Latin America: Businesses woo LGBT+ market

From attracting LGBT tourists to taking part in Pride marches, businesses and governments across Latin America are stepping up efforts to tap into the potentially lucrative pink dollar driving LGBT+ rights more into the mainstream.

Ecuador this month officially launched the country’s first LGBT Chamber of Commerce in Quito, the latest in a regional effort to highlight the LGBT+ market to the private sector.

Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco Marques this month signed an agreement with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) to promote LGBT+ tourism.

Colombia last November hosted one of the largest LGBT business fairs in Latin America, with more than 3,000 visitors and 50 national and international companies attending the two-day event in the capital Bogota.

Felipe Cardenas, president of the Chamber of LGBT Merchants in Colombia, where same-sex marriage was legalised in 2016, said the economic focus was changing attitudes across the region.

“Social activism has helped a lot, but we’ve been working hard on economic activism as well”, Cardenas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Colombia remains a very conservative, Catholic country … (but) it’s given even the most conservative sectors of the Colombian business community and public opinion a different perspective”.

Despite advances in LGBT rights, anti-gay discrimination and violence remain a persistent problem in Latin America due largely to the strength of conservative Catholic values.

Cardenas said a study by the chamber in 2016 found more than half of gay and transgender Colombians said they had experienced discrimination at work.

“The rights we have remain on paper and are only just starting to be put into practice”, he said.

Ecuador legalised homosexuality in 1997, and allowed same-sex civil unions a decade ago, but the country of 16 million people is still battling homophobia.

A 2013 government study found more than 70 percent of LGBT+ people had suffered some form of discrimination.

Campaigners hoped increasing the economic visibility of LGBT+ customers and workers and improving workplace practices, would lead to greater social, political and cultural inclusion.

“The LGBT population is contributing economically in one way or another (but) it’s something which becomes invisible in Latin American countries because of conservatism”, Diane Rodriguez, president of the Ecuadorian Federation of LGBT+ Organizations.

“As soon as you promote a diverse market, you promote inclusion”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Mexico, US gay rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has partnered with local activists on a pilot programme evaluating companies’ workplace policies.

Launched in 2017, the Equidad MX Report is the Mexican version of HRC’s annual Equality Index that was set up in the United States in 2002, and now certifies more than 600 companies. Last year, HRC announced a similar programme in Chile.

The Mexican list began with 32 companies, including state-owned national oil company Pemex, but this year’s index more than doubled to 69 businesses including Walmart, Nike, and AT&T.

“It’s been very effective because companies have used it to work towards inclusion so that diversity feels comfortable and workers feel appreciated for who they are”, said Francisco Robledo, founder of Mexico’s Alliance for Workplace Inclusion and Diversity (ADIL) and HRC’s implementing partner.

A 2018 study of more than 3,000 LGBT+ Mexican workers by ADIL found that more than half of respondents were “in the closet” at work. Among bisexuals, that number hit 70 percent.

“Living a lie at work every day drains your confidence,” Robledo said. “Productivity decreases and turnover increases when a person can’t express who they really are”.

LGBT+ activists stressed the importance to gay rights of public commitments to diversity by private companies.

“The speed at which certain policy changes become contagious is much faster in the private sector”, said Enrique Torre Molina, co-founder of Mexican LGBT+ networking group Colmena 41.

Torre Molina said the increased involvement of the private sector was evident at Mexico City’s annual Pride parade.

In 2008, American Express was the only company to take part in the event but last year, 25 companies marched down Paseo de la Reforma, ranging from Google to IBM .

This shift has taken place regionally with about one dozen companies – including Deloitte and Uber marching in Santiago Pride for the first time last year, while multinationals like IBM and Citibank took part in the Bogota event in 2017.

“The evolution has been very fast”, Torre Molina said.

Torre Molina acknowledged the drive towards promoting inclusion by private companies was often financial.

Global advisory group LGBT Capital estimated the global aggregated spending power of LGBT+ consumers is about $3.6 trillion a year with tourism very likely to benefit.

LGBT+ tourists spend around $218 billion a year, according to consulting group Out Now. But the passage of LGBT-friendly laws like same-sex marriage everywhere from Uruguay to Colombia could attract even more gay travellers and boost local economies, said John Tanzella, president and CEO of IGLTA.

“LGBT+ travellers have been coming to Latin America forever”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But when those laws pass or there are those kinds of public statements are made, it opens it up to a much wider public of LGBT+ people”.

Robledo from ADIL said companies publicly recognizing gay and lesbian employees could be powerful weapon against any rollback of LGBT+ rights.

“Check what you brush your teeth with, what products you use in your car, what programmes you have installed on your computer”, he said.

“There isn’t a single service or product that someone uses at least once a day that doesn’t recognise the LGBT+ population”.

-Oscar Lopez – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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