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Inclusivity: A Work in Progress

The benefits that businesses stand to gain by being welcoming to LGBTQIA+ employees.

L ast week, a man told me that he’s been longing to resign from a company that he doesn’t even work in.

He asked to be identified only as “Carl” and for more than a year now, he’s been on the payroll of a business that operates in Metro Manila. “But here’s the thing,” so he said, “I don’t even go there.” He then went on to tell me who does: a man who has his name and his talents; someone who lives in his house, wears his clothes, and is practically everything that he is except for one defining trait: “the dude’s straight.”

Speaking with me via video call, Carl shared that he has been living his professional life in the closet. It’s a lie backed by the bells and whistles of his public persona: from a phone with a screensaver that sees him cheek-to-cheek with his closest female friend, to a photo of the same girl in his wallet, and a professional Facebook account that barely has anything divisive on it.

“And those are necessities,” he said. At their office, after all, what’s considered friendly banter among his much older, mostly male colleagues come with undertones of religious sanctimony, heteronormativity, and dated tenets like “boys will be boys.” In meetings with his team, meanwhile, the word “bakla”—a Filipino umbrella term for gay men and trans women—has been designated by their boss to employees displaying a hint of cowardice. And then there was that one drinking session he had with his co-workers, that one night somewhere in Metro Manila when he was compelled to derisively laugh with them when an openly gay couple passed by.

“Humility aside, I’m a hard worker,” he said. “And it hurts when you realize that your hard work benefits people who might still think less of you if ever they find out that you’re gay.” This is why he’s planning to leave, to work instead for people more welcoming to him regardless of his sexual orientation. The only thing stopping him at the moment is the economic instability caused by work stoppages the national government imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China late last year.

“Work is technically a second home for me,” he said. “And I’m currently looking for one that actually feels like home.”

The good news for people like Carl is that inclusivity is not an entirely foreign concept in the Philippines. A testament to this, it seems, are companies like the business process outsourcing firm TELUS International Philippines (TIP.) These days, TIP is known for implementing measures that promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace and, as a result, they have been on the receiving end of messages from outsiders. According to Ronnel Orial, the co-chair of Spectrum Philippines, TIP’s resource group for its lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) members and their allies, such messages can come in the form of inquiries regarding the company’s hiring status.

“We’re attracting the best talent,” Orial told me. “[On] the business side, that’s what’s good about it.”

Orial and the management of TIP aren’t the only ones who hold this belief. According to a 2019 report issued by the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “companies have strong incentives to implement LGBT-inclusive practices.” The report is entitled “Business Success and Growth Through LGBT-Inclusive Culture” and in it is the idea that companies who implement policies that are welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ are more likely to “attract and retain better talent.” In a nutshell, the document approximates that inclusivity prevents companies from alienating talents based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE.) This is in line with other benefits theorized by various bodies over the years.

In 2015, for example, an article released by GLAAD backed anti-discrimination policies in the workplace. In the piece that references a study by the Williams Institute entitled The Business Impact of LGBT-Supportive Workplace Policies, the publication said anti-discrimination measures protecting the LGBTQIA+ are necessary for businesses due to various reasons. For example, employees tend to experience high levels of stress and anxiety when they have to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to hide their identity in the workplace. These can result in health problems and work-related complaints. Therefore, a workplace that’s friendly towards members of the LGBTQIA+ can achieve an environment of better health, greater work commitment, and higher job satisfaction.

This is backed by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Labor Organization (ILO.) In 2018, the two bodies presented a report on the challenges faced by LGBTI employees in China, the Philippines, and Thailand. According to the report, policies protecting LGBTI employees from discrimination positively affect employee satisfaction and this yields a number of benefits. The subject was discussed in 2018 by Zarin Bathena who at that time was Head-HR of Worldline South Asia and Middle East.

In the article she contributed to Entrepreneur India, Bathena said that “a satisfied employee is not just a retained employee but an ambassador for the brand, internally and externally. She can help dispel the apprehensions of others and can defend the company in various fora.”

 “Happy employees,” she added, “are more loyal to the company and its objectives, they go the extra mile to achieve goals and take pride in their jobs, their teams, and their achievements.”

