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„Being different isn’t always easy, being different can be tough” are the words of SAP’s co-CEO Jim Snabe in SAP’s contribution to the It Gets Better anti-bullying campaign. SAP employees were galvanized to make this film after the son of Pati and Steve Fehr (Steve is an SAP employee) committed suicide after years of being bullied for being gay. If you don’t know SAP’s It Gets Better film I recommend that you should watch it because the movie speaks for itself much better than I could do.

On Tuesday SAP hosted the 'It Gets Better' Public Event in Walldorf (the premiere was on June 7 in Palo Alto) and discussed the situation of LGBT youths and how it could be improved. The event was really exceptional because people told their stories:

  • Steve Fehr told that sad story of his son Jeffrey that brought tears to our eyes.
  • A teacher told us that in his school there is no open gay pupil – they all hide and try to survive the situation they are living in.
  • A mother of a gay man explained that society tries its best to ignore that fact: neighbors only ask about his straight siblings but not about him, as if he stopped existing.

I think it is necessary that these and other stories are being told and hope that SAP will put the video of the event online. 

In this blog I will share the most important things I learned as part of the audience. I’m glad I could interview Miguel Castro from HomoSAPiens, the LGBT Employee Network @ SAP and Joachim Schulte, who was invited as representative of  SchLAu organization that offers education at schools about the situation of young gays and lesbians. And last but not least I want to share you my own story and thoughts about why diversity matters.

The Situation of young German Gays in the Past

I agree completely with Jim Snabe: Being different can be tough. Instead of appreciating each others’ uniqueness as source for new ideas, inspiration and experience, people deviating from the norm are discriminated against. Sometimes it suffices being good at maths, bad at sports or loving the members of the same *** to be discriminated against. And since everything of this applied to me, I decided that I needed help and I joined a gay youth group. For most young gays in these groups this was very important for their personal growth because it was the first time they met other gay people in their situation and learned that they are not alone. This gives hope and strength and helps to find one’s own place in life. This is important because there are no “role models” for young gays and lesbians until now.

Soon I began to take up greater responsibility in the group and helped to coordinate important initiatives. We organized Safer *** education because schools did a lousy job teaching how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). I could write a lot about how school education failed but I want to mention only one aspect: most teachers thought of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people as a strange and exotic milieu and couldn’t imagine their own children as well their pupils could be gay. As a consequence some of my straight fellow pupils didn’t care about STDs because they considered is as problem of some high risk groups – and this could lead to devastating results. Moreover we tried to help some young gays who had been thrown out of their homes by their parents. But the most important aspect of that self-help group was that gay teenagers could meet peers and talk about their problems, sorrows, plans and dreams. Some of the young men found new friends in the groups after they lost most of their old friends during their coming out process. Some of them even found partners and sometimes a life partner. Some young gays told me that without a self-help group they would have committed suicide.

The struggle to improve the situation of young gays and lesbians was a powerful experience and so I’m not surprised that many people who did social work in their youth later became top performers in business. We had to take up responsibility, organize projects and of course manage a budget.

The overall situation for gays and lesbians has improved a lot within the last 20 years in Germany but I learned that this is not true for young gays and lesbians. This is exactly what I heard when talking with friends who grew up mostly at small town but studies say that this is a general problem.

‘It Gets Better’ Public Event in Walldorf

So I was glad that SAP organized the 'It Gets Better' Public Event in Walldorf and a panel discussion with experts. For me the biggest surprise was the stunning speech of Luisa Delgado, a member of the SAP Executive Board in charge of global Human Resources. She came straight to the point and discussed bullying. She closed with the very important message: "It is my commitment as your board member in charge of HR at SAP that being different means being more".

I was most impressed by Steve Fehr who told the sad story about his son Jeff and how he had been bullied since 4th grade - and it got worse in high school, until later 24/7 cyberbullying came on top. He emphasized the value of crisis intervention for LGBT youth and explained the he shared the story of his son to prevent that another family is going through the pain agony like his family did. I think some people shed tears when hearing his words when he gave advice to parents with children in the same situation everyone could feel his pain because he wasn’t able to save the life of his son.

It is painful to say, but from my own experience sometimes it is not possible to help a bullied gay teenager especially if a depression occurs: this is a serious disease and can have devastating results for any struggling teen.

