Come out of the closet, Qantas’ gay CEO Alan Joyce urges business leaders

People need to realise they know people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, Irishman tells Hong Kong conference held to break business sector’s silence on sexual diversity and weigh costs of discrimination

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 7:03pm

The world would be a more tolerant and inclusive place if, like him, LGBT business leaders were open about their sexual orientation, Alan Joyce, the chief executive officer of Qantas Airways, told a Hong Kong audience on Thursday.

Speaking at the Economist Group’s rolling, 24-hour global conference on inclusion for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, Joyce, who is gay, said: “It is very critical that we make sure people recognise that they know LGBT people.”

His call, though, comes amid an upsurge in homophobia in East Asia and with new data showing that many Asian executives still keep their heads in the sand when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Qantas CEO, who frequently speaks out about diversity in the workplace, said: “It has become more important for leaders who are LGBT to be open about their sexuality. I am passionate about it. There should be more people like Apple’s Tim Cook and Paul Zahra, the former CEO of Australia’s David Jones [store chain].”

As an Irishman, Joyce said he was pleased to see Ireland vote in support of same-sex marriage last year, an outcome he put down to growing awareness among the heterosexual majority that they knew people in their family, at work and among their circle of friends who were LGBT.

There should be more people like Apple’s Tim Cook
Alan Joyce

Called “Pride and Prejudice”, the Economist event began in Hong Kong on Thursday before moving on to London and, later, New York. Daniel Franklin, executive editor of The Economist, said the event was an attempt to “to break the business sector’s silence” on the issue and to look at the economic and human costs of discrimination.

There have been worrying developments in the region recently, from incendiary comments by Indonesian officials and religious leaders regarding homosexuality, Filipino boxer and politician Manny Pacquiao’s observation that those who have sex with people of their own gender were “worse than animals”, and China’s decision to ban portrayals of homosexual relationships on television. In Hong Kong, the Christian right is waging a long-term campaign to block government moves to criminalise discrimination against sexual minorities.

The Economist’s own research shows that in Asia, business leaders are less likely to be aware that there are members of the LGBT community working in their companies. According to a survey of 1,021 global executives, 62 per cent of North American respondents said they had colleagues in the LGBT community and fewer than 4 per cent said they did not know any LGBT people in their work and personal lives. By comparison, only 38.9 per cent of Asian respondents said they had LGBT colleagues, and more than 16 per cent said they didn’t know any LGBT people.

As Michael Tan, chancellor of the University of the Philippines Diliman, said, there have been LGBT communities in Asia “since time immemorial” and having more leaders out of the closet, and having the media portray contemporary LGBT narratives, would help normalise the community in the eyes of society.

The Hong Kong event featured speakers from across the world, including Nguyen Thanh Tu, acting director general of Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice, who drafted the country’s law that legalised same-sex marriage last year, as well as Joel Simkhai, founder and chief executive officer of gay dating app Grindr.

Simkhai noted that attitudes towards homosexuality were changing very fast in China. Just over a year ago, Grindr was banned there. Today, that ban has been lifted and Simkhai has just sold a majority stake in Grindr to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company, a Chinese company controlled by billionaire Zhou Yahui.