Having read these, I couldn’t help but remember my own story as an employee. I’ve been an openly gay writer since I was a college student contributing to publications based in Metro Manila. But, on several occasions, especially on photoshoots that double as interviews, I’ve been mistakenly referred to as the following: a photographer’s assistant, a stylist, and—on at least one occasion—someone else’s “overly supportive boyfriend.” The reason? I have a habit of getting involved with work I wasn’t hired to do. Instead of simply being there to do interviews, I’d help set up cameras, take behind-the-scenes photos if needed, arrange outfits for models, and carry bags.

My intention for saying this is not to trumpet my own diligence but to get to a related point: I’d be like this whenever I work with people I enjoy working with. These are the ones who value me for my output, the ones who do not dehumanize me because of aspects of my life I did not choose, the ones who generally don’t treat me like a joke because of something as serious as my sexual preference.

“In other words,” Carl said after I told him this story, “you got lucky.”

Perhaps. There were others, however, who didn’t.

TELUS International Philippines- McKinley West site lit in Pride colors. (PHOTO FROM TELUS INTERNATIONAL PHILIPPINES.)

O n June 21, the College of Nursing student council of Bicol University (along with other organizations) celebrated Pride Month by putting together online talks concerning the plight of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the Philippines. Entitled “Igniting Colors in the New Normal: The Digital Pride,” the event featured Rey Salinas, a microbiologist, educator, political organizer, and an out and proud trans woman.

Salinas was there on behalf of Bahaghari, a human rights organization, and in her talk, she quickly challenged the longstanding notion that the Philippines has a good track record when it comes to protecting the rights of people who aren’t cisgender and straight.

“Right now, we know that so many LGBTs in the Philippines are losing opportunities, losing education and their lives but there’s barely any data on it,” she said. And, according to her, this is evidence of underlying discrimination.

“From the very beginning, the people who have the power to collect data on what’s happening to the LGBT, AKA the government and other major organizations… already have a stigma against the LGBT,” she explained. “That impacts the way they collect data. That impacts the way they interpret the data that we have.”

But there are stories that actually make enough noise to reach the general public. Take, for instance, the story of Bunny Cadag, a genderqueer individual who back in 2017 alleged that they were discriminated against by fast-food giant Jollibee Foods Corporation (JFC.) Cadag was supposedly told by a representative of JFC that it is not yet welcoming of having “a transgender person” working for their company. They were also told that JFC is a Roman Catholic company. The group has since apologized to Cadag for the supposedly isolated incident. Nevertheless, their story, according to Salinas, is quite common in the Philippines.

Agreeing with this was Janlee Dungca, a representative of LoveYourself, an organization that seeks to build empowered communities by building and strengthening the self-worth of individuals. According to Dungca, the trans community, in particular, tends to face a significant amount of discrimination in the job market.

“Corporations would hire gay men but not trans women because, for them, trans women are cross-dressing,” she said. “[They believe trans women are] not formal, unprofessional because of the way they present themselves which is actually a form of discrimination because trans women are women. You cannot say that they’re cross-dressing because they are women expressing themselves in a feminine way.”

“But you know,” she added, “some corporations are super traditional when it comes to their policies. Even until now; you’d be surprised.”

“Maybe not,” I remember thinking when she said this. After all, it was only in November 2018 when it was alleged that Filipino companies aren’t really that accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community. CNN Philippines reported on the matter by referencing a survey conducted by the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce and research firm Cogencia. Known as the first Philippine Corporate SOGIE Diversity and Inclusiveness (CSDI) Index, the study looked into 100 companies and found that none of the Philippine-based ones were implementing policies meant to protect their employees from discrimination based on their SOGIE.

This is partly why various groups have been lobbying for the SOGIE Equality Bill, a measure that seeks to protect people—not just members of the LGBTQIA+—from SOGIE-based discrimination. The bill reached the senate during the 17th congress but it languished after meeting stern opposition from a number of senators and religious leaders.

