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Greenwashing, rainbow-washing or just existing? LGBTQ+ in the oil and gas industry

We live in complex times (haven't we always, I hear you argue...). The IPCC has reminded us again in their most recent report that we have a "small window" of opportunity to secure a liveable long term future on our planet. All the while, keen to make sure they take destruction and chaos in their own hand, Russia's war doesn't appear to have an end in sight, and continues on its desperate path, sowing nothing but death and misery on both sides, and polarising the rest of the world. Although it isn't quite misery for all, as this unsettled situation and worries on energy security have sent oil prices up, albeit temporarily, enabling oil and gas companies to generate record profits, and refocus their priorities while rolling back their decarbonisation agendas, causing uproar in the most environmentally conscious and concerned part of the public. Also rolling back, and for many of us adding to this picture of doom, is progress on LGBTQ+ rights, acceptance and support, from oppressive regimes enforcing death penalty for LGBTQ+ people, to increasing hate crimes closer to home, a government stalling on banning conversion therapy, and organisations happy to show their support to the community for good marketing, but taking a step back when it becomes a little more complicated or involved (on a slightly more positive note, it feels like the community is beginning to "reclaim the rainbow"...).

That's a lot to be concerned about, and you might understandably feel a little tense thinking about it all. So take a moment and a deep breath...

But what if your own circumstances, personal and professional situations intersect in a way which bring all these together in your daily life? In my research, I look at how people working in the oil and gas industry feel and act in relation to climate change, which does, for some, involve an element of moral conflict and ongoing dissonance between their own beliefs, the industry's actions, and the public opinion. In the past couple of weeks, another dimension has come to the fore. A few days ago, the UK LGBT awards took place, which set out to "unite with anyone who helps stand up for our community, particularly in times when we need it the most". The event brought together personalities from the world of media, entertainment and business. The latter, as for many other similar events, provides sponsorship to the event, helping to fund it to get, in return, corporations' names associated with and appearing through the event. In itself, the association of large corporations with social causes can be problematic, when values and actions of these organisations clash in one way or another with those of the people core to the event or cause they support. On this occasion, the sponsorship of the LGBT awards by oil and gas giants bp and Shell was called into question because of their role in the ongoing production of fossil fuels, their impact on climate, and the lack of more radical action taken in support of the energy transition. It led to a number of high profile nominees and attendees pulling out of the event, unable to reconcile their involvement in the LGBT Awards and personal concern related to climate change with the prospect of being associated with these two oil and gas companies. In turn, this led to bp and Shell being dropped as sponsors by the event organisers, to avoid jeopardising the staging of the event.

My ambition through this article isn't to condemn or critique either part of this argument. Indeed, my research is underpinned by a great concern about the climate crisis and climate justice, coupled with an acknowledgement that these industries seen as contributing to the issue are constituted by individuals who will have their own beliefs, stories and circumstances, to be considered independently from their employers. With bp and Shell alone employing tens of thousands of people in the UK, it is fair to expect that within this workforce, the LGBTQ+ community amounts to non-negligible numbers (which doesn't mean of course that it wouldn't be worthy of attention if it was only a handful of people). Indeed, the sponsorships and partnerships with LGBTQ+ charities and initiatives are very often led and initiated by these organisations' LGBTQ+ community and internal resource groups, sometimes as a result of internal campaigning and negotiating; that said, this doesn't make them immune to overzealous marketing executives keen not to miss an opportunity to amplify these good deeds, with varying degrees of respectful sensitivity.

With aspirations for a more inclusive, fair and just future for people and the world, it isn't surprising that LGBTQ+ activists may feel strongly about the need for urgent climate action, and for the right actors to take appropriate responsibility. This intersection also materialises through activist groups bringing LGBTQ+ voices into the fight for action on climate. Through my research and discussions, I find that a number of oil and gas employees express sympathy towards activists' fight for radical change, and indeed that most share a clear concern over the future of the environment, taking individual actions in their private lives. Many might see this as hypocritical, which some employees might agree with, and find ways to manage this dissonance, knowing that very often they joined the industry simply through opportunities presenting themselves, and a desire and need to make a living and go where the work and career prospects were.

The point and intention of people pulling out of the LGBT awards over sponsorship from oil giants is to take a stand and send a strong message. It takes courage, and brings visibility to calls for urgent action, progress that is seen to be too slow, and accountability for past actions and behaviours. Such need for action and support resonates with the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights, which show not only lack of progress, but serious risks of rolling back. This in turn requires for the community to stand united. Having read through the statements issued by some of the people pulling out of the LGBT awards, I felt somewhat disturbed that, amongst the strong messages on accountability for climate action, I could see no acknowledgement for the industry's LGBTQ+ community, recognising their efforts, perhaps event their challenging position, or just seeing them as fellow humans supporting a fight for justice and acceptance, all the while being embroiled in another one. This brings a concern of the community hurting itself, a, perhaps unintended, divisive act.

So , how can anyone square that circle? How can we recognise this intersectionality of identities, clash of causes, while remaining inclusive and supportive? To start with, I think that recognising this conflict for people within this industry - or others in similar positions. Beyond that, could it be a time to reconsider corporations' involvement in social activism? Yes, corporations have got the money to help initiatives and charities live on. Could this support be expressed in a more subtle and genuine way, focusing on its purpose, and separating it from marketing activities, and visible brand presence in any activist space - doing good for the sake of doing good? London Pride march is coming up in the next few days, which will see large numbers of corporations marching in support of the LGBTQ+ community, indeed led by their very own LGBTQ+ communities. While it is a good way to show that, behind these corporate names, and what sentiment they might inspire, there are people like all of us who join this fight for rights and acceptance. At the same time, one can't help but wonder how fair it is that it portrays their belonging to a particular corporation as such a major part of their identity.

Perhaps a move towards focusing on meaningful and engaged allyship and support - leveraging commercial relationships to make a stand with countries oppressing the LGBTQ+ community comes to mind - could be a way forward to give space for all to join our cause and make a difference, while acknowledging that it forms part of a wider movement of securing a fair, safe and sustainable world for all. And just let these impactful actions do the talking.

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