United in diversity: Trade unions and civil society stand up for LGBTI+ rights

published 28 June 2024 updated 3 July 2024

In a world where the rights of LGBTI+ individuals are increasingly under threat, trade unions and civil society activists are joining forces to take a stand.

In the spirit of solidarity, “An injury to one is an injury to all!” echoed throughout the high-level webinar titled ‘Forward despite the backlash: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex people (LGBTI) rights and the freedom of association,’ convened by the Council of Global Unions LGBTI+ Coordinating Committee on June 26th, during Pride Month.

Trade unions: Defenders of equality

International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) General Secretary, Sue Longley, welcomed participants with a powerful message: “As trade unions, when we defend LGBTI+ rights, we address the cause of LGBTI+ workers and the LGBTI+ community at large.”

She reiterated that freedom of association, assembly and expression are at the core of LGBTI+ equality and form the fundamental pillars of trade union rights.

Longley warned against complacency, stressing that the current attacks on LGBTI+ rights could extend to other communities. “It would be naïve to believe that these attacks on rights will stop with the LGBTI+ community. It is our common agenda to defend these rights, and the freedom of association for all communities.”

UN expert highlights rising challenges

United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Graeme Reid, presented the alarming findings of his report, ‘Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in relation to the human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association’, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. His report paints a grim picture of the state of advocacy for LGBTI+ individuals in hostile environments across regions.

The ripple effect of restricted rights

This new report, he said, outlines that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other gender-diverse persons are less able to advocate for themselves in increasingly inhospitable environments around the world. He noted that within the same period of time when States have moved towards decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations, there has been a parallel backlash movement.

“The restriction of rights leads to a climate of fear and self-censorship. Policies and laws attacking LGBTI+ rights are cause for alarm, because, while they target specific communities, they represent more broadly attacks on human rights serving an authoritarian end,” he cautioned.

A call for inclusive societies

Responding to Reid’s findings, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, highlighted that an inclusive and peaceful society is at the foundation of every democracy, and freedom of association, expression and assembly are part and parcel of it.

For him, this report is timely, because of the global restriction on freedom of expression, and current pushbacks on rights in many regions. “Everyone has the right to association, including the right to join a trade union, to advocate for their well-being,” he reiterated.

Union representatives also shared their strategies for bolstering LGBTI+ rights and the freedom of association.

Building alliances against discrimination

A German affiliate of Education International, Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), underscored the importance of equal treatment and self-determination.

Janina Henkes, GEW’s Senior Policy Advisor for Women, Equality, and Gender, spoke of the necessity of forming alliances. “To advance LGBTI+ rights, GEW sees the absolute need to grow alliances and to show strength together," shared GEW Senior Policy Advisor for Women, Equality and Gender, she asserted.

Henkes also mentioned the challenges faced in Germany, where the rise of the extreme right has led to attempts to ban gender-inclusive language in education. GEW is actively countering these threats through public relations efforts, vigilant monitoring, and supporting teachers facing these challenges.

Civil society’s role in the struggle

Reflecting on similar actions by LGBTI+ community groups, Guillermo Ricalde from ILGA WORLD shed light on the strong refusal faced by unions and civil society organizations in some parts of the world when governments refuse to register them based on prejudices and stereotypes, driving them underground.