BARCELONA — In 1996, United Nations employees came together to highlight the issues and discrimination facing LGBTQ staff. This was the beginning of UN Globe, which today, in addition to serving as a support network for LGBTQ staff, advocates for inclusive workplaces within the U.N. system and for staff serving on peacekeeping operations.
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Over the past five years, UN Globe has become increasingly advocacy focused, explained Hyung Hak “Alfonso” Nam, president of UN Globe. The group has been working to build strong relationships with senior leaders across U.N. organizations in order to secure a seat at the table when it comes to drafting policies.
Nam also wants to see UN Globe become more active in ensuring that the U.N.’s diplomatic work is inclusive of LGBTQ communities. In this, LGBTQ-identified staff of the U.N. system also have a role, and can “make a difference by speaking out and ensuring services to populations are inclusive of LGBTI,” he said.
There are still a number of issues facing LGBTQ employees within the U.N. system and changing attitudes is a slow process, said Nam.
Here are five ways UN Globe is working to make the U.N. more inclusive for LGBTQ employees.
Start with the basics
UN Globe has representation within most of the U.N.’s more than 40 organizations, but not all organizations demonstrate the same level of openness toward LGBTQ issues, Nam explained. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, is quite competent in its assessment of employee inclusivity and whether their programs are inclusive of vulnerable populations.
“We have established a very good dialogue [with UNHCR] so we are able to give our input,” said Nam, but “then you have other organizations who are far behind, and others who are in between.”
To ensure more inclusive policies, organizations first have to ensure that staff know what transgender identity is or what LGBTQ stands for, he explained, and for some organizations this means starting from the very beginning.
“To make them [organizations] realize that a sizeable number of the people who work for their organization identify as LGBTI, [you have to] kind of give them an explanation as to who they are and what their needs are,” said Nam.
“A lot of times, staff are asked to accept a job offer in country X without any real awareness of what it will mean for oneself to be in that country as someone who identifies as gay or someone who identifies as trans.”— Hyung Hak “Alfonso” Nam, president of UN Globe
This is the first step in ensuring the organization has the “mindset toward inclusiveness, acceptance, and wanting to actually tackle this issue.”
UN Globe is pushing for mandatory training across the U.N. system so that each staff member is aware of the issues facing LGBTQ staff and has the capacity to address them using “appropriate and respectful language.”
Listen and prioritize
UN Globe prioritizes its objectives based, to a large extent, on the needs of its members. Increasing dialogue in the U.S., Europe, and other countries on the topic of trans and gender nonconforming people, has made some more aware of gender identity beyond just male and female, explained Nam.
As a result, a lot of staff who identify as transgender have come forward to UN Globe to report difficulties they have faced in the workplace — such as changing one’s name, he added.
Achieving equal parental leave is another ongoing priority for UN Globe.
With the U.N. working in over 140 countries worldwide, there can be considerable differences between countries in terms of openness and inclusiveness toward people who identify as LGBTQ, said Nam.
A number of U.N. organizations have enforced mobility, requiring staff to move to a new country every two to five years. Nam often receives emails from staff who have been assigned overseas and want to know what kind of environment to expect once in country.
“There is angst there that is not being addressed by their organization or the U.N. system,” he said.
“A lot of times, staff are asked to accept a job offer in country X without any real awareness of what it will mean for oneself to be in that country as someone who identifies as gay or someone who identifies as trans,” he added.
While pushing the U.N. to address this issue, Nam also wants UN Globe to better share this information and create a database to help LGBTQ staff understand how it would be for them to live and work in specific countries.
Particularly on peacekeeping missions, there is a “culture of silence,” said Nam, many LGBTQ staff don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves or raising issues affecting gay, lesbian, or trans people.
“There is a belief that if you do so, you could be targeted by people in your own office, or the government finds out and declares you a persona non-grata,” he said.
Nam has spoken with staff who have made the move — from Geneva or New York to countries such as South Sudan — and felt like they had to hide their sexual or gender identity.
Many of the labels and concepts of gender identity have largely been shaped by the U.S. or Europe, said Nam, and as a result, the set definitions we use could be “very foreign to many people.”
We need to better translate the discussions we are having around LGBTQ rights and issues so that they can be understood universally.
“It’s very important that the dialogue itself is inclusive,” he explained, “so when certain African countries say, ‘well this is a Western import,’ to some degree let’s acknowledge it, they are right.”
In a hierarchical U.N. system, the person at the top has a lot of influence on strategic direction, said Nam, so the messaging that comes from them is fundamental. This messaging should, therefore, be consistent and constant, he added — not just once a year on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
Leaders should be looking at every statement they make and acknowledging the diversity of their employees, said Nam. When it comes to messaging around, say, sexual harassment in the workplace, any statement issued by leadership should acknowledge that LGBTQ staff can also be affected by harassment.
“If you add that one line, you begin sending a message,” said Nam, and that shows you “understand that your organization is more than just men and women, that it includes people of diverse gender identity.”