Since the start of 2021, state legislatures across the United States have introduced more than 250 bills designed to restrict trans rights. Lawmakers in Florida, Ohio, and West Virginia, for example, have moved to ban trans athletes from competing in female sports in schools, while Republicans in Arkansas passed legislation barring healthcare professionals from providing transition-related care to transgender minors. The scale of the legislative movement led the Human Rights Campaign to describe 2021 as the “worst year” in recent US history for LGBTQ+ rights.
Here in the UK, the debate over trans rights continues both in employment tribunals and in the court of public opinion. A recent appeal decision that found gender-critical beliefs to be protected under discrimination law attracted widespread criticism from the trans community, while an employment barrister’s critique of the same judgment, published on IEL, likewise drew the ire of proponents of gender-critical theory. Stonewall has even found itself at the centre of the trans rights storm after reportedly misrepresenting equality law in its advice to Essex University over the latter’s no-platforming of two academics, which in turn led to several public bodies withdrawing from the LGBT charity’s diversity scheme.
In mainland Europe, Hungary’s parliament has passed legislation banning LGBTQ+ people from featuring in school educational materials, as well as prohibiting companies from running adverts in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community if they are deemed to target under-18s. The legislation, similar to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law or even the UK’s long-since-repealed section 28, has been widely condemned by most of Europe’s political leaders. However, there are suggestions that Poland – an equally hardline country when it comes to limiting LGBTQ+ rights – may follow Hungary’s lead, creating a new schism within the European Union even as it continues to grapple with the effects of Brexit.
With the majority of these new anti-LGBTQ+ laws focused on limiting trans rights for children and young people, multinational employers may wonder how these controversial political moves affect them? For starters, Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2015) is the largest generation ever, accounting for almost 2 billion people or almost 30% of the world's population. It is this generation, specifically impacted by these new laws, that will soon dominate the majority of companies’ workforces and, as a group, are less reluctant than previous generations when it comes to openly embracing their true selves.
A recent survey across 27 countries found that those who describe themselves as transgender, non-binary, non-conforming, gender-fluid, or in a way other than male or female, make up 4% of Gen Z; twice the percentage of Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and four times larger than Gen Xs who similarly identify. Globally, 3% of people identify as gay, lesbian, or homosexual, including 4% of Gen Z, compared with 3% of Millennials, 2% of Gen X, and 1% of Boomers. Similarly, Gen Z is much more likely to identify as bisexual (9%) than Millennials (4%), Gen Xers (3%), or Boomers (2%). In addition, 18% of Gen Z report being only, mostly, or equally attracted to the same sex.
The survey from multinational research firm Ipsos also found that, on average, 47% of the public globally support companies and brands actively promoting equality for LGBTQ+ people, compared to 19% who oppose it, with the majority of support coming from Gen Z. Companies displaying their support for LGBTQ+ equality should be wary, however, of “performative action” – such as merely changing their branding to highlight the rainbow flag each June – or accusations of outright hypocrisy.
Companies should be more active in becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem
“When we saw this massive resurgence of Black Lives Matter – rightfully so with the murder of George Floyd – I saw a lot of performative action. There were a lot of black squares [on social media] and… it really felt performative, in some instances,” Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah, also known as Lady Phyll, co-founder of UK Black Pride and executive director of human rights charity Kaleidoscope Trust, told an Open For Business webinar last week.
Asked how employers can use their voice to support the LGBTQ+ community, the activist and equality campaigner said: “A key thing businesses can do is to ask the question, to speak to [their] employees; those who are black and brown, and are queer. If you have strong values then you should be able to turn to them and [ask], ‘How are you doing today; how do you feel?’
“Corporations, especially the big ones, often go beyond their role as companies – they lead on setting working and cultural standards and they operate as opinion leaders,” she said. “Companies should be more active in becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Companies can do a lot by standing up and creating meaningful, engaging, [and] strong policies that are actively inclusive of trans people. It is about putting something in place that [allows] those gender-affirming conversations.”
“Do your homework,” she urged employers. “Understand the demographic of your organisation. Understand the demographic of those we are supporting, not just here, but abroad. It is telling that things that are performative stay there for a couple of weeks and then move away. That is not being true. That is not being authentic. That is not being real.”
Changing demographics and increasing public acceptance of LGBTQ+ equality suggests businesses can afford to be more vocal in their support of what is still a marginalised community around the world; relying on their corporate activism being largely celebrated by both workers and customers.
However, while public opinion in many developed nations is broadly supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, some issues are much more nuanced, meaning companies may be reluctant to throw their weight behind every debate. For example, on average, as many people support as oppose (32% each) trans athletes competing based on the gender they identify with, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth, according to the Ipsos research.
Yes, international companies have a duty of care to their employees based in less-than-friendly LGBTQ+ countries, and they would certainly be wise not to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but when it comes to entering the political arena to advance or protect the existing rights of a particular group, employers will feel they are between a rock and a hard place.
It is worth remembering that although worldwide, more than one-quarter of LGBTQ+ employees are not broadly out at work, this will likely change as the next generation moves into the global workforce. Gen Z is the future and companies should carefully consider the economic and organising power this group of workers and consumers will wield in the years to come. Or as Lady Phyll put it: “You need to think about which side of history you want to be on.”