These and other introductory talks offered plenty things to discuss. In fact the panel discussion really went into depth. The participants discussed the situation of young gays and lesbians, the experience of their parents, coming out at school, the business value of diversity especially for a company like SAP, bullying and corporate fairness-policies, the situation in less tolerant countries like India and much more. The event was highly attended and many people from the audience asked questions.

I’m glad that I could interview Joachim Schulte, who was invited by SAP and took part at the panel discussion. As a school teacher he knows the situation of LGBTI people very well. He is also recipient of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany because of his continuing engagement for LGBTI people in Germany.

Interview with Joachim Schulte – Teacher and Pioneer

Can you tell us about the situation of young lesbians and gays in Germany?

The situation is contradictory. On the one hand there has never been such visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender and intersexual people (LGBT) before, especially in TV-shows. On the other hand there is no visibility of LGBT people for people at school and their social environment.

School is perceived as involuntary community. The school class is an unsecure environment that can’t be relied on. As gay man, lesbian or transgendered it is necessary to get support from the social environment. Especially for young people in educational organizations this is tremendously important. Without this kind of support learning will fail and this has serious consequences for future professional life.

Of course this is no LGBT-specific issue but it affects LGBTI people particulary. During the phase of Coming-Out, when someone gets aware of the own sexual and gender identity, which is experienced as “being different than the others” the vulnerability of the personality is very high.

Statistics show that the suicide rate among young homosexual people is 4-7 times higher compared to their heterosexual peers.

Moreover LGBTI often people at school feel not being accepted by their peers and only in few cases get the necessary attention by their teachers. This is linked to the fact that the state of knowledge about LGBT people in very low, if you think of the legal situation for example. Often teachers don’t reject derogative comments and sometimes even support them (60% of all cases).

„Schwul“ (gay) und „Schwuchtel“ (******) are swearwords not only addressing LGBTI but everything considered as „bad“ or “not good”. Do you really want to be something considered as “bad”?

So school is no place where young LGBTI people can develop well. Moreover for LGBTI school is place where they can live in dignity and respect, which is a requirement for everyone of us.

Your are one of speakers of SchLAu – what is this organization doing?

SchLAu ties up to this situation: young LGBTI people having nearly the age of the pupils visit school and inform about the situation of LGBTI people, explain words and tell from their own live and in general about their own Coming-Out. And pupils can put questions. The most important message is that everyone is experiencing a process finding one’s own sexual and gender identity – LGBT people do the same but in most cases only more consciously.

What do you think of the „It’s getting better Campaign“ of SAP?

This campaign is awesome. It’s so terrible that young people died because that they didn’t experience the matter of course being accepted and have been excluded and bullied.

I hope that this campaign is sustainable and I propose that SAP should consider to offer a prize every second year for the best school class/learning group which carried out an action for acceptance of LGBTI people in their class, their school or in their social environment. This prize should have a good price money and should be communicated effectively.

How can the situation of young gays and lesbians be improved?

I have many suggestions: The situation of LGBTI people should be part of curricula – perhaps as cross cutting concern. School communities (teachers and pupils) should reject derogative comments against LGBTI people. We need a cultural change and embrace the difference and uniqueness of every pupil. And, last but not least, pupils should learn about the situation of LGBT people at school.

Interview with Miguel Castro from the LGBT Employer Network at SAP

After interviewing Joachim Schulte I wanted to know about SAP’s activities in the area of LGBTI issues and had an interview with Miguel Castro from SAP who was one of the organizers of the event.

What is SAP doing with regards to Diversity?

More than 60,000 employees from 129 nationalities contribute to the success of SAP, turning the company into a global player. Only in SAP’s Headquarters in Walldorf 89 nationalities are represented. SAP believes that diversity is a source of innovative strength and allows a company to better meet and understand the needs of its customers. We are proud of the unique contribution each individual makes at SAP and recognize that our diverse human capital is the essence of our success.

In SAP, we embed diversity into key HR and People processes: Hiring, Talent, Leadership & Performance/Reward, investing in broad diversity education for managers to ensure they apply diversity in their decision-making and performance review activities. The objective is to effectively align diversity programs and practices to support business needs.

Besides, we provide people and budget to support our Global Diversity Program in cooperation with the different Employee Network Groups, like Business Women Network, Cultures@SAP and the LGBT Employee Network, HomoSAPiens.

Why is involvement in LGBT topics important for SAP?

