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Human Resources

When coming out in the workplace is a political act

Published 29 June 2021 in Human Resources • 6 min read

‘Neutrality is an invalid concept’ says lesbian activist as she explains why it is important to reveal our true identities at work. 

At the crossroads of misogyny and homophobia, lesbians face particular challenges and are often rendered invisible, says Evgenia Giakoumopoulou. 

One of the first LBGTQ+ people to come out at her high school, she engaged with social justice issues early on, and remains a strong advocate for equal rights both in and out of the workplace. Still, Giakoumopoulou says, did not fully embrace the lesbian spotlight right away. 

“In the absence of role models or visible lesbians in the career I was pursuing – or in any sector for that matter – I assumed that I needed to                conform to certain expectations in order to succeed. This was especially true regarding my gender expression, but also my attitude as if I needed to compensate for the fact that I was out by adopting some kind of irreproachability. After some time, I realized that being myself would not hold me back, but quite the contrary,” said Giakoumopoulou.  

The human rights and lesbian feminist activist is now adamant about claiming her identity as a strength: “Neutrality is an invalid concept. What is considered the neutral standpoint is that of a white, cisgender and straight male. Anyone who does not fit that exact standard is allegedly biased and barred from claiming impartiality in some respect. Concealing my identity for the sake of neutrality is not an option.”  

In her current role, she is Head of Operations of the Council of Europe’s external office in Montenegro. Headquartered in Strasbourg, France, the Council of Europe is an inter-governmental organization with 47 Member States (including all 27 EU countries, and several countries in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus), with a mandate focusing on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its most celebrated treaty is the European Convention on Human Rights, and its flagship – the European Court of Human Rights – has established that LGBTQ+ persons are fully protected, including against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  

But being out while working for a political organization is itself a statement, especially when in a number of European countries, LGBTQ+ identities are still heavily politicized. While staff are not politically elected, the expectation is that they will remain neutral, apolitical, and refrain from expressing political opinions or representing the interests of their home countries, says Giakoumopoulou.  

“When you don’t live within the heteronormative mold, you are de facto making a political statement because you’re defining yourself outside the norm,” explained Giakoumopoulou, adding that for many years, people working for political organizations were afraid to come out as it would break their perceived neutrality. “Being out and owning your identity is taking a stance whether you want to or not.” 

Giakoumopoulou is leading by example, something she says is vital to progressing human rights, combating hate and prejudice, and contributing to diverse and inclusive societies for the LGBTQ+ community.  

“Our mission in the field is to support the government in aligning with their obligations in terms of human rights, which includes protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people in their country,” she said. “We need to be consistent and walk the talk. We would be sending a very wrong message to our partners if we were discouraging our own people from being out.”  

The Council of Europe has decided to mainstream this open culture, offering both a public and private environment where it’s safe for people to be out, but also to speak up if there are concerns.  

“When I was offered the position in a field office, I asked them bluntly: ‘I’m out, will it be safe and not create a liability for the organization?’ It was important that there was space to have this discussion and know that they had my back. We evaluated possible risks for the organization, for me personally, as well as for the local community.” 

As a visible, vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, Giakoumopoulou rejects the notion that one’s sexual orientation is a private matter. She adds that it concerns every sphere of life, from one’s freedom and safety in the public space – be it walking the street or speaking at the Parliament, their rights as a couple or a family, but also their access to employment, health, housing, and more.                      

“It’s important that I don’t have to conceal and repress everything I do, even though this information could be weaponized,” she said. “Pride and other events I participated in, for example photo exhibitions with activists, are very public. Don’t feed the narrative that because you’re LGBTQ+ your private life needs to be kept away from your professional life.” 

As the Council of Europe aims to ensure that LGBTQ+ people are safe and can thrive in all its member states, the role of employers cannot be downplayed.  

“When there is a genuinely inclusive work culture, people can develop to their full potential. The idea of toning it down or being discreet is extremely detrimental to the mental health of LGBTQ+ people. It must be clear that there is no tolerance for disrespect or harassment or discrimination on any grounds – that leads to empowerment.” 

Based on her personal experience, Giakoumopoulou says organizations must empower civil society, as in many countries the space for LGBTQ+ activism is shrinking: “We see increasingly countries clamping down. NGOs and activists have less and less space to speak up and to mobilize. The hardest work is in changing perceptions, and to do this you must work hand in hand with civil society in the local communities.”  

Financial or material support is another area in which organizations can help, as few resources are available in certain areas. 

“At the end of the day, private companies that have money have leverage. They can negotiate, when investing in a given country, for more inclusive societies. They can negotiate that they won’t invest more unless LGBTQ+ people are protected in their communities and society. Whether it’s out in the open or in less formal ways, you can bring people together around the table to have those conversations.” 

By ensuring a sustainable commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, companies can empower the communities through capacity building, provision of material and tools, by securing partnerships that will last, and attracting more allies and sponsors. Essentially, creating a positive vortex.” 

While the Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization, it also has expectations for the behavior of the private sector and counts on businesses to respect fundamental freedoms and rights. They are not the signatories, the governments are, but they should enforce those rights nonetheless.  

“When there is a severe case of discrimination, the injured party cannot go to the Court of Human Rights against the company, but if the government fails to protect these individual rights then the party can attack the government for failing to protect them,” said Giakoumopoulou. “So in reality companies are expected to enforce those values and standards.” 

The interconnection of personal, professional and political lives is not easy to manage, but by unapologetically being her authentic self, Giakoumopoulou is part of a movement taking the cause of LGBTQ+ rights to new levels in Europe and beyond. Her work with the EurocentralAsian Lesbian* Community (EL*C), where she holds the position of Co-Secretary, is an example of this. This lesbian feminist and intersectional network assesses the needs of lesbians throughout Europe and Central Asia, especially in relation to their invisibility. Through knowledge sharing, it tackles a host of challenges including exposing misogyny and lesbophobia in the public representation of lesbians, and addressing the lack of policies that ensure the rights and the well-being of lesbians. 

Whether it’s simply coming out or taking a prominent place in the LGBTQ+ community, Giakoumopoulou insists that fortune favors the bold. 

“Coming out makes you bold in other respects; it makes you proactive. Being out puts you in charge of your identity and gives your control over the narrative – for yourself and for your community.” 

Authors

Evgenia Giakoumopoulou

Human rights advocate and lesbian feminist activist

Evgenia Giakoumopoulou is a human rights advocate and lesbian feminist activist. She is the Head of Operations of the Council of Europe’s Office in Montenegro, and Co-Secretary of the EurocentralAsian Lesbian* Community (EL*C). She works with international organizations and NGOs, including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity, anti-trafficking, migration and asylum, and torture prevention.

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