LGBT Issues Continue to Rise on Davos’ Global Economic Agenda

Political and business leaders took on LGBT rights in the workplace for the second year in a row.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses the attendees at the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 20. (Photo: Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

Jan 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The World Economic Forum’s annual global gathering of politicos and billionaires is known for parsing subjects like economic influence and entrepreneurship, but this year’s elite meeting once again took on a formerly fringe subject: LGBT rights.

For the second year in a row, LGBT issues made it onto the formal agenda, with not one but two panels on the 2016 schedule. This year U.S. Vice President Joe Biden drew the issue into the spotlight, making strong remarks calling on attendees to set an example for the global business community.

“When it comes to LGBT rights in the workplace, the world is looking to you,” Biden said. “You have more impact in the countries around the world than [Barack Obama and I] do on these social issues.”

The presence of LGBT rights on the program is a big deal, in part because the audience in Davos, Switzerland, includes leaders from numerous countries that are openly hostile to LGBT people, both socially and legally, according to Selisse Berry, the founder and CEO of Out & Equal, a nonprofit dedicated to workplace equality.

“Businesses have a voice in countries around the world, including the 23 countries where [LGBT people] can be married but also countries where we can be arrested, imprisoned, or even killed for being LGBT,” Berry said. “I celebrate the fact that Davos is late to the game but finally getting on board.”

The sessions this year examine the role of LGBT issues in emerging markets and how companies can support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture by making their businesses more LGBT-friendly.

“Businesses are realizing that if they don’t reach out to the LGBT market, these are dollars they’re losing,” Berry said. “We’re losing out on the best and brightest employees.”

Last March, the state of Indiana got a front-row seat to the power corporations can wield when it comes to LGBT rights. When Gov. Mike Pence signed a “religious freedom” law that allowed business owners to deny service to LGBT people in the state, many companies reached out directly to state officials to say they would discontinue business in the state or issue press releases denouncing the law. Yelp, Salesforce, and Angie’s List all announced boycotts of the state, while other businesses said they would no longer permit employees to travel to Indiana. Pence ended up signing an amended version of the law that explicitly protected sexual orientation and gender identity.

Biden acknowledged the power of businesses—whether by boycott or simply by speaking up when LGBT rights are at stake—to shift the larger cultural and political scene toward tolerance on the global level.

“You literally can change the terms of the debate,” Biden said. “You can actually put governments on notice.”

While Indiana’s amended bill was considered a victory, copycat laws have proliferated around the country, creating an ongoing legislative battlefield for advocates like Berry. Beyond religious freedom bills, LGBT employees in 28 states can still be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

“We’re trying to make sure that all LGBT employees understand what laws are coming down the pike in their state,” Berry said. “The reality about getting married on Saturday and fired on Monday is still a possibility for many people. We definitely have work to do.”