On the Edge of the Abyss

As the UK teeters on the edge of the abyss,(if opinion polls are to be believed), peering with incomprehensible enthusiasm into a post-EU future, I’m on the edge of former ‘Western Europe’, in Vienna, attending a conference on LGBT rights, peering over the old Iron Curtain at the abuses and intolerance of much of former ‘Eastern Europe’.

Representatives have come from the West (e.g. USA, UK, Austria, France, Switzerland, Belgium), where LGBT rights are more or less established, and from the East (e.g. Russia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Ukraine, Poland, Serbia), where work is very much in progress (sometimes hardly begun), or where achievements are being dismantled by newly right-win religious and nationalist regimes. It’s the 3rd International East Meets West Forum.

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I’ve asked many of the delegates whether the EU has been a benign influence on member states, aspiring member states and states that will never belong. The answer of course, is yes, though some countries such as Poland that bent its laws in the 2000s to meet the demands of membership, have since seen a rise of social homophobia, and a halting of the legal advancement of LGBT rights. But in general the EU has been one of the prime movers when it comes to promoting equality and diversity.

This is the kind of thing the EU has done well. True, this particular issue may not excite everyone, but there are dozens of other issues where the EU has patiently set about improving the lives of the disadvantaged, the uneducated, the marginalised and even the disenfranchised. It is a force for good. If you don’t care about lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, or intersex people, then think about the Roma, and other ethnic minorities, the mentally sick, the orphaned, the elderly, and others you care about more. Because of the EU hundreds of thousands of lives are happier and better.

But why should that be of any concern to the British Europhobe intent on Leave? Well, there is the duty to Lead rather than Leave (as so well put by Gordon Brown). LGBT and other minority rights may be secure in the UK, but a happy, equal, stable Europe is in everyone’s interests. We are a prosperous, democratic island where equality and tolerance prevail. We should not keep these values and practices to ourselves but take part in the establishment of European values, globally if we can. How wonderful it would be for us all if we could see even Turkey espouse those principles and enact them in legislation. A Muslim European country would be a catalyst for peace in the Middle East.

Vote Remain, not only  for economic reasons (and what facts and projections are indisputable in the realm of economics?) but because the EU is overwhelmingly a force for good. Reformed, and in some areas curtailed, it can get better and better.

Unfortunately I have lived outside the UK for more than fifteen years and I am not able to vote. And my mother’s postal voting form never arrived. So, please make up for the two of us and cast your votes for Remain.

 

Georgia – Land of Family Values

How brave and admirable it is that Georgians are this week celebrating traditional family values, by hosting the World Congress of Families, whilst in the decadent, faithless, Western world many of the rest of us are marking May 17th as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

But after all, as all Georgians know, Georgia is the paradise that God almost kept for himself. The story goes that at the Creation the Georgians were too busy doling out hospitality, and being generally nice to other people (though probably not to members of the LGBT community), and they failed to pay attention to what God was doing with the land he’d created, and got left behind by all the other nations in the land grab. They petitioned the Almighty and so moved was he by Georgia’s commitment to family values, that he ended up giving them the special bit of land that he’d been keeping for Himself.

How appropriate then, that in this utopia same-sex marriage, abortion, gender transformation, gay adoption and so on, should be reviled. Though it must pain true-believers to say so, God must have been inattentive himself when he mistakenly created the LGBT community. Perhaps he was too busy listening to the Georgians’ excuses. But hats off to the Georgian Orthodox Church for resisting science, tolerance, and plain common sense ever since. Georgia is God’s land, and there is no place in it for sin. No gangsters, no drug addicts, no child-molesters, no murderers, no LGBT men or women. Well, no TRUE Georgians who are any of those awful things.

How lovely the world can be!

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Actually, Georgia must tread a difficult path. How it would loathe to be lumped together with that other bastion of plain old-fashioned gay-bashing, its arch-adversary, Russia. No, no, Georgia has found the middle way. It has retained the virtues of the prehistoric East whilst rejecting the vices of the secular West. And look how happy they are.

As Chairman Levan Vasasdze puts it in his Welcome Address to this year’s World Congress of Families in Tbilisi, ‘Georgia has to be very careful to walk the fine line between modernization and a spineless behaviour and lethal absorption into the family destructive pseudo-culture that is overwhelming Europe as we speak.’

How sad it is that family values have eluded definition. I well remember how former Tory Prime Minister John Major was derided for his ‘family values’ campaign, especially when he was forced to admit he was cheating on his wife with a Cabinet colleague. And look around you at your family and your friends’ families. I’d bet a Lari or two that they’re all entirely normal, straight, good, Godly, faithful, generous, peaceful and properly bigoted and  intolerant when the good Lord requires it. Where are the neurotics, the gays, the confused? I do not see them in Georgia.

How terribly wrong Philip Larkin was when he wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself

Such ‘spineless’ cynical nonsense. If only Larkin had listened to the Georgian Orthodox Church, he’d have known that none of this is true. Not in Georgia, anyway. All we LGBT folks have to do is to pray more and we’d be normal.

 

Pride and Prejudice

Yesterday, in City of London, I attended The Economist’s first event on the subject of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Diversity and Inclusion – Pride and Prejudice – an event held over nearly 24 hours on a rolling schedule in Hong Kong, London and New York.

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The Economist has been campaigning consistently for economic and personal freedom for two hundred years, and this event was held to promote discussion of the economic case for inclusion (pride), and the economic costs of exclusion (prejudice).

