International corporate support for LGBT* rights in Lithuania and Poland – a fallacy?

It has long been the case that international corporates have acted as sponsors for LGBT* events in capital cities throughout the world. From New York City’s annual Pride event to Berlin’s St. Christopher Street Day festivals, corporates play a huge role in providing funding streams, quality programming and networking opportunities for the LGBT* community and allies. What most forget however, is that prior to sponsorship deals being advanced, corporates partnered with LGBT* events and NGO’s so as to demonstrate their outward and public commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion. They appreciate that an outward showing of pride shows to all that the company appreciates collective strengths and provides an open work environment free from narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Sadly, in Lithuania and Poland not even such public announcements of partnership are provided by international corporates, indicating a deeply worrying undercurrent of non-tolerance toward the LGBT* community in both countries.

Rightly or wrongly, and as stated by the Human Rights Campaign (Corporate Sponsorship Opportunities – Human Rights Campaign, 2014), corporates sponsor LGBT* events as they understand the importance of diversity and fairness as “practical matters” which are “simply good for business.” Whether it is to attract a talented, diverse workforce, expand consumer awareness and appeal for its brands, strength business partnerships or to build-up the surrounding communities, providing sponsorship to LGBT* events and causes can prove incredibly beneficial for both parties. As mentioned above, however, this pledge of financial sponsorship is not to be confused with the concept of partnership. A corporate partnership does not hold a financial caveat, it simply stands as an outright declaration of solidarity. As such it acts principally as a statement in support LGBT* rights. In both Lithuania and Poland such corporate partnerships have not come about as easily as one would hope, with most corporates simply declining any invitation. This is particularly egregious in light of the fact that many have LGBT* focused campaigns and sponsorship allowances in other parts of the world.

Two years ago, Baltic Pride 2013 took place in Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius. Almost 1000 people participated, but no financial contribution was provided by any private company. One might rightly ask as to what went wrong, why in a world where the private sector seems more and more willing to take the side of the LGBT* movement, no company supported one of the most important events in the struggle for LGBT* rights in Lithuania. LGL sent more than 100 letters to different companies, both in Lithuania and abroad, explaining the importance of the Baltic Pride for the advancement of human rights in the country and asking for support in the realization of the event. LGL publication Changing Faces, which described the struggles and the successes of the first Pride March held in Vilnius in 2010, was attached to the letter.  McDonalds, IKEA, Ryanair, Google were just a few of the companies the request for support was sent to. Only ten replies were received, and none of them offered a contribution or partnership offer. The only exception was a discount granted by JCDecaux for the billboard campaign that preceded the celebration of the Pride event.

Organisers of this year’s Equality Parade in Warsaw, Poland have been faced by similar issues. Having turned to a number of international corporates including Absolut Vodka, Accenture Ltd., American Express, Apple, Coca Cola, Deloitte, eBay, Google, IKEA, Starbucks and Unilever for partnership, not financial sponsorship, all but four companies replied, all of which in the negative. The Social Responsibility Manager for Tesco, for instance, replied detailing that they do “not get involved in the[se] sort[s] of actions as they are not in line with their strategy for the upcoming years.” This being so even though Tesco not only significantly supported London Gay Pride last year but also acted as the titular sponsor of the Family Area, a city festival accompany World Pride in London 2012. The shortest reply received came from Magdalena Skibka, a Consultant at Linkleaders, which is responsible for the PR of the brand Xerox in Poland, “thank you for taking interest in our brand, but for now we have to pass on the partnership offer.”

The corporate sphere has long acted as a formidable force for societal change. The account of outright declarations of negativity toward partnership/sponsorship detailed above indicates a deeply worrying undercurrent of non-tolerance toward the LGBT* community itself. Negative responses from international corporates towards a public decree of support toward the LGBT* community in Lithuania and Poland is incredibly difficult to understand when considered alongside the LGBT* focus they hold in other countries. One has to wonder the true reason behind a corporates wish to not be associated with supporting LGBT* rights in countries with high levels of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Is it a complete inversion of the current scenario in Western countries were the support of anti-gay ideals by corporates is hugely damaging and will likely result in loss of profit, loss of clients, and a damaged public image. Be that the case, corporates should instead see themselves at the forefront of change and act morally in support of their LGBT* employees, clients, and consumers.