The private sector as an agent of change for LGBTQ+ equality
Keynote for the opening of UNC Kenan-Flagler Diversity Week

I am delighted to join tonight the diversity week at UNC Kenan-Flagler. What better group to discuss the role of the private sector in advancing social change than the future business leaders of the world’s largest economy? 

As a good Frenchman who focuses on the glass-half-full, I would like to highlight an unprecedented urgency for social change on LGBTQ+ issues.

While we have achieved incredible progress in the past 50 years since the Stonewall events, we do not have another 50 years to achieve global LGBTQ+ equality.

Most LGBTQ+ people in the world remain deprived of economic opportunities and dignity. They live in hostile environments with little chance to be who they are, live with the persons they love, let alone achieve their life potential. A Yale study in 2019 estimated that the “global closet” – the percentage of LGBTQ+ people who keep their sexual orientation or gender identity hidden – is 83%. Similarly, countless studies have shown that, despite the many myths surrounding LGBTQ+ economic outcomes, we face disproportionate poverty and food insecurity rates.

In a connected world, the gap between the most tolerant and least tolerant areas on LGBTQ+ issues, whether in the same country or across continents, is unsustainable. Thirty years ago, when I became aware that my attraction to men would be an issue, I knew very little about what “gay” meant. The gayest movie I had seen was the very ungay “Midnight express– a movie probably nobody in your generation has had to watch. I did not know I was untitled to and could achieve a life free of fear, protected from workplace discrimination and harassment, and able to stand for myself and my family. I expected a life of shame and marginalization; acceptance came as a complete surprise.

Today, LGBTQ+ people in the most challenging environments have access to the same content we do. They too can watch “la vie d’ Adele,” “I love Simon,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and “Laurence Anyways” (a Xavier Dolan movie I highly recommend, by the way). They know that the only thing that stands between them and a chance at a fulfilling life is a plane ticket. In such a situation, you cannot tell a young lesbian in Sousse, a secondary city in Tunisia, “Don’t worry. Stay put. Love, social acceptance, and economic security are out of reach for you. But in a few decades, a lesbian couple will live happily here and be able to build their family”. This is a cruel statement to make.

And it only leads to two things: migration and despair.

As you know, migration is becoming increasingly tricky globally. LGBTQ+ immigration nonprofits, such as Rainbow Railroad, Immigration Equality, or ORAM, report a backlog of cases, severe lack of funding, and an increasingly restrictive legal framework for asylum seekers. This situation has only worsened in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition, migration cannot be the solution, despite those facing direct violence or life-threatening situations.

But this is not only true globally; in the most tolerant areas, the gay liberation movement has benefited a few, primarily urban white gay men. Some of these privileged few have even declared the movement to be over (see “When is it time to claim victory in the Gay Rights struggle?” by Andrew Sullivan). Similarly, nonprofit Boards’ leadership has been slow to diversify, resulting in the systematic exclusion of queer people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This has created tensions within the LGBTQ+ equality movement itself, in which the most marginalized have lost trust in the organizations we built and are openly fighting them.

Finally, some of us have forgotten that tonight millions of children will go to bed wishing to wake up with a different sexual orientation and gender identity. And while they suffer, they will lie about it to their parents, teachers, and priests. If they don’t lie well enough, they will face eviction from their schools, places of worship, and even family. Perhaps they will be sent to so-called “reparation therapy.” And for the rest of their lives, they will play catch up with their cisgender and heterosexual peers for having had to deal with the enormity of being separated at a formative age from those they should trust the most. Until this cruel injustice ends, our journey is not over.

Unfortunately, the model for social change we followed is becoming obsolete.

The institutions that historically drove change in societal attitudes are taking a backseat on the human rights agenda. The rise of populism, the polarization of politics, the culture war, and unregulated social media platforms prevent governments from fulfilling their human rights responsibility. Multilateralism has been destroyed by the lack of willingness by countries to cooperate. Some of these governments are also plain hostile to the human rights agenda, seeing it – often rightly so – as a tool of western imperialism invoked to justify anything. Even worse, from Tennessee to Hungary or Singapore, some governments use LGBTQ+ people as political pawns opposing LGBTQ+ people to “family and tradition.” They sometimes raise the scepter of mass-persecution in Chechnya or Uzbekistan using the oldest trick in the political playbook: scapegoating. The politicization of our suffering will only worsen as humanity embarks in what is the most uncertain economic and climatic transition period of our time on earth.

Therefore, we need to identify new allies and new strategies as a community.

The unprecedented suspicion against the private sector and capitalism, in general, creates a unique opportunity to leverage economic power for equality.

When I was at the United Nations, I used to joke (admittedly in some twisted French way) that the companies that had signed up on the UN Standards for LGBTQ+ equality I co-wrote tended to share some level of reputational damage. For too long, the extractive industry was the worst polluter globally; the financial sector was accused of triggering the economic crisis of 2008, and consumer goods companies were perceived as poisoning us one by one.

More seriously, all companies are asked to reassure consumers, employees, and investors that they are squarely on the right side of the equation: contributing to a better world. They must communicate their “social license to operate.” Perhaps more pressingly, they must send this message to the regulator, which they feel is increasingly clamping down on their freedom to do business as they wish.

Historians know that “occupy wall street” in the US, the “gilets jaunes” in France, or the BLM movement globally are early signs of a revolution to come. The visible terror that overcame Capitol Hill when faced with the popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders or AOC tells you everything you need to know about corporate America’s mindset today. Even the World Economic Forum got the message, rebranding itself as “the great reset.”

LGBTQ+ issues are an easy way to connect with the public – easier than complex issues such as the environment, fulfilling one’s fiscal responsibilities, or self-regulating social media platforms.

That is also why we must ensure that the “LGBTQ+ friendliness” is earned while encouraging companies to play a positive role. To change the paradigm, the community needs to build accountability and incentive mechanisms to ensure that a fair exchange is at the root of the “pro-LGBT label” that many of these companies enjoy. This question is particularly stringent for companies whose owners support politicians who use LGBTQ+ people as pawns in a political game. It is also essential for companies that operate in countries that do not feel pressure to change (Singapore and decriminalization being a clear example).

Similarly, these accountability and incentive mechanisms must include criteria on the environment, labor, racial or gender diversity, fiscal transparency, or social impact. The gay liberation movement cannot gain traction at the expense of other social justice and sustainability movements which are equally urgent. “Pinkwashing” is a risk, but it can be easily mitigated.

While the private sector is not and should not be the solution to queer liberation – ultimately, only local grassroots movements have and will trigger change – they can be a crucial ally in a wide range of initiatives. In fact, in most places, the private sector’s voice is more legitimate to decision-makers and the public than that of the United Nations or elected officials.

Perhaps more importantly, “money is the nerve of war,” the historic shift in societal attitudes we observed in the United States came with a price tag. The combined budget of GLAAD, the Trevor Project, HRC, the Victory Institute, GLSEN, Equality California, the LGBT Center, Lambda Legal, etc.. probably comes close to a billion dollars a year. What makes us think we will achieve the same results in Tunisia for 5,000 Euros?  

As we embark on the arduous journey to restore trust in institutions, rebuild multilateralism, and address global inequalities, we can harness the power of the private sector for good and maybe, along the way, design a more sustainable economic system centered on the individual pursuit of happiness. 

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