The event was hosted in London by Zanny Minto-Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, and attended by representatives of the LGBT community and their allies. Speakers, on site or via video link, included:

  • The Mayor of London
  • The Chief Executive of Arsenal Football Club
  • The President of the World Bank Group
  • The Director of the CIA
  • Lord Browne (former Chairman of BP)
  • Sir Martin Sorrell (CEO of WPP)
  • Activists, HR specialists, economists, and interested spectators

Some of them are members, and some of them are allies of, the LGBP community. Who knows which, or cares?

Debate covered:

  • How to calculate the additional cost to an individual of being LGBT
  • How to calculate the cost to an economy of prejudice and exclusion of the LGBT community
  • How global businesses and Governments can foster inclusion in LGBT-hostile countries

Vivienne Ming, Founder and Executive Chair at Socos, presented her company’s fascinating research into the ‘tax’ imposed by society on membership of the LGBT community, the additional lifetime cost to an LGBT individual of compensating for prejudice. These are costs arising from the harder work, better schools, and higher qualifications LGBT individuals need in order to achieve the same success as their non-LGBT peers. I didn’t entirely understand how this research was done, but it involved comparing data on hundreds of thousands of people trawled from the internet.

  • The additional lifetime cost of being a gay man in the UK is around 35,000 GBP.
  • The additional lifetime cost of being a lesbian woman in Hong Kong or Singapore is around 700,000 GBP (this cost reflects gender discrimination as well as LGBT discrimination)

This is what it costs to achieve the same as a straight man or woman. It’s largely wasted cost.

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, spoke of research the World Bank will sponsor into the economic cost of prejudice, costs arising from the exclusion of talent from the economy, of emigration and of the utterly wasteful enforcement of legal prohibitions. He explained the controversial position he adopted on loans to Uganda, which, he argued, placed LGBT people in danger if Uganda’s discriminatory laws were to be passed and enforced.

Is it any wonder, everyone asked, one after another, that countries and cultures that habitually exclude the LGBT community are less innovative, and usually poorer. Three million jobs created in Silicon Valley might have been created in the conservative mid-Western states of the USA if young and talented LGBT people had felt equally comfortable in their home states. And is it any wonder that cities with thriving LGBT communities, such as San Francisco, London, Berlin, and New York, have the highest number of start-ups in the world?

Is it any wonder that Moscow, Singapore and Jeddah don’t incubate novelty and that talent emigrates?

There was interesting and lively discussion, indeed considerable disagreement, on how business and Government should encourage change. Should they refuse to participate, and absent themselves from this or that country or event, or should they demonstrate inclusion by example and through participation? Should they advocate quietly, or campaign publicly?

Of course, the answer is that it depends on the circumstances. Sir Martin Sorrell noted that the adoption of public adversarial positions doesn’t work in China, and activists suggested that global campaigners should take the advice of those who are locally oppressed. Others emphasised the importance of role-models, others cautioned business and Government against making things worse by being too vocal.

But everyone agreed that the rise of populist leaders and extremist ideology, including buffoons such as Donal Trump, as well as the contraction of civil society in the emerging world, are a threat to progress on LGBT inclusion.

The LGBT community is everywhere, represented in all walks of life. From my perspective the greatest progress is not only that we can stand up and make our case but also that when we do so, we look just like everyone else.

Thanks to The Economist for joining the campaign. I look forward to the next event.

 

 

Inclusion and Diversity

It’s Gay Pride week in Prague, and as well as all the fun and festivity (which is, to my mind, completely unendurable during a 36C heat wave) there’s also some serious talk about diversity and inclusion – and some heavyweights to do it.

Yesterday’s Gay Business Forum, at the Hilton Hotel, was moderated by Evan Davies, the BBC’s Newsnight anchor, and presenter of Dragon’s Den. Whether he got back to London in time for Newsnight I don’t know, but we were lucky that he could spare a whole afternoon for the cause.

The first guest speaker was Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP, and architect of the company’s huge expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. He’s a formidable man, one of the world’s most prominent oil businessmen, and now Chairman of a new Russian-financed oil company, L1.

lord browne

In 2007 Lord Browne was ‘outed’ as gay by one of the UK’s gutter newspapers, and he resigned from his position as CEO, not because of the disclosure that he was gay, but because he had briefly lied in his attempt to prevent publication.

Following which, by his own admission he has never been happier.

I read Lord Browne’s book, The Glass Closet – Why Coming Out is Good Business, last year. As well as explaining how foolishly he had lived most of his life, attempting to conceal his sexuality (which everyone seemed to know about, and no one cared about) he argues forcibly that corporations of all kinds must be inclusive of all kinds of difference if they are to cast the net for the world’s best talent as wisely and widely as possible. The best might be black, white, blue, green, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, young, old, female, male, physically handicapped – whatever. All must feel comfortable in the workplace – and (to repeat a word that he uses frequently) ‘authentic’.

Some clever statistician in the audience claimed later in the afternoon that 300 Billion EUR of productivity are lost to Europe because ‘closet cases’ in the workplace are 30% less productive than the typical worker (a claim that could not, I think, be made about Lord Browne, who though securely in the closet, was, and probably is, an extreme example of the workaholic).

But I agree about authenticity. When I’m training consultants in soft skills I stress that we must be the same selves at home as in the office, merits and faults. And I encourage difference. Anything to avoid what is dull! Technology has blurred the edges of the workplace, and even the workday, so it’s less easy to define the limits of ‘work’ and ‘life’. We’re sometimes on holiday at work, and at work on holiday. At least I am.

But, most of all, it was moving to hear Lord Browne talk of the overwhelming support he received after his ‘outing’ and it’s clear that he is now a happy and entirely authentic man, and just as big an oil man as before. We were lucky to hear him speak and it is impressive that he devotes some considerable time to making the argument for diversity and inclusion.