The World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which begins this week, has been a top venue for controversial conversations over the years. Israelis and Palestinians have debated, for example, and luminaries from the public and private sectors have faced off on big topics like climate change, inequality and gender diversity.
One issue, though, seems to have long been officially off limits: anything related to gay and lesbian rights.
But at a time when Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, the world’s largest company by market value, has disclosed that he is gay, and with the United States Supreme Court saying last week that it would rule on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, the topic has reached a tipping point.
This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum is addressing the issue of gay and lesbian rights on the formal agenda for Davos. It is a good first step.
Still, the topic looks buried on the Davos program. It seems to have been included mainly because of pressure applied by a pair of activist hedge fund managers who usually wage their wars against companies, but have made a cause of defending the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
It is not too hard to decipher why the topic might have been forbidden at Davos in the past. After all, the guest list is filled with officials from countries like Russia, Nigeria and Uganda whose records on human rights for the gay and transgender community are repressive and sometimes even violent. In Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — countries with officials in attendance in Davos — same-sex conduct is punishable by death.
But last year at Davos, Human Rights Campaign, along with representatives for Paul Singer, founder of the hedge fund Elliott Management, whose son is gay, and Daniel S. Loeb, the founder of Third Point, who with his wife is active in many philanthropic causes, approached the World Economic Forum about the need to publicly host a dialogue about gay rights. The forum organizers demurred.
So Mr. Singer and Mr. Loeb decided last year to hold a breakfast off the premises and off the formal program — known as an “off-piste” event in Davos-speak — to address the issue.
That breakfast panel was moderated by the journalist Fareed Zakaria and included Mr. Singer and Mr. Loeb as well as Masha Gessen, a Russian gay rights activist. Also participating were Alice Nkom, a lawyer from Cameroon who has fought to end the criminalization of homosexuality in her country, and Dane Lewis, who runs Jamaica’s largest gay rights advocacy organization.
The breakfast became one of the most talked about events at Davos. The room was packed with an audience of boldface names, like Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coca-Cola; Richard Branson of Virgin; Navi Pillay, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and a United States senator, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.
Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire investor, was so moved by the panel that he started making calls to friends in his home country that day to begin a dialogue before the following month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which became a global lightning rod for human-rights criticism.
Human Rights Campaign takes credit for pushing the World Economic Forum to finally put the topic on the agenda this year.
“There’s no doubt that it served as inspiration for inclusion in the formal program in 2015,” said Fred Sainz, a vice president at Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.
But the World Economic Forum takes umbrage at the idea that it was bullied by its high-minded participants to address the issue.
“That impression might come from people who only observe the World Economic Forum through the prism of Davos, and who perhaps are not aware of what we do year-round,” said Adrian Monck, the forum’s head of communications. He said issues related to gay rights had been discussed at conferences held by the forum in Abuja, Nigeria, and Tianjin, China.
“The forum believes that societies need to use all their talent to be effective and inclusive, and that diversity brings with it further positive benefits beyond simply being morally the right thing to do,” Mr. Monck said.
Still, not all participants are satisfied that the World Economic Forum is adequately addressing the issue. There is only one panel on the agenda — buried late on Saturday after many participants will have left — that mentions the term “L.G.B.T.” in the program. And none of the panels include the kind of outspoken, controversial advocates who were at last year’s breakfast.
“In many countries, L.G.B.T. individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are,” Mr. Singer said. “Some of the worst offenders are governments which are frequently invited to these meetings of world leaders. When these world leaders assemble, leaders from the L.G.B.T. activist community should be included, too.”
Forum organizers point out that there are two other panels on the agenda that touch on gay rights.
In addition to the formal program, this year Microsoft and the management consulting firms Accenture and EY are sponsoring off-piste events about gay rights issues, including work force inclusion.
Mr. Loeb, who with Mr. Singer helped finance a campaign to push through same-sex marriage in New York State, said he hoped the discussion of gay rights had finally found a home in Davos. “I hope this notable first step begins an overdue conversation among prominent global leaders about the importance of advancing and protecting human rights for L.G.B.T. individuals,” he said.
Proponents of gay rights can cite global progress in the business world. Human Rights Campaign started a Corporate Equality Index 13 years ago, benchmarking corporate policies “pertinent to L.G.B.T. employees.” When it started, only 13 companies scored a perfect 100 percent. But in the most recent survey, despite more stringent criteria, 366 companies around the world had perfect scores.
That may be progress, but if the debate about how to address the issue in Davos is any indication, there is clearly a lot more to do.
The DealBook column on Tuesday, about the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights as an issue at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, misidentified, in some copies, a group that has been pushing for such an inclusion. It is Human Rights Campaign, not Human Rights Watch.
Andrew Ross Sorkin is the editor at large of DealBook. Twitter: @andrewrsorkin