The old adage goes that moving house, getting married (and subsequently divorced) are the three most stressful things in life. Expats live the first on a frequent basis and quite often the third more often than the norm. When it comes to LGBTQ expats there is an added level of stress with their sexual orientation often being the subject for discussion (and sadly examination) prior to and on arrival in their new destination. While western societies have come on leaps and bounds in the last 30 years not every country in the world is as accepting of foreign nationals (or indeed nationals) who do not conform to the so-called “accepted norms”. Global Mobility professionals have a duty of care to support LGBTQ expats and ensure they are prepared for the country they are being sent to.

LGBTQ expats still face no-go areas

According to data from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 80 countries have laws that restrict the freedom of LGBTQ people. That means that in over 40% of countries worldwide, LGBTQ expats risk discrimination, prejudice, condemnation, and violence.  

There are many countries where the law may not be directly discriminatory, but nor is there anything in place to restrict bigotry in society or to protect LGBTQ expats or indeed locals.

The challenge facing employers, and Global Mobility professionals, is that the sexuality of employees is not something that they are officially aware of.  In fact, most countries prevent the keeping of sexuality data in employee records. 

This means that the burden of deciding whether to accept an assignment from an LGBTQ perspective largely falls on the assignees themselves. 

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Key questions to ask before accepting an international assignment

LGBTQ expats considering an international assignment must consider these seven questions:

  1. How will the law treat me?
  2. Will my partner be treated fairly?
  3. Will my parental rights be respected?
  4. How will my colleagues react?
  5. Which are the best countries?
  6. Which are the worst countries?
  7. Is my company obliged to offer additional support to LBGTQ expats?

 How does the law treat LBGTQ expats?

The starting point is to understand the legal status of LBGTQ issues in the destination country, and any other countries you will need to visit as part of the proposed role. The map published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association is a good place to start.  It is essential to be aware of how the law will treat you if you are outed. 

For single people, it may seem an easier decision. However, research from the BBC shows that hiding your sexuality at work is damaging to your mental health and productivity. 

Taking the decision to be celibate is not an easy one for most people, and it is not one that straight people are forced to make for professional reasons. 

Worrying about the possibility of being outed adds to pressure, and it’s not just the outing that’s dangerous: sometimes the threat of being outed can be used to influence decision-making or commercial processes.

In many cases, you need to acquire very specific knowledge.  Did you know that in Russia, for example, participating in an LGBTQ rights demonstration is legal?  However, if anyone under 18 hears or sees the rally you can be arrested and imprisoned for subverting a minor? 

The law states that it is illegal to promote “non-traditional or non-standard lifestyles” to children, and this law is interpreted very broadly.

Will my partner be treated fairly?

Legal same-sex marriage is still not common.  This poses an additional set of difficulties. 

A spouse visa, for example, is only available on production of a recognized marriage certificate.  If a country does not recognize same-sex marriage, it will not recognize your marriage certificate. 

Your partner may not be able to get a long-term residency permit or work in your host country.  LGBTQ expats may need to choose between your career and your partner – a position that no one wants to be in.

Societal attitudes may also have a significant impact.  Many countries still struggle with negative and stereotypical perceptions of LGBTQ relationships.  Accompanying partners may find themselves socially isolated or rejected.  This can lead to resentment, frustration, and mental health issues.

Will my parental rights be respected?

This is another area where it is important to understand both the legal perspective and the societal attitude.

From a legal perspective the questions are fundamental: 

  • Does the law recognize you as a parent?
  • Can your partner travel with your child alone?

If you get these questions wrong, not only do you risk imprisonment, but your child might be given up for adoption.

However, the societal questions are more challenging.  You will need to know how common it is for children to have same sex or trans parents and whether schools are prepared. 

Will your child face bullying or unwanted intimate questioning?  Will your child be excluded from birthday parties or play dates?  LGBTQ expats with children may be prepared to fight social prejudice on their own behalf but must consider the social and mental development of their child as well.

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How will my colleagues react?

Your company may have a great policy on diversity and inclusion, and you may even have all kinds of diversity networks in your larger offices.  But what about the smaller office you are considering moving to? 

Attitudes to LGBTQ issues and LGBTQ expats in large cities may be much more liberal than in smaller, more provincial ones. 

If you have decided to avoid discussions about sexuality, what would happen if someone found out? 

Tolerance is a cultural value and is expressed culturally.  Something may be tolerated but remain taboo in public.  In some countries, same sex partnerships are technically illegal but operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in practice.  Obviously, this is not a satisfactory state of affairs and no one should have to hide their true self, but exercising discretion can help you to avoid unwanted grief.

Which countries are the best for LGBTQ expats?

Asia is a region that is associated with tradition and rejection of non-conformist behaviors.  However, according to Move Hub, Thailand is one of the most liberal countries when it comes to LGBTQ couples. 

Same sex marriage is not yet legal, but both legal and social forces are not merely tolerated but openly welcoming to all orientations. 

In Europe, Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage in 1989 and has led the way in normalising LGBTQ relationships in law and in public.  

Germany and Berlin, in particular, comes a close second.  Berlin’s gay scene dates back to the 1920s and it is a city that is known for its welcoming attitude to people of all sexual orientations.

South America is more complicated.  Brazil has traditionally been seen as a refuge for LGBTQ activity.  However, it is also a huge country with a dominant Roman Catholic influence that is ultra conservative. 

Throughout the continent, attitudes vary depending on the individuals concerned.  Chile has legalized same-sex unions, and this may yet impact the rest of the region.

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Which are the worst countries for LGBTQ expats?

Whether you are a local or an expat there are several countries in the world, where LGBTQ activity is not only illegal but carries the death penalty. 

Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Sudan are among the toughest anti-LGBTQ countries in the world – although sentences are much tougher for homosexual activity than they are for lesbian activity. 

West and East Africa, the former Soviet Republics and China may not be openly anti-LBGTQ, but the laws do not offer any protection, LGBTQ relationships are not recognized, and there may be significant social rejection, including violent reactions.

Is my company obliged to offer additional support?

The legal situation still depends on where you are moving from, but the ethical, moral and duty of care argument applies to most organizations. 

There is a lot of progress to be made in terms of policies and organizational behaviour, however most companies will offer plenty of support to LBGTQ employees considering a move. 

Obviously, the first step is to make sure that stakeholders are aware.  This can be more complicated than you would think, as companies are rightly nervous of discriminatory actions.  But if you want them to treat you fairly you need to be open with your Talent and Global Mobility colleagues.

Applying for a job in Saudi Arabia and expecting the company to smooth the way for your partner to live openly with you is an unrealistic expectation.  Similarly, waiting until the immigration papers come through to announce that you are gay or lesbian, or that your passport gender and biological gender do not agree is going to cause problems. 

Your organization cannot discriminate against you when considering who to send on the assignment, nor can they make your decision for you.  However, you can ask them for flexibility in the policy, such as asking for additional trips home instead of your partner living with you. 

They should also make you aware of the real conditions in the host country and give you all the information that you need to make an informed decision.

Attitudes to sexual orientation – a changing picture

21st-century attitudes towards LBGTQ rights are more tolerant and in most places, sexual orientation discussions are not about shame, shock, and condemnation.  Unfortunately, as with all societal changes, the pace of change varies across the globe.  When you are considering or are offered an international assignment it is advisable to be transparent, curious and finally aware.