This article was written in the lead-up to The Economist’s Pride and Prejudice summit, an event that aims to advance the global discussion on the business case for LGBT diversity and inclusion.
By Siddharth Dube
Even now, 30 years later, I can still recall with acute clarity the generalized sense of shame and anxiety about being gay that would inevitably cloud my mind every morning as I headed off to work as a young journalist in the mid-1980s, in the U.S. and then back in India.
My fears were incoherent. I knew that at all costs I had to maintain the impression that I was just another straight man—by not letting any of my feminine mannerisms slip through, by not letting on that I found one or two of my male colleagues attractive, by deflecting any questions about my personal life, even by the desperate measure of not attracting undue attention.
But, I didn’t know exactly what I feared. Did I fear being sacked? Did I fear being forever despised and ostracized by my colleagues? Or did I fear that matters would escalate viciously and that eventually I would be jailed and ruined?
I had ample reasons for all these fears, despite coming from a background of privilege. Same-sex relations were harshly criminalized both in India and the U.S., a colonial legacy that spanned both continents. We gay men were being blamed for the terrifying AIDS pandemic; bigoted preachers and politicians said we were promiscuous sinners and deserved to die horribly. And in India, my worries were intensified because I knew that only a handful of people—my parents, my siblings, and my closest friends, in whom I had confided and who knew I lived in a steady relationship with my partner—would defend me if I ever faced persecution, given the pervasive homophobia and the absence of human rights defenders prepared to fight for gays.
Through the 1990s, I lived primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C., consulting and working for U.N. agencies and the World Bank. My years at the Bank in the early 1990s, by which point I was in my early 30s, gave me my first inkling that employers could be expected to treat their gay employees honorably and, consequently, that I did not have to keep fearfully hiding my personal orientation.
Thus, within days of joining the Bank, I found, to my astonishment, advertisements on hallway notice boards and the Intranet announcing meetings of a staff association for gay, lesbian, or transgender employees. I immediately joined the group, consisting of about two dozen staffers, largely American and European men, but with a sprinkling of women as well as people like me from developing countries. I came to find that the Bank’s senior management was fairly responsive to our demands for equality in benefits and treatment of staff regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were eventually small but important gains—such as health insurance for same-sex partners and prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. (Several years after I left the Bank, it began to extend benefits to same-sex partners and their children.)
The U.N. was another matter altogether. Though an association of gay, lesbian, and transgender staff was already in place when I joined the U.N. in 1997, the U.N. had done absolutely nothing to treat them fairly, not even embarking on the minute steps haltingly taken by the Bank. Consequently, LGBTI staff continued to work in fear and secrecy. I was by now resolutely open about my orientation, as much at work as in my personal life, and became an officer of the U.N. Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Employees Association.
We ratcheted up our efforts to influence top management. In 2003, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan took the courageous step of committing the U.N. to recognizing same-sex partnerships for employee benefits, earning him the ire of the Bush administration, the Vatican, and numerous African, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European governments. (At that point and for over a decade more, recognition extended only to staff from nations that allowed same-sex marriage or civil unions. Eventually, in 2015, all U.N. employees were covered, irrespective of their country of origin, equalizing benefits available for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.)
But it was only in 2005, by which time I had worked for 20 years and was in my mid-40s, that I finally had the good fortune of joining an organization where the matter of my personal orientation was blessedly irrelevant. This was the UNAIDS secretariat in Geneva, which helped coordinate the efforts of key U.N. agencies and the World Bank in tackling the AIDS pandemic. Here, in a work context where sexuality was discussed rationally from the perspective of public policy and human rights, I could finally let go of the dread that had dogged my professional life from its very first moments, knowing that I would not face any discrimination for being gay.
A senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, Siddharth Dube is the author of several non-fiction books on social justice matters, including No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex (HarperCollins India, 2015). He is a contributing editor at The Caravan and a columnist for the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. For more information, see www.SiddharthDube.com
[Photo courtesy of Vinayak Das]