• 50 years after the Stonewall riots, the global LGBTQI community still faces huge challenges.
  • 5 leaders at Davos shared their advice for young people today on how to tackle the issues around being out and proud.

When Filipino model Geena Rocero came out as transgender, she knew she had to “go big or go home”. So she chose the biggest forum she could find to tell the world - a TED talk.

The Founder of GenderProud moved to San Francisco in 2001. But it took another 13 years and a battle with paranoia and eczema before she found the courage to live authentically as herself.

"I was living what we call ‘stealth’ - my model agent did not know I was transgender,” she told the young audience of the Davos 2020 Open Forum session, Free To Be.

“I knew I could pass as a cisgender woman, but it felt like I was limiting my life, as I couldn’t be myself and I was paranoid someone might take control of my narrative.”

Her 2014 TED talk, Why I must come out has had more than 3 million views: "It changed my life... As long as you’re living your most authentic self, you’re good."

But not everyone’s experiences of coming out are so bold - or so well received.

Today’s LGBTQI youth still face rejection and discrimination, resulting in high mental illness and suicide rates, even 50 years after the Stonewall riots in New York and the birth of the gay liberation movement.

In some countries, homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment - or even death.

Moving the needle

In current-day Kenya, it’s hard to find role models because homosexuality is still illegal, said Wanuri Kahiu, Filmmaker and founder of the AfroBubbleGum movement.

"You can get up to 14 years in prison for being homosexual, but in other parts of Africa, it can be a life sentence or even a death sentence.

“It’s very hard for any LGBTQ people in Kenya to find role models, mentors, people to look up to, so you find people who are dissidents, fighting on the outskirts."

Her film Rafiki tells a love story between two women and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, but it is banned in Kenya.

She said when the ban was lifted for just seven days, it inspired people to come out.

"We have to check our ideologies of who we're allowed to love, it moves the needle forward.

"Using art and books is a good way to have conversations about sexuality, because it’s not about you."

The pain and the joy

Ana Mari Cauce, the first lesbian, Latina and woman president of the University of Washington said: "There are some real difficulties that come with being LGBTI, including higher rates of suicide. But there’s an incredible amount of joy."

She described her experience coming out to her mother as "the most painful thing".

Her brother, a civil rights activist, had been murdered and when she told her mother about her sexuality, her reaction was: “Now both my children are dead.”

There were years when they barely spoke, but before her mother passed away, she came to love Cauce’s wife Susan: “My mum died in my arms and I knew she was proud of me and I hope she knows I was proud of her.

"Even with that difficult start with my mum, we were happier because we were being authentic.

"We know sexuality is fluid, love who you love and make sure there’s no deceit."

Born in Cuba, Cauce had to flee when she was just three years old, and came to the US as a refugee. Now 64, she said when she was growing up there were no role models.

"They didn’t become university presidents or prime ministers, or they weren’t open about it.

"At the University of Washington, we know that having a role model, that’s open, that’s representing and you can go and talk to them, makes a difference for all the other students there."

The personal is political

Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, was already a politician when he decided to tell his family he was gay.

He joked that if Brokeback Mountain had been released before he came out, it would have made the process easier: “I thought I would lose voters, but I was in love and wanted to tell my family. They said, ‘Finally you tell us’.”

His father had recently died and his mother found his news hard to accept at first, but “it ended well and she’s very happy now”.

Barack Obama once wrote to Bettel asking if he realised what an important step he had taken.

But he doesn’t see it that way: "I don’t live it for the others, I’m doing my job, I don’t want to be judged for my sexuality. I don’t hide it… I don’t want to be a role model, but being like I am, I can reassure people to be the way they are."

‘You’re enough’

Shamina Singh, President, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, said there's a war for talent, which is making companies more inclusive:

"Companies will be fighting for people like you to come and work for them. If you want the smartest, you will do what’s necessary to recruit them."

She’s always relied on the words her mentor gave her to see her through: "You are enough and you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be right now," she told the audience.

"Stonewall was a pivotal moment: I’m married now and that’s only because people 50 years ago said we’re not going to take it anymore."