Cover Story – IGOR ŠURAN

Valentina Dolciotti, Milan, January 30, 2018

His elegance resemble the moves of a nineteenth century man, observing everything from below his thick dark eyebrows, and speaking like he is spelling each word with a British, or maybe American accent, albeit with that faraway Balkan aftertaste. It would be impossible to deny – Parks executive director Igor Šuran mesmerizing appearance. His Londoner gentlemanlike moves and care make him look like someone who just landed after a navigation error in the year 2018, but they do not conceal the wily look of a city sailor. When he starts talking I cannot but listen, spellbound as I am by his tales: “In truth, the coming out phrase, in Italy usually linked to the LGBT camp – and therefore to the revelation of the personal sexual orientation – has a much wider meaning; it describes an action – the act of coming out of the closet to announce the world all the things that, up until that moment, were kept hidden… Any secret that, once disclosed, leads to believe that we will be seen in a different way: disease, drug addiction, belief or, of course, sexual orientation. But in order to come out of the closet it is necessary to feel protected and the responsibility to create such security falls on those around us”.

Let us take a step back. Here I am in Milan, where the sun is shining and I know that I will have lunch with a man whose reputation is best described by the dreamy glances of those talking about him. By interviewing Igor, I discovered why. For me, it was the way to touch on closely – on paper – with a futuristic reality. The reality of Parks. 

Parks – Liberi e Uguali is a non-profit Association whose partners are employers only. Established eight years ago in April 2010 by Ivan Scalfarotto, it takes its name from Rosa Louise Parks, the American activist for the Movement of Civil Rights, who died in Detroit in October 2005. Rosa Parks became famous in 1955 when she refused to leave her seat to a white man on a public bus, giving momentum to the bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Parks was established by seven companies: Ikea, Citi, Johnson&Johnson, Gruppo Consoft, Linklaters, Tim, Lilly and its mission is to help enterprises who are partners, the business community and as a consequence the whole society, to create an inclusive working environment in respect of all diversities. However, the ruling focus of the Association is on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why is this?

“Definitely not because these issues are more important than others,” clarifies Igor, “though they are absolutely the most stigmatized among diversities that, for a long long time, were a non-issue and therefore so hard to handle in a working environment. Each business invests on their own talents, basing its future on the innovation stirred by talent, and each business knows that talents can come from unexpected places, through modes and features sometimes really unique. If a gay man or a lesbian woman do not feel free to reveal their own sexual orientation – which is part of life and it defines us! – in their working environment, every day, for 8-10 hours, we are stripping off of them their identity; and this duress will eventually repress their talent – a talent for which, lest we forget, the company hired them in the first place. Adding to this, they will not be able to realize their professional aspirations, one of the motifs informing their job. Once the right consensus in the company is established, the inclusion of LGBT people is an issue that needs to be faced because it will help release the hidden talent of many individuals. It will make them happy, but also the friends and relatives of homosexual colleagues will be happy. Colleagues, who are parents of gay and transgender boys and girls, will be able to talk about their sons and daughters without being ashamed or scared. The cascade effect will bring consequences that can only be positive for all”.

If you had to describe, in a tangible way, what Parks is about to a company that doesn’t know you, what would you say?

“I would say that Parks arranges formative courses for companies that are, first of all, actions of “customized” awareness for each business partner; workshop days (the ParksLab), conferences, involvement, projects, so varied and rich that it would be impossible to describe them all! To give you some examples, we have proposed to a number of lesbian women to introduce themselves as role models and to reveal their personal, professional and managerial history in front of a managers audience. We are currently arranging the annual contents planning for the LGBT diversity week commissioned to us by an important European bank; year after year, they started to collect the coming outs of some of their clerks to create videos to be aired inside the company’s walls; they then proceeded to welcome the Agedo Association, a group constituted of parents, relatives and friends of homo-, bi-, and transsexual men and women; and finally, they hosted Rainbow families. Who knows what we’ll be able to arrange for the next edition! These cases are wonderful and yet at the same time delicate, and they should frighten nobody. Parks explains to companies what needs to be done to become inclusive where there are no written rules. Year after year we help them monitoring their success with this and finally we help to make comparisons with their peers. For these three reasons, starting five years ago, we promoted the first Italian benchmark about the LGBT inclusion policies in a working environment and we called it Parks LGBT Diversity Index. This, actually, has become a tool to survey how things change.

