Think about your average day. Maybe you hurry to work, attend meetings, rush to meet deadlines. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you have lunch with colleagues, share a joke, and discuss plans for the evening.
Now think about another day, one spent with a feeling of persistent anxiety – when listening to colleagues’ jokes, when asked about your weekend plans. You cannot share the details of your life for fear of the consequences. You cannot share who you are – or whom you love.
I hope you relate to the first scenario. Sadly, for many, the second will be more familiar.
In all parts of the world today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people experience discrimination in every aspect of daily life. As children, too many are bullied by their peers, rejected by their own families, driven to drop out of school. As adults, too many suffer stigma, unfair treatment, even violence. In 76 countries, having a partner of the same sex is even a prosecutable crime. People are arrested, imprisoned, and in some cases executed, just because they are in a loving relationship.
Unfortunately, LGBT people also face deeply-ingrained hostility in the place where many of us spend most of our waking hours – at work.
In most countries, national anti-discrimination laws still do not offer adequate protection on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that employers are free to fire or refuse to hire people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Even in companies where coworkers accept their LGBT colleagues, discriminatory corporate policies often lead to differential treatment – whether in relation to recognition of same-sex partners, employee benefits or pension entitlements.
As Secretary-General of the UN, I believe in and strive to achieve the world promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a world rooted in tolerance, freedom and equality; a world where we are ALL free to live a life of dignity. There are no exceptions. Human rights are for everyone, no matter who you are or whom you love.
While all countries need to do more, we have seen some positive developments in recent years. Sixty-twocountries now have laws that protect people against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, although only a handful also cover gender identity.
Yet changes in law alone are not enough; they need to be matched by efforts to change social attitudes.
Businesses have a vital role to play in creating a culture of diversity in which people are treated fairly and with sensitivity, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
I’ve written here about how equality — of women, of persons with disabilities — is good for business, and LGBT equality is no exception. A workplace that promotes an atmosphere of openness, respect and dignity is one that also promotes loyalty, productivity and produces results. It has a positive impact not just on LGBT employees but on all workers, not to mention on clients and consumers.
We are seeing promising signs in the private sector. Several major companies have reformed internal policies and practices to ensure they do not discriminate against LGBT employees and are conducting sensitivity training for managers and other staff. We need all business leaders to set an example by committing themselves and their companies to instill equality as a core value — one reflected in the way they do business and treat their employees.
Equality begins at home and I am all too aware that LGBT colleagues at the UN, and their families, continue to face challenges. I heard many of their concerns first-hand when I met with LGBT staff. I pledged to address their problems. All staff members are part of the UN family and deserve to be treated equally.
We have a long road ahead. It will not be easy. But we must ask ourselves: Do we want to live in a world where love is targeted or where it is celebrated; where people live in fear or in dignity?
Millions of people around the world observe the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on 17 May. This year, the UN human rights office has released a short video as part of its Free & Equal campaign called “The Power of Sharing.” The video focuses on the impact that each of us can have by sharing our own stories and by showing our support for our LGBT colleagues, friends and family members. I encourage you all to watch the video and share it to help spread the word.
Changing people’s attitudes takes time, effort and perseverance. It takes us all to speak up and speak out against homophobia, even when it’s presented as harmless fun or as an accepted cultural trait. It’s not. It’s discrimination. And it’s our responsibility to fight it and to strive for a world that is truly free and equal.