LGBT+Cover story

Interview with Fabrice Houdart

A cura di Valentina Dolciotti
01 Mar 2021

Bringing your knowledge, commitment and the path you have travelled to Italy is a great privilege and we hope to be able to help more people get to know you and your story.
But let’s start at the beginning …

When and where were you born? What type of family did you grow up in, what were your parents like, and what type of education did you receive?

First let me thank you for this tremendous honour of being featured in DiverCity. I always had a great connection to Italy and used to stop regularly in Rome at the Excelsior when I worked for the World Bank. I actually have great memories of the launch of the United Nations LGBTQ+ standards for corporations in Milan in October 2018, organized by Igor Suran of Parks – Liberi e Uguali and the Italian Global Compact Network (see speech here).
I was born in La Muette, in Paris in 1978, into a family of highly educated Catholics. Many of my ancestors were from the grande bourgeoisie, a merger of the wealthy French bourgeoisie with families of aristocratic lineage. Something Italians probably have, too. My ancestors are linked to many French brands and industrialists: Renault, Roger & Gallet, Perrier Jouet, Aucoc, Picard Duban, Caplain Saint André, etc… Although my parents were liberal compared to their own parents, they were very conservative compared to others. Homosexuality was definitely a taboo topic at home, apart from some offcolour jokes at family gatherings. I did not know anything about samesex attraction besides the fact that it was shameful and a weakness. Because I knew from an early age that I was attracted to men, I always felt a “Damocles sword” hanging over my head. I knew that someday I would have to leave the “bourgeois bubble” I lived in and it was a source of great and constant anxiety. I never felt prepared for it. I remember that every time the dinner table topic would move to girlfriends, romance or even my future family I would stand up abruptly, gather the plates and run to the kitchen to hide my embarrassment.
I believe that because I was born in extreme privilege, discrimination came as a surprise to me when I experienced it after I came out. It upset me, maybe more than others, perhaps because I never expected to be discriminated against.

What path did your studies follow?

In the same way that “traditional family” was the model around us, my family put a huge emphasis on study and work. In fact, my father thwarted my dreams of becoming a History professor or a journalist as he demanded I study science, like he and his father had. My paternal grandfather once told me, “there are two types of beings: engineers, who create things, and parasites”. The tone was set. I managed to negotiate to study Economics, instead. I went to a grande école, Dauphine University. I was rather terrible at Maths and I remember my first Microeconomics paper being circulated among the professors there as a source of amusement. I got 4 out of 20 I think. Still I persisted and managed to graduate in time, although all my summers were spent studying for the September exams (“le rattrapage”) every year.

What were your very first experiences of the world of work?

I moved to the US when I was 21 – to come out – and gained an MBA from American University. I had no selfconfidence and was rather terrified of being in a foreign environment. In fact until then, I had only left my parents’ home for an internship in Madrid at my father’s company. So I had difficulties finding a job. In addition, my visa situation was precarious and the 2001 terrorist attack had just shaken the US. I think I felt very unauthentic in interviews because I was so busy hiding who I was. Like every French gay boy at the time, I wanted to work in the luxury industry, where I had done internships before. To come out, I had to leave my family, my community and my country behind. But perhaps more importantly, I had to build a new persona from scratch. Nothing about me was real or truthful until I came out.
Eventually, after 6 months, I managed to get a small consultancy job at the World Bank in Washington. At first I was doing rather administrative tasks but I started consulting on the Democratic Republic of Congo just after the civil war. Soon I was travelling frequently to Kinshasa and Lumumbashi to support the World Bank reengagement and became indispensable to that team. Eventually that turned into my career for 14 years. I was rather successful, strangely enough, so I guess I had the last laugh when it comes to Economics ☺ What is interesting is that I left the conservative patriarchal environment I was raised in to join a conservative patriarchal organisation, the World Bank.

How did your commitment to LGBT+ rights begin?

