Over the past five years, a growing number of companies around the world have positioned themselves as champions for the rights of LGBTI people.

In North Carolina in 2017, a coalition of companies took a stance against House Bill 2 (HB2), a law that prevents transgender people from using bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify. Procter & Gamble launched a visible advertising campaign in India which challenged prejudice against transgender parents. And in Singapore, after foreign companies were banned from sponsoring an annual LGBT event called Pink Dots, a record number of local firms came forward to do so instead.

Many companies have found that actively tackling discrimination in the markets in which they operate brings economic benefits, helping to attract talent and build loyalty with customers, investors and the public. But beyond improving their bottom line, they often genuinely wish to "do the right thing", by contributing to one of the key human rights struggles of our time. These companies find that their voices are gaining clout, and have the influence to bring about positive change in laws and attitudes.

The United Nations Human Rights Office’s Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business is an unprecedented initiative launched in September 2017. It offers companies practical guidance on how to fulfil responsibilities outlined in the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It has received the support of more than 140 of the planet’s largest companies, representing nine million employees around the world.

In discussions held globally, companies shared five specific difficulties in trying to define constructive approaches in the public sphere:

1. Most companies have internal decision-making issues, as the human rights of LGBTI people often fall under several divisions which are not necessarily coordinated, such as human resources, legal, corporate social responsibility, and public relations.

2. Secondly, many expressed a desire to shift from a "reactive approach", in which they are called by their customers or the public to respond to a crisis such as a wave of mass arrests, abhorrent legislation or hate speech, to a systemic and proactive approach.

3. The fragmentation of LGBTI civil society in many countries makes it hard for companies to identify the right interlocutors and engage in effective consultations before acting. The companies' efforts often carry risk, as they could be ignoring entire segments of the community or angering rival organizations.

4. Business leaders and activists often speak different languages and have difficulties in aligning their respective expectations of a mutually beneficial partnership.

5. Companies point out the lack of mechanisms for collective action, such as signing an amicus brief or carrying out "quiet diplomacy".

LGBTI activists also shared their own concerns about firms "acting in the public sphere". First, companies might be tempted to reap the benefits of appearing pro-LGBTI in more tolerant markets - where there are true dividends in being perceived as "progressive" - at very little cost, while taking little concrete action in other jurisdictions.

Secondly, activists expressed concerns with companies behaving in a responsible manner on LGBTI issues, but not on other affairs which could affect their bottom line, such as the environment, labour, taxation or other human rights matters. This is a risk often described as "pink washing".

These obstacles to effective engagement by the private sector call for non-profit global organizations to take a leading role in identifying the right internal focal points in these companies. They can play the role of the intermediate, identifying concrete opportunities for action in consultation with civil society, and speaking for coalitions of companies whenever necessary. These clearing houses would need to be perceived as legitimate by activists and businesses, speak both languages fluently, have the capacity to drive strategic partnership but also be willing to monitor and measure companies’ engagement.

This is a time of great flux. Some important gains have been made in many countries in the West, in Latin America and parts of Asia. These need to be consolidated and extended to the most marginalized segments of LGBTI communities. In other parts of the world, we have seen a serious repression of LGBTI rights. Deeper stigmatization and discrimination have become all too frequent in many countries in Africa and the Middle East. Now more than ever, we need the private sector’s help. We should invest in the necessary infrastructure to support it.