT people in Russia. It seems the level of aggression has increased since the government started its anti-gay campaign. Many Russian LGBT people do not dare to express themselves anymore. LGBT parents with children contemplate leaving the country and seeking asylum in third countries. This is a personal tragedy for the individuals involved, and also for Russia as a country, for it means a brain drain and a loss of talent.

Consequences of a discriminatory approach

Russia will lose a big chunk of tourism, of new talented immigrants who are LGBT and do not wish to live in a homophobic environment, it will be faced with criticism by other governments in the Council of Europe, by human rights defenders who will sue Russia at the European Court for Human Right etc.

The best way is bottom up and top down

To fight homophobia in society or in a company the best way is bottom up and at the same time top down. Good policies and laws alone do not change the hearts and minds of people.  But we should not underestimate the importance of a top down approach.  Think about marriage equality for instance which is allowed in many continents the world over: New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, parts of Mexico, Canada, parts of the US, many countries in Europe, South Africa.

As a member of the Dutch national parliament I proposed same sex marriage in 1994. It took many discussions, debates, demonstrations etc. but in 2001 the law on marriage equality went into effect. The Netherlands became the first country in the world where gay or lesbian couples could get married. The law is enforced now for about 13 years. Some time ago I was at a birthday party. A young girl, I think she was about 20 years old, came up to me and said:

“Is it true there was a time that gay people could NOT get married to each other?”

“Yes”, I answered.

“But that is discrimination!”

“Exactly,” I replied. “That’s why we changed the law.”

A whole new generation doesn’t understand why LGBT people were treated differently, as second class citizens. And so it will be in companies as well. Once the executives and the management show leadership and introduce full equality, reacting strongly against discrimination, new and young employees will take equality and non-discrimination for granted. They will take these values from the workplace back home and spread the word.

Therefore we need LGBT people to be role models, to inspire society. To make a better future for us all. Remember: the future is not in front of us, it is inside of us.

Please share your experience and ideas by adding a comment

As your community confronts religious and racial prejudice what methods do you think work best?

What can you do as an individual do to combat intolerance?

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