India’s first LGBT Chamber of Commerce: Lessons for the global economic ecosystem

A participant walks under a rainbow flag during a gay pride parade promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, in Chandigarh, India March 18, 2018. (REUTERS/Ajay Verma)

On May 23, leaders in New Delhi launched the first LGBT Chamber of Commerce—just days after the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia and less than a year after the Supreme Court of India decriminalized same-sex relationships. The first LGBT Chamber in South Asia, only the second in all of Asia, was created by a newly formed organization, RWS – India’s Diverse Chamber. Since decriminalization, and years after the Supreme Court upheld the protections of transgender and third-gender people, civil society and the private sector have increasingly addressed LGBT issues, making this an ideal time for an LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

With its launch in India, this is now the fifteenth chamber to join a network of LGBT Chambers of Commerce around the world. Started by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) in the United States, the NGLCC Global Network is comprised of autonomous partners throughout the Western Hemisphere, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. Each chamber comes together to collaborate, share best practices, and advocate policies—all with the underlying mission to promote LGBT economic empowerment.

Aside from this being a momentous achievement, the launch of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce in India illuminates at least five patterns in relation to the social and economic ecosystem for LGBT people everywhere:

1. “LGBT people are a Western-led imposition” is a fallacy. Often touted by opponents, this is the narrative that non-normative expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity are antithetical to cultures in the Global South or Asia. In India, there are numerous expressions of people and religious icons with same-sex loving and/or third-gender characteristics, dating back centuries. It was not until British colonialization and its enforced legal framework that criminalized same-sex acts (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code), resulting in the formal exclusion of LGBT people. In response, advocacy to support their human rights and full inclusion has been around for decades. The LGBT Chamber of Commerce is a natural extension of this advocacy and can particularly galvanize support of the private sector, which otherwise was dissuaded from engaging LGBT people due to the fallacy of the “Western-led imposition.” This launch helps to reinforce a more accurate understanding that LGBT people are everywhere and are becoming a stronger part of their economies, as well as cultures.

2. Not charity, but mutually beneficial partnerships. Corporations are increasingly expected to be involved in the social context, including on LGBT issues, in the countries in which they operate. Perhaps the most recognized entry point is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In India, corporations have a CSR mandate to spend 2 percent of their profits for charity, which already includes examples of some corporations engaging LGBT organizations on questions of social reform and human rights. However, CSR around the world is mostly viewed as a one-way philanthropic strategy with no sustainable growth plan and tends to rely on the normative assumption that this engagement is charity, with no clear business benefit for the corporation.

In many countries, the CSR approach is being supplanted by entry points that bring mutual benefit to the corporation and LGBT people, often by bringing them into business operations and providing consistent budgets and goals. Two entry points have emerged under this paradigm: diversity & inclusion (D&I) in the workplace, and supplier diversity. Regarding the former, D&I is the internal policy that people of different demographic backgrounds will be hired (diversity) and that the internal culture and policies will work to incorporate them on equal footing (inclusion). With a robust D&I strategy, a corporation will work to create better policies to hire talented LGBT staff, will ensure non-discrimination in the workplace, and ensure that benefits are equally accessible. This often brings clear positive impacts on bottom-line profits, boosts in labor productivity, and more loyal and talented staff.

Supplier diversity directly impacts the economic growth of LGBT businesses and other minority business suppliers by procuring contract opportunities with them throughout the supply chain. From a corporate standpoint, when supplier diversity becomes a goal, companies see clear profits and other positive impacts to its operations.

In India, a country with well over one billion people, a strong gross domestic product (GDP), and numerous national and multinational corporations, there is tremendous space to strengthen the LGBT economic ecosystem. As this work increases, these entry points and relationships will show advocates everywhere how to structure their own engagement with the private sector in ways that are mutually beneficial and sustainable.

3. Celebrate and promote contributions, while also addressing the challenges. The World Bank is beginning to show the micro-level link between homophobia/transphobia and socioeconomic status, thus highlighting the poverty component to these issues. On a macro level, when this exclusion is aggregated and the losses are estimated, the impact on a country’s GDP is significant—in India, as much as $31 billion USD is lost in one year alone. This research has allowed advocates a new pathway to advance change (perpendicular to the traditional pathway of human rights), through economic development.

Equally, the flipside is true. When LGBT people are empowered to contribute to their economies and allowed to benefit from economic gains and redistributions, societies see stronger economies as well as gains in non-monetary measurements of growth (i.e. human development). But to get to this point of inclusion will require more than flipping a switch. It will need a broader pathway and programs that acknowledge the dual sides of the LGBT experience—their challenges as well as contributions and resilience. Throughout the NGLCC Global Network, the chamber of commerce model exists along this delicate balance and does so by working to empower the business owner—i.e. the demographic who is often left out of traditional advocacy yet who tends to be the driver of economic growth.

4. The economic realm does not exist in a vacuum. Policy work is needed to promote rights and a more inclusive system. The economic ecosystem needs to be expanded so that it works for all and “leaves no one behind.” By prioritizing rights and inclusion in this ecosystem, this will offer holistic and sustainable economies, which then promotes peaceful societies. Policies are thus needed to incentivize and require all firms and institutions to promote rights as well as inclusion.

One example which strives to achieve this mandate are the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In this, corporations are required to meet certain standards to harmonize the coexistence of business operations and human rights, often by examining implementation at the country level. In India, a National Action Plan called a “Zero Draft” was introduced to realize corporate human rights commitments while doing business, and is a compilation of all major legal mandates, including human rights implications. To improve the corporate bottom line in a way that works for all, it is significant to balance the compliance-incentive approach. Although these standards set a compliance pathway for corporates, they fail to showcase the incentives from an inclusive value chain and D&I standpoint—leaving space for advocates to leverage the inclusion of LGBT issues throughout the country.

Globally, advocates can learn from this emerging ecosystem in India and work to structure more inclusive ones elsewhere. A confluence of policy makers, regulators, corporations, civil society, multilateral development banks (particularly the International Finance Corporation), and others can work together, insofar as it is driven by the clear mandate to promote rights and inclusive growth through a compliance-incentive policy approach.

5. Transgender leadership is strong. Finally, the global community should not overlook the resilience and leadership of transgender people. In India, the Supreme Court first acknowledged the inherent rights of transgender and third-gender people years before it decriminalized same-sex acts. From this, some states created “transgender welfare boards,” questions around gender identity were added to diagnostics and even the census, and transgender-led civil society had more space to thrive. All of this had positive social and economic benefits for society at large, as well as more spaces for transgender people to lead within the overall LGBT social movement, which can set a strong example for LGBT movements everywhere.

The launch of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce in India provides tremendous space to craft an economic ecosystem that works for all and illuminates global patterns that can better promote LGBT economic empowerment everywhere.

Phil Crehan is the director of the global division of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and Aarthy Madanagopal is a fellow in the global division of the NGLCC. Follow Crehan on Twitter @PhilofDelphi.