Fabrice Houdart

In discussing the “Global State of LGBTI Rights and the Role of the Private Sector,” United Nations’ human rights officer Fabrice Houdart was candid about the work that needs to be done.

“It’s very interesting to see how in many parts of the world the human rights argument doesn’t get you anywhere,” he told the crowd.

Addressing the global context of the LGBTQ issues and the role of the private sector, Houdart noted how homosexuality remains criminalized in many countries and some still punish people for it. While there has been some “unthinkable progress,” he said, “we remain very conscious of the fact that the progress we have achieved has only benefited certain sectors of the community. If you look at issues of gender identity and indigenous people, they are still extremely problematic even in parts of the United States and Europe.”

Houdart also noted how you can pretty much count on two hands the number of openly gay female executives who are on top in the world of business, citing MasterCard and Land O’ Lakes as exceptions.

Taking a wider view, Houdart said, “Now the fight for LGBTI rights has reached the most difficult shores [as in Tunisia and Congo],” he said. “In those places, we are going to make so much more of an effort to achieve an acceptance for LGBTI people.”

From his standpoint, legislation can only go so far in creating change. “You can decriminalize homosexuality. But if 98 percent of the population continues to think you’re a bunch of perverts, you’re not going to go very far. So changing hearts and minds is very crucial. That is one of the reasons I am very excited about having the public sector do more for LGBTQ rights.”

While drawing attention to the legal challenges that the LGBTQ community faces in Brunei and even in Chechnya, “which is horrendous,” is important, Houdart said, “We have to remember that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is we have only begun to scratch the surface of LGBTI rights in the United States. The real problem is the fact that hundreds of millions of children all around the world are going to go to bed tonight knowing that they have same-sex attraction or nonconforming gender identity. And yet they are lying to their parents, teachers and priests about it, and the damage is gigantic,” he said.

Discussing diversity and inclusion in the workplace is essential. “We’re only trying to repair damage that was done in schools,” said Houdart, adding that “no other minority has to lie to their parents about what they are experiencing.”

Houdart pointed out that in the private sector, consumers, employees and investors are pressuring companies to ensure that their respective brands are aligned with the values of the people, who consume their products, work for them and invest in their companies. He said, “There is the need for companies to show that they are good citizens and the need for LGBTQ people to achieve progress. In fact, there is an urgency that wasn’t there when I came out.”

In addition, with people in Tunisia and the collective world having access to programs like “I Love Simon” and “Pose,” they can see “there are places in the world, where they would be accepted for same-sex attraction or nonconforming gender identity, and where they could live with hope and dignity,” he said.

Consumers need to ask companies to ensure they are not discriminating against their employees and supply chains, Houdart said. “We’re also asking companies to contribute to social change. We personally should take a stance on human rights. Ask companies to look at their supply chain.”

Houdart praised companies such as Procter & Gamble, LVMH, Kering, Gucci, H&M and Inditex for their efforts. “When a company says this is an important matter, their supply chain starts to pay attention,” he said. “When you are a leader — I have witnessed — that the supply chain comes along.”

To emphasize the potential of brands and well-known personalities, Houdart said when speaking at schools, he often stumps students by asking who the United Nations’ high commissioner on human rights is. “But they know who George Clooney is. When he says we should boycott The Dorchester [a collection of luxury hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei after announcing the death penalty for gay sex,] people start looking at The Dorchester,” Houdart said. “Brands have such access to people we do not have access to. They can sway the world toward a better direction.”

The fact that more than 200 companies signed an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court this summer in support of LGBTQ workers was another example the U.N. official offered. “The private sector is an untapped power. There is so much more that the private sector can do.”

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