Invisible and Intercultural: The Irony of Being an LGBTQ Interculturalist

Recently a Gay man was in a Mediterranean country for an international business conference.  Given the distance he had to travel, he arrived a few days early in order to rest and get acclimated to his new surroundings.  On the second day of his visit, he met several local people who were thrilled to meet me and share some local information about their native country.  As was custom for them in getting to know people, they asked about his family, specifically whether he had a wife or any children.

At that moment, he was faced with an all-too familiar dilemma: should he respond honestly and risk the good rapport that he had with his new associates, or should he lie in order to preserve harmony?  As he considered his options, he decided he would follow his ethics and be honest, even though that honesty would seem come at his own peril. After a few moments, he answered: “I have a partner and HE and I live together in California.”

The silence that came afterwards was uncomfortable to say the least.  The facial expressions of his new “friends” seemed polite but strained.  Before he said anything further, one of them broke the silence and said, “Wow…that’s cool.  But as you know…you’re in a Muslim country, so I would be careful who you disclose that to in the future.”

While he appreciated the warning, that conversation spoke to the dilemma that many LGBTQ people face when they travel overseas.  It is very difficult to be open about our personal lives and forge authentic relationships with people from other cultures when there is this underlying fear of being rejected as soon as they find out more about us.  Further, as an interculturalist whose job it is to travel the world and find opportunities to help people from different countries work together, it is both ironic and tragic that at times that we may have trouble getting people from other cultures to work with us, simply because we are LGBTQ.

The Social Reality

In the past few years (primarily for many in the West), it feels like there has been a great cultural change in attitudes towards LGBTQ people. The recent Supreme Court ruling in India now means that that 75% of the global population now live somewhere where gay sex is legal. However, 1.84 billion people still do not. According to recent statistics, being LGBTQ is still criminalized in 73 countries and even in countries where there are protections, hate crimes against LGBTQ people have increased in the last five years (The Guardian, 2017).

This social reality creates implications for LGBTQ people doing diversity work across the globe, as well as for companies who send their LGBTQ employees overseas to countries that have anti-LGBTQ governments or significant populations that are hostile to LGBTQ rights. For example, what if their same-sex spouse wants to travel with them, but the country they are travelling to does not recognize their relationship?  What if a company wants to send one of their trans employees to a country which refuses to recognize their gender identity?

The Business Case

As we become an increasing global society, being a responsible global citizen requires us to make connections with people from different cultures and be open about who you are in order to make those connections. Yet, if you are LGBTQ, the idea of being open poses some considerable risks.  Consider the following example:

A British academic wanted to visit his partner in the Middle East, who was doing research at an academic institute for nine months and living in a room that they had provided for him.  These visits were a source of some anxiety for both members of the couple. Something as simple as visiting one’s same-sex partner carried all sorts of risks.

As the academic recounted: “There were still aspects of visiting that made us uncomfortable, such as security seeing us coming and going together. Would they realize we were a couple? Would they do anything if they did? What about when he wanted to introduce me to his friends there? Would his friends be okay with it?  Our times together there were often a case of slowly feeling our way through the culture, testing the connections we were making, and calculating the risks of who we could tell.”

To be sure, it is difficult to know right away when you’re in a country that has a poor record of treating LGBTQ people if you can trust someone with the knowledge of who you are.  For LGBTQ professionals, particularly interculturalists, the answers are often not clear. Even seasoned travelers may have difficulty navigating this morass if they do not have access to resources to make sound and culturally-intelligent decisions.

Suggested Practices

Even in situations where a person is travelling to a LGBTQ-friendly country, it is important that LGBTQ profesionals take the steps to protect themselves from recrimination, isolation, or physical violence.  For allies and business partners who work for LGBTQ people, it is imperative that you acknowledge the dangers posed to LGBTQ people and create better business practices to help LGBTQ people do their jobs effectively.  Unfortunately, this topic has failed to get the attention it deserves in diversity or intercultural circles. As such, there are few relatively few guidelines for LGBTQ professionals who regularly work and travel abroad, as well for organizations that support LGBTQ people and have an international presence.  As a result, we offer the following suggested practices:

  • Stay curious.  As always, be proactive in learning about the culture, country, and communities that you will be visiting.
  • Show cultural humility.  Honor the norms of the country you’re visiting, and make attempts to ingratiate yourself to the local culture.  For example, it is always a good practice to learn a few words or phrases in the native language and find ways to engage people in a socially-acceptable manner.  
  • Be a LGBTQ sleuth.  Research the cultural norms towards LGBTQ people, and the rights they have in country you’re going to.
  • Find a cultural ambassador.  Connect with a colleague, peer, or associate who has experience of living and working in a particular country and get their advice.
  • Conduct a safety scan.  Be aware of what is going on in the country you’re going to – look at LGBTQ resources and reports on that country.
  • Practice your response.  If you anticipate getting certain questions that would implicate your LGBTQ cultural identity, develop thoughtful responses and  rehearse your answers before your overseas trip to avoid awkward or risky situations.
  • Recognize opportunity.  Don’t presume that everyone is hostile to LGBTQ rights. In social situations that feel safe, and in contexts where there are discernible social cues (i.e. an associate makes a positive reference to LGBTQ people/culture), use the opportunity to share stories, build connections, and educate people who are curious or supportive of LGBTQ people.  Even in countries that are hostile to LGBTQ rights, there are always opportunities to cultivate allies.

Conclusion

International travel is a great way to see the world and to challenge our existing biases and stereotypes.  It can create profound experiences that spur personal growth and build enduring personal and personal relationships.  At the same time, as colleagues, peers, and employers, we also must be mindful of the needs and sensibilities of LGBTQ professionals and interculturalists.  LGBTQ people are still marginialized in a majority of the world’s countries, and the needs of LGBTQ professionals are often dismissed and under-recognized. As LGBTQ people gain more visibility, we must reduce the exisiting barriers that LGBTQ people face in international work.  As interculturalists, we must actively disrupt LGBTQ invisibility.

The stories we shared previously are real and are taken from our own personal experiences.  As members of the Society for Intercultural Training and Research (SIETAR), we are now creating a network for LGBTQ interculturalists and their allies to 1) build community, 2) share best practices, and 3) present some thought leadership to international organizations. Each LGBTQ individual working in different cultures and organizations will face their own unique dilemmas, and it is their duty to be prepared for this. However, we believe it is also the duty of their organizations, particularly if they have diversity and inclusion policies, to take steps to protect their employees. We offer this article to create a more LGBTQ-inclusive world, and to highlight the LGBTQ worlview for many interculturalists.  

Dr. Thomas W. Greenway works as a researcher at the University of Sheffield, in the UK. He recently completed his PhD in Intercultural Communication. Dr. Joel A. Brown is the Chief Visionary Officer for Pneumos LLC, a management consulting and coaching firm based in San Francisco, California, U.S.A.  They are the co-chairs for the LGBTQ Caucus for SIETAR USA and SIETAR Europa. If you have more specific questions or want more tailored advice, please contact us at thomas.w.greenaway@gmail.com or joel@pneumos.com

 

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