Diversity is actively promoted by SAP. It's not just about equal rights for women, but about the participation of people of different age groups, sexual orientation and gender identity, with disabilities and different backgrounds such as nationality and heritage. SAP supports the concept of mixed teams to integrate the best of „all worlds“.

What are the activities of the LGBT network HomoSAPiens at SAP?

HomoSAPiens@SAP helps increase the understanding of work and life issues, supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) colleagues to be more open about who they are. It shows how awareness of LGBT issues contribute to SAP's success. The network celebrated the 10th anniversary in 2011, during the Global Diversity Week. The activities that HomoSAPiens organizes or is involved in can go from the regular “Rainbow lunches” where members of the network meet for lunch in the canteen of their location to external participation in events like the MILK Congress and Messe in Munich and Berlin, or being a member of the “Bündnis gegen Homophobie”, also in Berlin, having hosted one of their regular meetings. The main external contributions of HomoSAPiens since 2007 are the regular presence with a stand at “Grillfest am anderen Ufer” (BBQ by the River) in support of PLUS Mannheim and joining the CSD (Gay Pride Parade) in Mannheim and in Frankfurt.

In July 2007, HomoSAPiens@SAP collaborated with other SAP divisions to publish the Gender Transition Guidelines. These guidelines ensure an accepting and supportive environment at the workplace, while giving the needed support to managers and employees also affected by this issue.

For these type of activities the SAP Works Council awarded the network SAP with the Employee of the Year Award for Social Engagement in December 2007. The following year, Germany’s professional association for gay managers, the Völklinger Kreis (VK), awarded the Max Spohr Prize 2008 to SAP. VK selected SAP for the accolade due to its excellent implementation of diversity values in the company’s management concept, noting that SAP actively supports diversity among its employees, particularly with regards to sexual orientation and identity.

Cooperation with LGBT employee networks in other companies is also very important to HomoSAPiens, being an active member in PrOut@Work.

One of the greatest achievements of HomoSAPiens is the It Gets Better: SAP Employees film that was released in June 7 as the result of an amazing cooperation of SAP employees all over the world to help save young lives among of teenagers in the LGBT community.

My personal Summary

The 'It Gets Better' Public Event in Walldorf was a confrontation with my own history. It is sad to hear that things are not as good as they should be. When I look back into time I learned that I was quite naïve:

  • I thought in the late 80’s and early 90’s that discrimination against young gays was a special situation but I was wrong: even today in Germany “gay” is a swearword used by small children (sometimes even by children in the Kindergarten) who don’t even know its meaning.
  • My second mistake was the belief that the internet could help young lesbians and gays. Of course it is now easier to meet peers in online communities but it didn’t change the situation significantly. Of course the internet can spread information and help people to find peers but can’t end discrimination. The It Gets Better project is a good example of the positive things the Internet can offer, and we can and need to do much more with technology to combat cyberbullying.

In my opinion the main reason young LGBTI people are being bullied at school is that we still are not able to teach children our core values namely that having a different color, religion, nationality or sexuality should never be a reason for exclusion. Moreover children should learn that empathy is a necessary precondition for any social group to flourish – otherwise there will be the danger that conflicts, which will occur sooner or later, will cause serious damage. What do you think – can we teach skills like empathy at school?

The discussion at Walldorf was meaningful: I think SAP has a deep commitment in corporate values. Luisa Delgado is an outstanding person who really impressed the audience with her global perspective, empathy and intellectual brilliance.

At the Walldorf event many people from outside SAP were in the audience. I talked with many of them and want to share their feedback. Everyone was impressed by the SAP’s work, the “It’s getting better movie” and in general SAP’s commitment to diversity: “SAP is an awesome company”.

Some of them consider emphasis on LGBT topics as litmus test for support of diversity – and SAP passed this test superbly. And this is my belief, too: As global company people SAP must understand the needs of customers, partners and their own employees in many countries and therefore emphasis of empathy and diversity is necessary if SAP wants to be successful as global company in the future.

If an enterprise can’t understand the situation of their own employees, how can it understand the needs of target groups in other nations, perhaps with different cultural and educational background? Even if we restrict our point of view from a globalized economy to a single country there are many differences between large and small enterprise and not every solution is useful for everyone.

I hope, as SAP Mentor, I can help SAP to broaden the horizon as well as to learn from SAP and its commitment to corporate values.