I started being involved in 2010 as President of the World Bank employee resource group GLOBE. The organisation focused on changing benefits and culture.
On May 30, 2012, I was invited to be a speaker at the OECD in Paris for a colloquium titled “The cost of homophobia” organised by Joel Bedos of IDAHOBIT, after I had published a short blog post on this topic. I took a few days off from the Bank and flew there and attended the meeting. I don’t remember much about it besides the fact that there was really nothing to present. The conclusion of the event is that we knew literally nothing about the community development issues, had no resources, and development practitioners did not care.
To me that was the starting point for launching the topic in the bank. I encountered a lot of resistance. It was perceived as a frivolous topic, undermining the seriousness of the institution in 2012. It was a battle that would end my career there, which I did not understand at the time. My friend Rev. Ogle best articulated this reality in retrospect on this: “Houdart’s story with the Bank is a common story. How can a person with integrity and a belief in the good of an institution advocate for change for marginalised people and not get eaten up or sidelined in the process?"
When I started working on these issues in 2011, I never imagined this agenda would take such a central place in my life. I learnt a lot, met incredible people, achieved most of my objectives and I was on the right side of history. I think I made the bank realise that the LGBTI community worldwide experiences development in reverse gear and that it deserves its fair share of development resources. Today they have an entire unit, led by Clifton Cortez, working on these issues.

Your work as President of GLOBE took you to Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. What can you share with us of some of your experiences there? Are there any moments from that time that you’ve carried with you, that were particularly meaningful to you?

I covered all these regions as Senior Country Officer for the World Bank. I think I was a rather mediocre economist, unfortunately, but it allowed me to see the world. In each of these places I would try and meet with the LGBTQ+ civil society organisations. And what I saw is that LGBTQ+ people live in every part of the world. And unfortunately what struck me in Tashkent, Kinshasa or Sousse is that all LGBTQ+ people dream of doing is leaving these rather hostile environments. Because we are living in such a connected world, they know through TV shows or connections that they are entitled to a life of dignity and opportunity and that the only thing that stands between them and that life is a plane ticket. And that creates tensions as many countries are claping down on immigration. We cannot continue to live in a world where the lives of LGBTQ+ people are so different from one place to another. It means we need to accelerate the pace of social change. Our fight is far from over. In a connected world the gap between the most and least tolerant places is truly unsustainable and a source of inmense suffering.

Could you please explain how homophobia and transphobia, in addition to being ethically unacceptable and criminal offences (though not everywhere in the world, unfortunately) also come at an enormous cost to the planet?

I had the privilege of hiring Professor Lee Badgett at the World Bank to carry out the first study of the cost of homophobia. To me this remains one of the achievements I am the proudest of. I developed a proposal for the Nordic Trust Fund for Human Rights for $250K to explore the interconnection between sexual orientation and gender identity and the Bank’s work in 2012, first covering India and Nepal, which I had just visited. The approval process was very difficult and it had to go through the steering committee of the Trust Fund. The committee members argued that it was too much money for such a small group of beneficiaries (!) and that it risked opening a Pandora’s box. Still. we obtained the grant in 2012, and, because we could not find anybody to task manage the grant, I became the task manager.
The grant implementation was anything but easy. The Nepal Country Director at the time withdrew almost immediately, arguing it did not fit the country strategy. The Indian government initially refused for us to carry out activities on the ground. The lead economist on South Asia, a Berkeley educated white guy, argued that income differences between LGBTQ+ people and their heterosexual/cisgender peers was explained by the “overrepresentation of gay people in the entertainment industry”. That grant would end up being a blessing and lead to transformative steps forward for the cause. We launched the study in 2014 and it showed the huge economic impact of discrimination on LGBTQ+ people in India. To this day this piece of research remains regularly quoted globally.

When and how did your experience with the United Nations begin?

In February 2016, I left the World Bank and moved to New York City from Washington to join another patriarchal conservative institution, the United Nations Human Rights Office. Charles Radcliffe, for whom I always had great admiration, who was then leading LGBTQ+ issues for the UN, brought me in from the World Bank.
When I joined in 2016, Obama was in the White House, Hillary Clinton in the State department, Samantha Power was Ambassador to the UN, Bank Kimoon was the Secretary General and Zeid Raad Al Hussein was High Commissioner. After years of avoidance, the UN was a rather supportive environment on LGBTQ+ issues.
I joined the Free & Equal campaign but I also led, among other projects, an initiative engaging the private sector on LGBTI issues, the UN Standards for Global LGBTQ+ Equality.

Tell us about the project to establish the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business, the largest LGBTI corporate social responsibility initiative ever undertaken.

