LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Businesses, LGBTI equality and pinkwashing. Discuss…

Annual Conference

Anna Shepherd, ILGA-Europe’s Fundraising Manager

Do businesses have a role to play in advancing LGBTI equality?

Debate on this topic really erupted around Europe during Pride season this summer. Companies have come under fire for pink-washing or woke-washing – in other words, cashing in during Pride season with rainbow-branded products but not actually supporting Prides or the LGBTI movement throughout the rest of the year. Companies are also accused of hypocrisy when they decorate their shop windows with rainbows in “Western” countries but don’t show the same leadership in more difficult contexts.

A recent UK survey by YouGov found that while 65% of LGBT+ people would have a more positive perception of a brand if they sponsored a Pride event, even more people said that they would view a company positively based on their policies. 74% of the LGBT+ respondents said they would feel more positive about a company that introduced policies actively supporting LGBT+ employees. It’s clear to see that people want real engagement from supportive companies – not pinkwashing.

In the face of decreasing funding from governments and local authorities, and shifting focuses of philanthropic foundations, resources from corporate partnerships can be vital for local Pride organisers, NGOs and other activist groups.

And we DO need to talk about resources. The LGBTI movement in Europe and Central Asia is under-resourced, and NGOs need to diversify their income to survive and continue their work defending LGBTI rights. In addition to speaking out and marketing with rainbow symbols, companies need to put their money where their mouth is and invest in the work of LGBTI activists to reach our shared goals.

But this potential financial support doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold businesses accountable - just like we hold accountable governments who provide funding to the LGBTI movement and just as ILGA-Europe are held to account by our membership and grantees. Before working with a company, questions we are interested in include: Are they treating their LGBTI employees equally and promoting meaningful inclusion, regardless of what the local law requires? Is the company truly acting as an ally to the movement and listening to LGBTI organisations about their needs? What does their support look like outside of Pride season?

When talking to companies it’s been heartening to see that for most of them it’s not simply about having their logo attached to a cause, but more about sharing their experience, learning, and being part of the movement.

Over the past few years ILGA-Europe have started working with companies like Google, Levi’s, ING and Diageo who have invested in our work with grants or supported our events. Smaller companies have raised funds for us with products like clothes and accessories, and we’ve benefitted from schemes where companies match employee donations. And it’s certainly not a one-way street: we’ve been invited by companies to educate staff on LGBTI rights in Europe and Central Asia. We’ve provided advice and companies have utilised our resources like our Rainbow Europe Map/Index.

In the LGBTI movement (and within ILGA-Europe’s membership) there are those who believe the private sector should have no role in the movement. There are those who have embraced corporate partnerships to raise funds and awareness.  And there are  those who are hesitant. There is space for all voices, and hopefully,  there’s also space for dialogue.

While ILGA-Europe will always be critical of pink-washing, it is also clear that private sector has an important role to play in advancing equality. Especially as we experience growing and genuine interest and willingness within business to be part of positive change, whether by creating an inclusive workplace or supporting advocacy efforts by making the case that inclusive, diverse societies are better for business and better for economic growth. Many global companies struggle with questions around what to do in “difficult” contexts, and are open to working with civil society to find answers.

We might be facing a communication barrier though. I’ve spoken to people in businesses who say that NGO jargon and acronyms leave them confused, or don’t really know what it is that LGBTI activists do. Similarly, many activists think that for the corporate world it’s only about the money or feel hesitant to have any kind of partnership with business in fear of backlash from their communities. 

To support better mutual understanding, at ILGA-Europe we want to have these conversations. Also in the spirit of dialogue, we’ve teamed up with our long-time friends at Workplace Pride to hold a workshop at our Annual Conference, inviting along some of our friends from the corporate sector to engage in dialogue with activists on how we can best work together.

Other sessions at the conference will touch upon the role of LGBTI (& ally) employee networks and the tricky question of pink-washing. So if you have thoughts to share on those topics, come along to those workshops or share your questions with us on social media!