Give me a positive piece of news: is there any increase in the score surveyed with the Index?

“Yes. We have seen a constant, yearly evolution for the companies filling out the questionnaire and we have an ever growing number of businesses that decide to join in the survey. The forthcoming edition will be the first after the Cirinnà Act implementation – an Act that, with all its flaws, undoubtedly marked an epoch-making step for this country. To avoid devoting too much space to what is by now, and luckily, mandatory we have chosen to press companies to be on the cutting edge. This is why, starting this year, we focused more on social parenthood, an issue the Act omitted to code. But since de facto children with two dads or two moms exist, we can not avoid to observe this reality and guarantee them rights equal to those of other children: their social parents exists and they have the right to be regarded as such, if not by the State, at least by their company!”.

And what about the transgender people?

The transgender minority needs tutelage. Let us remember that Italy, since 1982, has been one the three early countries worldwide to allow the reassignment of gender in the public register; since then not much has been done to go forward, and this up until the recent momentous ruling of various high courts. This is why we encourage enterprises (even when they do not have transgender colleagues in their ranks!) to establish the right guidelines in order to ease the transitions in the best possible manner – and therefore to be ready to face the cases when they present themselves, assisting their colleagues in the process.” Igor smiles, and then adds: “Wouldn’t that be absurd if, tomorrow morning, we should reject the best talent showing up in the company because it is a transgender person, and I, the company, have not a clue about how to include this person? For many people we live in a binary world, but a person’s identity isn’t always binary, especially for those who decide to bring forth a transition. Maybe they do not want to complete the transition, that is why it is so important to accept and respect their intimate and personal decision to stop right where they want to stop. Our obligation is to create the conditions for this to happen”.

Not everyone is an entrepreneur and not everyone works for a company. How big is the impact companies have on our life and the life of those who think they have nothing to share with them? 

“The companies have a huge influence on society. They have a voice. They have a visibility. As consumers, we listen to their proposals, we analyze the products and we shape our opinion in the knowledge that we are powerful shoppers. In that same way we could listen to the companies once they decide to face social issues as, in fact, many are already doing. If we trust their voice when it speaks of clothing items and what we eat, why should we not listen when they are talking of socially “divisive” issues? We know that stereotype making a direct – yet artificial – connection between homosexuality and creativity. And because in Italy we have many fashion enterprises, this leads to think that these working environments are mainly populated with homosexuals.  Look out! They are there, but not because they deal with fashion, but because there in certain fields of the industry we accept people to express themselves. So in these areas, the LGBT population has simply acquired more visibility. The prestige that portrays a company and the ability to express itself also carry a deep responsibility. When a major business decides to go public with themes such as best practices and inclusive policies aimed at minorities not yet adequately acknowledged, we are suddenly in front of giants facing giant issues”.

Give me an example.

Let’s take TIM (50.000 employees in Italy). A few years back, well before the Cirinnà Act, this company decided to grant a two weeks paid leave for a civil wedding in Germany between an Italian woman working for the company and her companion. This decision “made history” and moved the balance – because if this was the right choice for TIM, a company popping up in our everyday life, how could that not be good for the rest of society? Companies can help people to think about issues when the inputs from the legislator are not-so-clear. It is then that the social mindset will shift, and not only if confronted with LGBT, but on all kind of issues. A company interjecting is leaving a mark, and it becomes a role model: if it didn’t, they’d miss the great opportunity to make good for our society and itself”.

Sometimes companies say that doing what is good is not their primary goal.

“Companies have been there forever – each aggregation of people where you find work and production is a company; they are built to create value. It would be easy to prefer ethics to benefit, and pretend what is right from them, because these are times we can not avoid to respect people’s dignity. Therefore companies have to be inclusive…but this isn’t always the case. If we finally succeed in explaining to these huge structures and faceless entities that by starting from an ethical point of view they can also create value – a multifaceted value, not a one dimensional definition of it and that can be about finance, reputation, managing, economical – then I wonder, how can an executive or an entrepreneur not accept it? How could they persevere in their reluctance to start adopting inclusive policies? Even if this person is against civil progress (such as the respect due to LGBT people), that same person holds the manager or entrepreneur role and though he or she has understood how to increase the value created by the enterprise, he or she is avoiding to do it”.

