Switzerland is gradually becoming more tolerant of gays. But many homosexuals say they're still reluctant to come out at work, where clear cases of discrimination continue to occur.
GENEVA -- Arriving at the office Monday morning and inventing a romantic weekend with a lover of the opposite sex, eluding questions about one's personal life, pretending to laugh at jokes about "homos' and even putting up with remarks by a colleague who takes it upon himself to warn each new female employee that there's a lesbian working for the company. For many homosexuals, work is the last place they'd want to come out.
Gays often describe it as a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Switzerland has laws in place to protect homosexuals from workplace discrimination. And there are more and more professional organizations in place to support openly gay employees, including Pride UBS to Pink Cop, Medigay and Pink Rail. "Coming out is a protection," says Alexander Curchod, a lawyer and co-author of a book on gay rights in Switzerland.
But what works in theory doesn't necessarily pan out in practice. Indeed, there are many examples of discrimination against sexual minorities, from the gay lawyer who was denied partnership, to the homosexual salesman whose contract was not renewed. "In many places, as long as you remain discreet, it will be fine. For me, things became tricky when I first spoke out publicly in favor of domestic partnerships," says Barbara Lenthemann, the new secretary of Switzerland's Pink Cross.
Alicia, a transgendered person, experienced discrimination of a different kind. After sex-reassignment surgery she was demoted to a less paid and less interesting position. "I now have a significantly smaller budget and I no longer handle important matters," says Alicia. "Within 24 hours, I went from being someone who was listened to, to battling for people to say hello to me."
Publicly, at least, many companies have signed Switzerland's Diversity Charter or include a non-discrimination principle in their by-laws. "According to the labor law, companies should take preventative measures in order to avoid harm to employees. But a lot of employers, especially small companies, don't know about it," says Michel Rossinelli, the Charter's author.
Still, some work environments are naturally accepting when it comes to open homosexuality. Mathieu, who works in the world of luxury goods and cosmetics, has no problem at all sharing his sexual preferences. "It's so common, so obvious, that coming out is no a big deal." And Nathalie, an employee in a big Swiss company, says she benefited from paternity leave after her girlfriend gave birth to their child.
"There are areas where homosexuality is perceived as an added value, for example in fashion or in fields requiring a lot of flexibility and therefore no children," says Dominique Rachex. "In that case, we can come out much more easily than someone who works for a smaller company."
What about the army? Colonel Beat Steinmann, head of the Queer Officers Association, says the military remains a very macho environment. "Certain people have trouble imagining a homosexual in a combat tank," he says. Steinmann admits that it's difficult for officers to come out, since their careers depend greatly on their commanding officers.
"That said, the high command signed a statement on diversity in 2008, which makes the Swiss army a leader in that matter," he says.
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