German companies increasingly ‘coming out’ with LGBTI employees

With Christopher Street Day around the corner in Berlin and Stuttgart, more companies are taking initiatives to show their own employees' pride and end workplace discrimination.

German companies increasingly 'coming out' with LGBTI employees
Members of the Bosch network RBgay participate in Stuttgart's Christopher Street Day (CSD) in 2014.

When homosexual employees of the German corporate giant Bosch first attended Christopher Street Day (CSD) in Stuttgart four years ago, the response within the company was almost entirely positive. Almost.

There were also dissenting votes in the subsequent intranet discussion among the workplace.

“That's not part of the company,” some colleagues said. “That doesn't fit Bosch's image,” others thought.

This Saturday, the members of the Bosch network RBgay will not only run along, but will also have their own truck at the Stuttgart CSD.

At the Berlin CSD on the same day, the colleagues of companies such as Daimler, BMW, Vodafone, Ikea or Bayer will also set sail in the massive parade on their own floats – just like occurred last week at the Munich CSD with the colleagues of Allianz.

In addition to its own parade car, the insurance company lit up the Allianz Arena in the colours of the rainbow, the symbol of the movement for equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersexuals (LGBTI).

“I am proud to work for a company that sets a public example for LGBTI inclusion,” says Franz Vojik, spokesman of Allianz Pride, the company-wide network for employees with different sexual orientations.

Not hiding anymore

“Many colleagues still have difficulties in everyday life,” said Mathias Reimann, spokesman for the Bosch LGBTI network. “They often feel they have to hide their sexual orientation.”

The typical workplace question of “What did you do this weekend?” takes on a completely new dimension, says Reimann, when someone identifies with an alternative sexual orientation.

“Shall I tell you I was out with my husband? A lot of people don't dare,” he says.

That is why it is necessary to make gay and lesbian everyday life visible – which the company has also recognized.

“RBgay contributes to our open corporate culture, in which employees can be authentic and valued – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” explains Bosch personnel manager Christoph Kübel.

The more self-evident employees are about their sexual identity in the workplace, the higher the level of job satisfaction and solidarity with the company, according to the 2017 study, “Out in the Office?,” published by Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Office.

But still a third of them do not dare to talk to colleagues about it. This could be because, according to the study, three-fourths of those who are open about their sexuality have experienced some kind of discrimination in Germany.

Can a parade car at the CSD help? The Munich foundation “PrOut At Work”, which works for the interests of LGBTI employees and whose founders include corporations such as Telekom, Commerzbank, SAP and Deutsche Post, believes it can to some extent,

“The real equality of people requires not only a rethinking on the legal level, but above all also on the social level,” says foundation director Albert Kehrer. “The influence of large companies with their strong presence and economic power as lawyers is a clear key factor.

Conservative companies sending a signal

Especially when supposedly conservative companies show solidarity with the LGBTI community, this is a signal to society, says Kehrer.

If I saw a Bosch car at the CSD Parade, I would think: “Cool company, you could work there,” explains a manager who has long since come out as a lesbian at her employer EY and thus, according to her own statement, has never experienced any problems. Still, she refrained from giving her name.

In times of acute shortages of skilled workers, she believes that the companies' commitment is logical anyway: “Companies can no longer afford to do without this group – on the contrary, they have to entice them,” she said.

Reimann, who leads a team of 300 associates at Bosch in development, has never had any problems in his career because of his sexual orientation.

But he also knows, “It depends on what kind of guy you are – and where you work in the company.”

In the Bosch LGBTI network, for example, one learns that homosexual colleagues have a harder time in production where the sound is rougher than in research.

At some Bosch locations abroad, it would also be completely inconceivable to come out. “In India, for example, people would face life imprisonment there,” says Reimann.

While Reimann does not think he would have luck in changing the legal situation in India, he has already achieved success in Hungary, where a gay colleague was badly abused.