But we do not come from the same “level” of sensibility and culture…

“You are right. In fact, in the beginning, no one gets singled out if there is a reluctance to change. But what if after an endless series of examples, opportunities, (even personal) stories, and the effort to establish empathy, offering analogies (because everyone, at least once in our life, has felt not included), you are still resisting…”. Igor leaves the sentence hanging in the air, and smiles.

I often gets the answer that sexual orientation isn’t a company concern, which is a private thing.

“One of the very first questions we initially ask a company during our Parks formative contributions is: we are the heterosexual ones and we never discuss our sexual orientation, so why should our homosexual colleagues feel the need to do it? This would be a legitimate question if based on the right premises: but it isn’t, since the heterosexual is relentlessly communicating his sexual orientation and gender identity, and without even realizing it: quoting children, wife, primary school, visiting relatives, and telling the world something that, for them, is simply a fact…This person is only telling about his heterosexuality”.

In that case, is it possible that, in the company, they are mistaking sexual orientation with sexual activity?

“Exactly. No one – nor the heterosexuals and neither the homosexuals – needs to make their own sexual activity explicit. Sexual orientation is something else and it spills over common aspects for everyone: the choice of sharing one’s life with someone else, planning the future, the will to give protection and the need to get it, and certainly even the emotional and physical attraction…This irrepressible desire is so human, and it makes us all equal. Currently, 90% of the people is heterosexual and therefore they are the majority which, consequently, means that we are living inside an hetero codified culture. The (numerical) majority becomes culturally dominant and, alas, it is in no way held accountable to follow or to know the rules of the minority culture. 

Just like between masculine and feminine!, I utter.

Yes, and even as we speak the general consensus is that when we talk about gender, we are referring to women: no! We are talking about men, women, and the relationship between them. The Italian society never really ruled homosexuality as illegal, but on the other hand it never really promoted or supported it. It is our task – mine, yours, the Associations and the Organizations working to promote the basic values of a civil country – to legitimize what in this country’s history, for too long, has been made invisible and underground.

Dear Igor, as an Italian citizen every time I hear the phrase “in this country’s history…” I feel like someone has just shot me in the legs.

Italy is a country I know. I have lived here thirty years now and to make an example, even if I have understood that the “punchlines” and the jokes are a part of the popular culture, I would like to state that each joke – as inoffensive it may sound from the mouth of those who uttered it – once it gets to the ears of those who receive, it can turn into a lethal weapon. Everyone has experienced this. By now we should know that the odds our words can actually wound are high. More often than not these jokes only reveal stereotypes and prejudices, and they do not help inclusion.

It is such a shame interrupting Igor’s speech flow. I can’t refrain from thinking that he took shelter in the renowned lines of a poetess I boundlessly love: “And if the pains of life shall not even nearly suffice – we will kill ourselves with words,” wrote Wisława Szymborska. As usual, this to me it sounds like an absolutely brilliant line.

Igor’s voice takes me back. “Though homosexual people suffer the hard luck of having to hide, their single luck is that they can actually do it. Transgender people do not have this chance, because when their transition becomes visible, their physical features change and they can not conceal it anymore. In a non-inclusive world, this is the great gap between homosexuality and transgender and for some the stigma won’t offer a way out. Now that we have the epoch-making Cirinnà Act (maybe a defective Act, yes, but there is no such thing as a perfect Act), for us at Parks it is of the essence to help even the enterprises that found themselves in the place where they must oblige to new requirements, having no cultural or organizing background whatsoever to do so. The companies that are partners of Parks, represent today the cutting edge both in their market field and in their approach to inclusion.

For some people, I can see how hard it is to make a stand for something not directly representing them in the first place. I grew up joining rallies and sit-ins that were deeply touching me, even when I wasn’t involved. I can still march in favour of Ius Soli, though I am no stranger; I can join the gay pride, though I am not homosexual. To demonstrate for what I believe in made me discover that, everything touches me as a person, really.

“You represent what I call “the allies”. The allies are people who do not wear the debated diversity features upon themselves, but who are strongly motivated to see that equity and inclusion are attained; they are the people who firmly believe the world can really be a better place for all. If an homosexual person fights for his rights people will say, “he is fighting for himself”; but if you fight for me, your voice will acquire an extraordinary power and the world will listen. We at Parks are always saying “be an ally” because today it is about LGBT, but tomorrow it might be about you: if you stay silent today, tomorrow no one might raise a voice for you”.