Oscar Wilde in his favourite coat. Black and white portrait. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

+ Oscar Wilde was convicted to two years of hard labour in 1895 for “gross indecency” under a law that remains in force today in former British colonies.

“If we can reach a stage where each man or woman is respected for the job they do, and is doing his or her best because the atmosphere is right, then we are home.” Ove Arup

In the UK, the law that made a criminal of the war hero Alan Turing and put Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol has long since been repealed. Homosexuality however, still remains illegal in 70 countries, and a significant number of those are former British colonies.

When Britain exported its justice to lands ‘on which the sun never sets’, it included Section 377 of the Penal Code. In countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh that law remains a stain on the statute book, threatening members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community with two years’ imprisonment. 

In socially conservative Singapore, however, the LGB community is finding its voice. Although homosexuality remains illegal, 21,000 people attended the Pink Dot LGBT Festival 2013, the largest civil society gathering the city-state has ever seen. In the same month, colleagues in Arup, with the backing of the firm’s local and international leadership, established the country’s first engineering industry LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) diversity network.

The group is modelled on Connect Out, the first Arup LGBT Diversity Network launched in London in 2010. Like its sister groups now established in Australia and the USA, the Singaporean network will be open to employees of other professional services regardless of their sexual orientation.

Its members should take heart from the cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead. According to Mead, we should never doubt the ability of a small group of committed people to change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has.

In Britain, but for the commitment of a small group of pioneers in the 60s and 70s, my generation would not enjoy the legal equality we have in the workplace today. But how different it was for them. At Connect Out’s inaugural lecture last year, Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP and President of the Royal Academy of Engineers, spoke movingly about the working environment he encountered on starting his career.

Lord Browne, known then simply as John Browne, transformed BP from a two-pipeline company into the third largest company in the world. He did business with Russian oligarchs, negotiated with Putin and Qaddafi, and took over global giants like Amoco and Arco. Yet, despite his tremendous achievements, throughout his career John was “terrified” by the prospect of his sexuality being discovered.  

Due to an atmosphere of homophobia, he chose to hide his sexuality for many years  – a decision that left him deeply unhappy. No doubt, a number of my LGB colleagues will empathise with John’s position, including those forced to conceal their orientation for fear of imprisonment.

People are sceptical of the power multinational corporations exert over governments and society. In many cases, rightly so. But, through globalisation, companies have the ability to export not only goods and services but human rights. Whilst my LGB colleagues in Singapore are celebrated by the firm for the diversity they represent in the workplace, the moment they step out of the office door they face being pilloried by society.

The challenge is how companies can best support progressive voices in countries like Singapore that are bravely speaking out with the simple message that all people should be treated equally, regardless of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.

In the words of Alan Turing, “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done”.