After HR Director Kübel spoke up for diversity at the site and thus also for his LGBTI colleagues, Bosch-Hungary signed the company's “Diversity Charter.

“Of course, there are still many resentments in Hungary,” says Reimann. “But at least now it's being discussed by the workforce.”

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30 years ago, Denmark led the way with first step towards marriage equality

Thirty years after Denmark became the first country to allow same-sex couples to register in legal unions, the world has become more accepting. But in 1989, it was a trailblazing move.

30 years ago, Denmark led the way with first step towards marriage equality
An event was held at Copenhagen City Hall in August to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of same-sex legal unions. Photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix

“It was a ceremony that takes place every day at city hall,” Ivan Larsen recalls. “But for us, for the first time in history two men could experience this ceremony.”

Ivan had met his partner, psychologist Ove Carlsen, three and a half years earlier.

On October 1st 1989, the very same day Denmark first allowed same-sex couples to register in civil unions, Larsen — himself a Lutheran pastor in the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken) — legally joined with his partner.

As the couple prepared to celebrate their pearl wedding anniversary, they recalled their vivid memories of that occasion with AFP.

It was a Sunday in the country's capital Copenhagen and deputy mayor Tom Ahlberg opened the massive gates of the city hall to officiate the “partnerships” — the official term — of 11 same-sex couples.

Both dressed in cream-coloured suits, Ove wore a pink bow tie, Ivan wore a blue one, and at 42 years old they became the second couple to formalise their union.

The first was Axel and Eigil Axgil, 74 and 67 years old at the time but now both deceased.

A 'pioneering act'

“We had been told that you can have 25 guests with you at city hall,” said Ivan Larsen.

“We had three.”

“Because of the journalists,” his husband added.

Following the ceremony the newly joined couples were greeted by enthusiastic supporters throwing rice.

Although it was in stark contrast with their modest everyday style, Ivan and Ove embraced the media spotlight their historic union provided.

“We thought it was necessary to talk about what was happening in Denmark… to spread the message: it's OK and it was possible,” Ove Carlsen said.

“It was a pioneering act to get married that day,” Ivan Larsen said.

Ove Carlsen (L) and Ivan Larsen at their home in Frederiksberg. Photo: Thibault SAVARY / AFP

In Denmark “until 1866 homosexuality was punishable by death and one couldn't be openly homosexual until 1933,” Larsen explained.

True to the Danes' progressive reputation, civil union was in most ways equal to marriage in respect to the law — but the right to adopt was excluded.

“As long as it didn't touch the symbolic realm of reproduction and family it was OK,” Michael Nebeling Petersen, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Southern Denmark told AFP.

The idea behind the law, he said, was above all to offer financial security for homosexual men, allowing them to inherit from each other at a time when AIDS was spreading fast.

“It was first of all practical,” Nebeling Petersen said.

Other countries follow

Since it still wasn't technically a marriage, ceremonies could not be held in most churches and the partnerships were not recognised by other nations.

Between 1989 and 2012, 7,491 civil unions were formed. And in 2010 same-sex couples were granted the right to adopt.

In June of 2012 the civil partnerships were abandoned in favour of new legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married just like heterosexual couples.

Soon after that law passed, Ivan and Ove were wed by one of Ivan's colleagues.

By that time, Denmark was no longer leading the way.

Same-sex marriages had already been adopted by several other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Spain, and the Danes' Nordic neighbours Norway and Sweden.

The first country to legalise same-sex marriages was The Netherlands, whose parliament passed its first legislation on the matter a decade earlier in 2000.

Almost 30 countries have now legalised same-sex marriages.

Ivan and Ove are now content to enjoy their retirement in their cosy apartment in one of Copenhagen's quiet districts.

Despite the progress in gay rights however, they are worried about what they say is a rise in homophobia. In response, they urge people to be open about their sexuality in everyday life.

“Some people would say, 'You always talk about being gay',” said Ivan.

“No I don't. I just told you that I've been to the cinema with my husband,” he added with a smile.

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