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, for starters, said that the bill may be a way to “smuggle gay marriage” into the country. Senator Manny Pacquiao, meanwhile, brought up the Bible while criticizing the provision of the bill that protects people who wish to express their gender identity in ways they see fit. And then there’s Senator Joel Villanueva who alleged that the bill may step on academic and religious freedoms. In a report also by CNN Philippines last year, Villanueva apparently alleged that “[the bill] can penalize pastors for preaching about certain Bible verses in their respective churches.” These verses, of course, are the ones that condemn homosexuality.

According to Perci Cendaña, a member of the non-government agency, Babaylanes Inc., such ways of thinking may be products of colonial mentality.

“When the Spaniards came [and colonized the Philippines,]” he said, “they brought with them not just political authority but some semblance of religious authority. So, the religious authority wanted to usurp or replace the old practices of culture.”

These, according to him, included the reverence towards figures like Philippine shamans: the female spiritual leaders like babaylans or katalonans, and the asogs, men said to have lived the lives of women while performing roles quite similar to that of the babaylans. He added that another target for the Spaniards was the “tacit acceptance of diversity and gender identity,” the supposed reality that in pre-colonial Philippines, people of “diverse SOGIE” had equal representation, some semblance of acceptance and even positions of leadership.

 “So,” he continued, “if the previous leaders of spirituality [were] the babaylan or the katalonan or the asog, [the Spaniards had] to discredit [them.] And along the way of supplanting, replacing, debunking, demonizing the babaylan came our situation wherein there are these very rigid boxes for gender identity and sexualities.”

Familiar with this story, Dungca said that this may be one of the challenges faced by people lobbying for better treatment towards members of the LGBTQIA+. “We have to unlearn years—hundreds of years—of systematized oppression and colonization,” she said. “It’s not easily done because, basically, colonial mentality is still prevalent among Filipinos.”

But even as measures like the SOGIE Equality Bill continue to remain in limbo due to political and religious opposition, Dungca believes that there are many ways by which individuals and private organizations can make life better for the LGBTQIA+ in the workplace. And TIP, through Spectrum, attests to this.

B efore the end of our video call, Carl told me about his plans for the future. He said that he had already gotten recommendations from friends and is currently planning to send his application to various companies that have better environments for people like him.

“I think it might take a while before they get back to me though,” so he said. “The job market isn’t really good right now. People are getting fired left and right because of the economic downturn caused by [the spread of the coronavirus.]” But this is definitely a priority for him. “It’s not even about the money,” he clarified. “It’s about being in a place where people like me are respected.”

Such places are like TIP. For years now, the firm has been attempting to improve its working environment by introducing a number of operational upgrades. For members of the LGBTQIA+, these entail several measures meant to make them feel welcomed and valued.

“We’ve rolled out a lot of initiatives,” Orial told me through a virtual interview. “For example, our [health maintenance organization] doesn’t just cover the traditional, like, male [who is married to a woman pairings.] We actually recognize same-sex couples to be included in our HMO.” Aside from this, TIP also rolled-out self-identified restrooms for self-identified males and females as well as gender mutual restrooms. “Our sleeping quarters are also self-identified,” he added.

Furthermore, the company also contributes to discussions on LGBTQIA+ related topics. This is something they did this June in celebration of Pride Month when they invited Dungca to lead “SPECTRUM Philippines’ SOGIE 101” session. There, she discussed the possible reasons for SOGIE-based discrimination in the Philippines, the plight commonly faced by members of the community, and how allies of the community can be better at showing their support.

“They’re small steps but it’s moving forward to the right direction,” Orial said. There are those who seem to think so as well. According to him, various organizations have been reaching out to Spectrum so they can improve their own policies in relation to the LGBTQIA+. Orial even said that some of these bodies represented their competitors in the call center industry.

“That’s why I’m optimistic,” Carl told me after I shared with him the effects of TIP’s efforts. “The times are changing because there are great benefits to being inclusive and people are starting to see it. It gives companies an edge and their competitors don’t want to get left behind.”

And with that said, he believes that it might only a matter of time before people no longer have to “leave a place just so they can be who they are.” Until then, however, there he was, shutting off his camera. He told me beforehand that he couldn’t stay long since he’ll have to wake up early the next day.

“I have to do work,” he said, “and be someone else.”

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