Stand up for Zero Discrimination against LGBT people at work

Richard Howard

Richard Howard, ILO Senior Specialist on HIV and AIDS, Asia and the Pacific

I mentioned to an old friend a while back that we at the ILO were carrying out research on discrimination toward lesbian, gay, transgendered people and bisexuals (LGBT) in the workplace. His response – and this was coming from a gay man mind you – was why? Why should the ILO or anyone else care about what a worker does on their own time?

The implication is that what one does in the bedroom — one’s personal sexual behavior — should stay private. There is really no reason for these matters to come up at work.

A few years ago, a group of young, innovative thinkers in the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch at the ILO thought differently. What they and many others saw was that LGBT people around the world were experiencing discrimination at work because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and that this discrimination was based solely on bias. It had nothing to do with their ability to perform their jobs.

Fear of stigma reported by interviewees as a factor that deterred them from seeking information and services about HIV and AIDS, or from accepting free condoms.

It was this group that launched the PRIDE project at the ILO. PRIDE stands for “Promoting Rights, Diversity and Equality” and was made possible thanks to support from the Norwegian government. As LGBT persons are among the most affected by HIV worldwide, one aspect of the PRIDE project was to explore discrimination faced by them due to HIV and AIDS.

In Asia, the PRIDE project has carried out research in two countries: Thailand and Indonesia. It looks at the laws and policies that shape LGBT rights in the workplace and beyond, examining discrimination at all stages of employment, including discrimination due to HIV.


Scene from a training session on HIV and equality in the workplace at a plywood factory in Papuan Indonesia.

The research showed that the majority of LGBT workers choose to conceal their sexual orientation at work, which causes stress and can have negative consequences on productivity and career progression. The conflation of LGBT and HIV can play into stereotypes and confirm homophobic attitudes, exacerbating stigma.

Fear of stigma was indeed a factor reported by interviewees that deters people, including LGBT people, from seeking information and services about HIV and AIDS, or take free condoms.

The studies show several common themes. One very clear message that emerges from both of these countries is that discrimination of LGBT people is, at its heart, perpetuated by gender inequality.

It’s the confining ideas about how men and women should think, dress, walk, talk and behave that make it difficult for many LGBT persons to find decent work, advance in their careers and obtain a general sense of well-being in their workplaces.

Take the case of Sonya, a transgendered woman with a Master’s degree in Business Administration, who successfully passed all recruitment exams to join a leading Thai bank. But on the day of her interview, when the panel noticed her actual gender identity, she was told that only “psychologically normal” people were allowed to work at the bank and that there was no place for her there.

It’s no surprise that most Fortune 500 companies have developed diversity policies in an effort attract and retain talent, integrating the valuable inputs of LGBT people.

Or, another example in Angie, a lesbian working in a bank in Bangkok. She was up for a promotion to senior communication officer, but in the end, her boss told her that she lacked the appropriate image for the job. Her colleagues told her that what this really meant was that she was not feminine enough to represent the company to the public.

The degree of discrimination against gay men varies, but generally men perceived as feminine faced significant discrimination in the workplace. Adi, a former chef in a well-known Jakarta restaurant, explained how he had to quit his job because of the subtle harassment and teasing he received from management and co-workers. He opened his own small restaurant where he could call the shots and be himself.

The PRIDE research shows that rigid ideas about gender and sexuality are forcing people out of their workplace and preventing them from obtaining jobs. This has resulted in a large pool of qualified and talented people moving out of many formal sector enterprises or working more ‘’accepting” industries such as media and design and tourism.

It’s no surprise that most Fortune 500 companies have developed diversity policies in an effort attract and retain talent, integrating the valuable inputs of LGBT people. The productive gains of creating a more inclusive workplace free of discrimination are increasingly evident.

As well, such inclusive workplaces have additional benefits in terms of reducing new HIV infections and ensuring that those living with the virus have access to treatment. Discrimination against LGBT people has served as a major driver of the HIV epidemic. It is time to acknowledge that LGBT people are workers, and create conducive work environments for them. Workplaces need to ensure zero discrimination against LGBT persons, and people living with HIV.

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