While the month of June might be over, building a more LGBTQ-inclusive corporate and social environment shouldn’t be. Despite the rising acceptance of LGBTQ+ employees in the workforce, the numbers don’t lie: employees who identify as LGBTQ, especially transgender employees, face more inappropriate behavior, forced secrecy and discrimination than their peers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Viktor Banerdzhi, MGID’s Regional Head for South and Western Asia for the Account Management Unit, and discuss the changes in LGBTQ+ inclusion in Ukrainian society, his own coming-out experience and key factors that impact LGBTQ+ individuals at work and beyond.

Viktor is a Ukrainian of Indian origin who grew up in a blended family with parents belonging to both countries. He lived in India for 17 years and then moved to Ukraine after finishing school. Over the span of his career, Viktor has worked with many large companies, including Rentberry, Adorika, Trastra and MGID.

Social acceptance

Anna: In your opinion, how far have we come in LGBT acceptance in Ukrainian society? Have you seen any positive shifts in the last few years?

Viktor: I moved to Ukraine in 2013, before the Euromaidan revolution and changes in mindset. Back then, police raided gay clubs and target groups attacked out gays. Those risks kept mostly everyone in the closet, and only the bold ones were out and open about their identity.

Something that I had noticed in Ukraine then was the social acceptance of dressing in drag. Just recall the drag persona Verka Serduchka, comedy shows and other showbiz folks. Nobody paid attention to it: it was considered part of the comedy and not queer-related.

The first Pride parade in Kyiv occurred in 2003, and only one person participated in it. The second parade was held in 2015. Dozens of right radicals attacked gay Pride marchers, and police guards far outnumbered Pride participants. In 2021, there was a counter-demonstration rather than physical assaults.

So yes, a lot of change has occurred during the last decade. One of the best proofs is the petition calling for same-sex marriage that amassed tens of thousands of signatures overnight and has been sent to President Volodymyr Zelensky for consideration.

There are notable improvements, and younger generations, especially Gen Z, are more open-minded and accepting of LGBTQ+ members than their predecessors — although millennials are also highly inclusive.

Anna: Given your experience with different organizations and countries, what key factors can make communities more or less inclusive? Are there any red flags that can identify a person’s lack of acceptance?

Viktor: I believe any organization or society can be more culturally inclusive by uniting members under the same values, making those values known and agreed upon by the whole of the community and ultimately, welcoming diversity as one of its core values. It’s important to be able to raise the question of LGBTQ+ representation within different groups. At the same time, in an effort to achieve more diversity, organizations should not think of individuals as a sort of diversity measure and expect and push individuals to share their story. Instead, organizations should motivate employees to be open about their stories without any pressure to be a corporate spokesperson for whatever community they belong to.

The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude is a red flag in most cases. On the flip side, people consistently crossing your boundaries and asking too many personal questions is another red flag. It’s normal for people to mistakenly and unintentionally cross your boundaries. However, in toxic cultures, they usually don’t acknowledge or respect your boundaries and comfort. The perfect balance here is giving individuals the right to open and share any part of their life.

Being LGBTQ+ at work today

Anna: What are the biggest challenges that follow coming out as LGBTQ+ at work?

Viktor: The biggest problems are still a toxic workplace culture and microaggressions. These could come in the form of bitter words, insults, negative verbal and non-verbal communication, unintentional remarks or personal questions. Sometimes, it may not be open hostility but rather the feeling that you need to be guarded or hidden.

In my experience, people can negotiate with you differently after coming out, thinking you are too weak or not strong enough to bargain for more. Other problems might be being too interrogative, asking stereotypical and offensive questions such as “Who's the man in the relationship?” “Do you like pink?” or even looking for effeminate sides of your character to put you down.

Anna: How did your personal and work life change when you came out as LGBTQ+?

Viktor: At MGID, it didn’t change much, as most colleagues and friends knew, or at least had an idea, due to my vocal stance regarding feminism and LGBTQ+ minorities on social media. Changes were mostly seen within relationships between my family, as my relatives did not quite understand the need to be vocal about my identity.

I have been super blessed to have colleagues and a Head of Unit that is supportive and encouraging. Olha is super caring and friendly, and we can be candid about any LGBTQ+ issues.

Anna: What would you recommend to the ones that still fear coming out of the closet?

Viktor: My only motivation for giving this interview is to encourage more LGBTQ+ employees to own their authentic selves and share them with the world. If you can’t love yourself, how will you love anybody else? And that's the core value of any LGBTQ+ community.

I have had different experiences with corporate cultures, and finally, I have found a supportive team and environment. It can’t be a good professional experience if there are behaviors and incidents that chip away at your ability to be yourself.

You will find people who will accept and understand you, and I can assure you that such people will come across your path. I can tell you this from experience, as a person who has lived through it and wanted to find an inclusive workplace. No job is worth the pain of constantly hiding your real self. Hence, focus on talent, and the rest will fall in its place on its own!

Making workplaces truly inclusive

Anna: How can companies be true allies for the LGBTQ+ community given its diverse nature?

Viktor: First off, there still isn’t enough understanding of the diverse nature of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s treated as a homogenous group with policies that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, with no mention of gender identity whatsoever. There is no single solution for this problem other than to do away with harmful stereotypes and start treating LGBTQ+ as what it is — a rainbow of diverse individuals.

True inclusivity is about respect and empathy towards your fellow employees. It’s an ongoing process that can’t be marked as completed with the rainbow logo in June and a few terms added to leave policies.

It’s the process that occurs on both a personal and corporate level. Personally, you can advocate for change in small ways, for example, by volunteering for diversity initiatives and taking a public stand on social media. You can even start on an individual level by respecting your coworkers’ gender pronouns and using the names they’ve decided for themselves.

At the corporate level, there may be a need for protection benefits (such as support for gender-reaffirming treatments) and policies that punish employees who refuse to treat others with respect. Make it known that your workplace does not tolerate bigotry or disrespect.

Anna: How do personal and corporate inclusions affect each other?

Viktor: Corporate inclusion is meaningful in the way it can motivate personal allyship and prevent negative experiences or microaggressions toward LGBTQ+ employees. Nobody can entrust inclusion or enforce it on someone if their views are not in sync with the organization. In other cases, however, visual symbols of support for the cause or positive role models can inspire employees to have a more respectful and inclusive perception of the LGBTQ+ community.

Corporate policies are also set to correct the imbalance in opportunities available for different groups, remove barriers and build an equitable environment for everyone to grow professionally. A no-tolerance attitude towards discrimination can prevent discriminative behaviors at the personal level, protect minority groups and create a safe work culture.

In brief

Although we have progressed in social acceptance and inclusivity, the problem still exists in most organizations. Negative behavior and patterns still affect underrepresented groups and particularly LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace. Not only can this cause harm to these individuals, but it can also negatively impact their colleagues, companies and the teams’ collective capacity to innovate.

The modern world has taken important steps to protect LGBTQ+ employees at the corporate level and safeguard them against harassment and unfair treatment. However, that doesn’t solve the issues LGBTQ+ workers face on a day-to-day basis.

Making the workplace environment truly inclusive is not a one-time deal or a short session of virtue signaling for your employees and the world to see. Change happens one small step at a time: an ongoing process that involves real human beings.