Last night, I had the honour to be one of the speakers at the "European Equality Gala" organised by ILGA-Europe. It was truly inspiring to meet so many people who fight for equal rights and against discrimination. Commissioners Oettinger and Bienkowska also came to celebrate.
Moreover, it was a good opportunity to take stock of where we are and how far we have come. And indeed, we have come a long way on our journey to find unity in our diversity. Since its foundation, the European project has been about bringing people together and bringing barriers down. Not because we are all the same, but because we are all different, and that is something to cherish and celebrate. There are many reasons to be proud of what we have achieved.
I am proud to work for a Union which has made it illegal to fire someone or discriminate against them just for being gay, and which realises LGBTI rights are fundamental human rights. I am proud to see the EU flag and the rainbow flag flying next to each other, not only at Brussels Pride, but especially in member states where the political situation is more difficult. I am proud to live in a Union where 11 countries now have equal marriage. That is over 240 million people with the right to marry whoever they love. Acceptance is spreading to every level and every corner of the world. This year, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage after a court ruling. Also this year, Ireland joined Belgium, Luxembourg and Iceland as European countries that currently have or have had a gay leader. And Serbia will have one soon as well. Here in Europe, the fight for LGBTI rights is not just a fight by LGBTI people, but also out in the mainstream, supported by most Europeans.
However far we've come, I know there is still far to go. In Europe and across the world, people still face discrimination or danger. They are deprived of their dignity; they risk hostility, harassment, even hate crime, every day, just for being themselves. It's our duty to change this: all of us. Straight people and gay people; trans people and cis people. Governments and lawmakers need to ensure rights and recognition, and provide protection from discrimination. Activists and campaigners can also achieve real change. Some of them spoke at the galalast night. They face adversity, even danger, with courage and conviction that we can only dream of from behind our comfortable desks.
But also businesses have a contribution to make. And they can do so in several ways. Businesses employ LGBTI people, they provide goods and services to LGBTI people. They also need to include LGBTI people. That can make all the difference to lives and communities. They can make the workplace a community where gay and transgender people can be themselves. They can make sure they serve the needs of LGBTI customers, whether they are selling hotel rooms or health insurance. And they can push for change and acceptance. We see many examples of this. In Ireland, for example, big employers like Google and Facebook took an active, influential role before the referendum on equal marriage. In the United States, 278 corporations wrote to support legal action to quash the homophobic Defence of Marriage Act. They highlighted the damaging impact that law had on their business and their workers. We see companies like IKEA who show gay couples in their adverts and catalogues. Because - guess what? - it's 2017 and we realised some people just aren't straight. Yes: equality means you have the equal right to spend your Saturday morning arguing about Billy bookcases with the one you love. Whatever his or her gender.
Maybe that wasn't what the Stonewall rioters thought they were fighting for, that night 48 years ago. But this kind of action is important and it makes a difference. There is increasing awareness of the role businesses can play. Bodies like the UN are realising the role companies, managers and employees have here. They can lobby for change at home and across the world. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation ranks major businesses - highlighting great places for LGBTI people to work, and drawing attention to those who fall short, in areas like discrimination, diversity, and inclusivity. This year their Corporate Equality Index gave 199 of the Fortune 500 businesses the maximum rating - a big increase from last year. Equality and progress cannot come from business alone. But it can make a big difference. In creating the kind of society where everyone can love who they love, and be who they are. And that is worth fighting for.