At the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, there was a session on the role of the private sector in fostering greater inclusion for LGBTI people, coorganised with corporate leaders on LGBTI issues, such as Microsoft and Accenture, which was attended by my boss at the time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The session noted that many companies remained unaware that LGBTI issues are a human rights issue. The meeting highlighted that the private sector has a limited understanding of this issue and often sees it as pertaining to the worlds of “corporate culture”, “tradition” or “private life”, rather than human rights. During the meeting, the High Commissioner pointed out that achieving further progress – especially in countries where neither the government nor public opinion is receptive to calls
for change – is going to take a collective effort from all parts of society and broader coalitions including the private sector. “If we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people, businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, but they must also become active agents of change,” is what he said.
In addition, the meeting concluded that for the many companies globally that had not yet started their journey towards respecting the human rights of LGBTI people, it remained unclear what aligning one’s policies and practices with human rights standards encompassed.
So I, together with the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and corporate and civil society partners, developed Global Guidance Principles on Business and Human Rights on LGBTQ+ issues. The standards follow in the footsteps of other global United Nations campaigns against racism, human trafficking or violence against women, which also sought to popularise a human rights message to a private sector audience. The Standards of Conduct reflect already existing international human rights norms, derived from the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (1948) as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011). I was put in charge of these efforts and ensured that experiences and ideas from all corners of the world were considered in crafting the standards. This included a series of regionwide consultative meetings with business and civil society representatives in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Throughout 2016, I met various stakeholders and continued with virtual consultations. Finally, in 2017 the standards were launched and received incredible support from the private sector. I think today it has more than 500 signatories globally.

What is Out Leadership? What are its objectives? How does it work?

Out Leadership is the oldest coalition of companies working towards global LGBTQ+ equality. As I worked on the standards I started to realise that international institutions or governments will not be the ones driving the 50 years’ worth of momentum for human rights we have known since Stonewall. When I left the UN, I wrote “We should never forget that we are merely guests of straight people in international organisations”. Today we are still not represented among decisionmakers: the UN has hundreds of assistant secretaries but none of them is truly openly gay. We need new allies, and for me the private sector can play a key role. That is why I joined Out Leadership. I am their Managing Director of Global Equality Initiatives and focus on leveraging their power for social change. I also lead Quorum, an initiative which is very much on trend now, to increase LGBTQ+ representation on corporate boards. Out of 5670 seats on Fortune 500 companies, only 25 are occupied by openly LGBTQ+ people today. Less than 0.2% in 2021 ! it is just unacceptable.
We must avoid complacency. When you look at racism in the US, it took the form of slavery, then Jim Crow and now mass incarceration and police violence. Similarly, the #MeToo movement shows that gender equality is far from being achieved. More than 70 years into the journey, women are still disrespected in the workplace.
Covid19, the current economic crisis and the attack on democracy just make a difficult situation on human rights harder and so we need new strategies to tackle the constant discrimination we face globally.

Could you tell us about your family? What kind of future do you want for your children and for all children today?

I have two wonderful sevenyearold boys, Eitan and Maxime. They are very mischievous and good friends to each other. Since the pandemic started, we have spent much more time together and we are very close. Having children was truly unthinkable when I came out. I had them through surrogacy, too, which remains highly illegal in France. They are an unexpected blessing in my life. This year it has been twenty years since I came out and yet at times I still feel worthless and inferior in many ways. Because this is what society told me consistently about who I am when I was growing up. But these boys make me proud. Most of my Instagram account is pictures of them running around. If I can be a good father to them, if I can provide for them, if I can interrupt my work to play with them, then I must be somewhat worthy. Society is strange and gives you recognition for odd things like marriage or being a parent. So strangely enough it has been a sour-ce of connection and maybe even reconciliation with the world outside of LGBTQ+ circles.
When I think that everywhere on this planet there are hundreds of millions of kids that go to bed having lied to their parents, teacher or priest about something essential about them – maybe they even pray at night like I did, to wake up without that samesex attraction or nonconforming gender identity – it breaks my heart. Forcing children to struggle alone with their identity is a horrendous form of violence. I won’t stop fighting until the world extends to LGBTQ+ children the embrace and support they all deserve. Until we tell them you are ok, you matter and your love is beautiful and worthy.
To me this is not only about my work only. When I think of the way Larry Kramer or Representative John Lewis – two heroes of mine – impacted their time, I feel inspired to try and have an impact on my community. Besides my job at Out Leadership, I am on the boards of eight non-profit organisations, including Outright Action International, Housing Works, Witness to Mass Incarceration and the International Day Against Homophobia, because today the world finds itself at a crossroads once again and I believe we must be the change we want to see.

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