By Avanish Tiwary for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Dividing her time between her terminally-ill parents and sending out resumes to prospective employers, the last few months have been tough on 36-year-old, Indira (name changed). Even as she drafts new mail to send out, she is aware, she may not hear from anybody. Not after she found herself without a job, every time she told her previous employers that she was a transwoman.
“I told them I was Indira and not Inder (the name given to her at birth), but no one called me by that name. I wasn’t allowed a separate restroom, and was instead forced to continue going to the male restroom. Employers can’t send a trans person undergoing hormone replacement to restrooms meant for men,” says Indira.
Soon enough, Indira found herself battling a case of urinary tract infection. “I didn’t want to use the men’s restroom, so I just stopped drinking water,” she says.
The fear of not being accepted in her workplace forced Indira to use her birth-name, a name she never identified with. “Legally speaking, the central and state governments are responsible for the plight of trans people and are in contempt of the NALSA judgment,” says Indira, adding that it was the recent NALSA judgment that encouraged her to speak out.
According to the NALSA judgement, passed by the Supreme Court this April, there should be equal rights and protection given to trans people. The judgement given in the NALSA vs. Union of India case, extends to inclusion of a third category, when recording one’s sex/gender in identity documents; and for admission in educational institutions and hospitals amongst others.
And today, as companies across the country look for ways to implement this new order, it also unlocks equal-employment opportunities for the transgender community.
But the tricky part here, says Bengaluru-based lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan, is that in the strictest sense, the NALSA judgement might not be applicable to private corporations.
“Having said that, the Minister of Corporate Affairs can hold a company responsible. However, it has initiated conversations in workplaces to include trans people,” says Ranganathan, who works with the Alternative Law Forum and is associated with projects involving issues of gender and sexuality. “The good thing is that companies are now having internal dialogues about this.”
Showing a degree of progressiveness, companies such as the Tata Group, Godrej, ThoughtWorks and several others had in the past hired candidates from the transgender community.
The Future Group recently hired a trans person, and is currently looking to hire two to three more such candidates for its Mumbai office. E-commerce platform Snapdeal, since November 2015, is holding seminars and topic-specific sessions on gender and sexuality, with employees internally.
“Hiring trans people involves a lot of commitment. It is easy to hire a few people and say we are a good corporation. But it needs much more investment into your processes. These processes are not very easy and, sometimes, are the reason, corporations are not interested in hiring trans candidates,” says Ranganathan.
In a society where men with slight body types and tall women stand out due to skewed perceptions of masculinity and femininity, one’s physical features are often the first to make an impression. In the LGBTQ+ community, the ‘T’, i.e., transpeople, stand out even more so, due to their apparent physical features.
“When a six-foot tall transwoman goes for an interview,” says Indira, “she starts getting judged and pointed at, from the moment she enters the office. Naturally, our skeletal structure is such that our bodies are very broad and we grow taller than most other Indian women. Our jaw lines are broader and I can’t just wish away my jaw lines. So, the stigma starts from the second our prospective employer takes a look at us.”
Madhumita Venkataraman, who works independently for the LGBTQ community, provides assistance to trans people by getting them relevant job interviews and sensitising corporate teams. She is also the Human Resource person at Snapdeal.
“When I send companies, resumes of trans people, they imagine a (stereotypical) hijra standing in front of them. The other misconception/bias is that all of them are uneducated, thus unfit for the job, which is not the case,” says Venkataraman.
But a lack of proper education, is one of the biggest barriers for trans people to find a source of livelihood.
Danish Sheikh, legal consultant with the International Commission of Jurists, says, “The trans participation in the formal work sector is very limited. A large part of the blame goes to lack of education. A large population is unable to finish education at school because of discrimination and violence. Beggary and sex work are the only options left to them.”
Indira, for instance, who has a Bachelor’s degree, never set foot inside her college because of the mental and
physical harassment she faced while in school.
Similarly, discrimination dogged transwoman, Nayana Udupi, at every step. It took her five long years to quit sex work and find a job. Now a graphic designer at ThoughtWorks, Udupi says she had never seen a trans` person until she came to Bengaluru from Mangaluru.
“My father would always scold and tell me to stop behaving like a hijra. I had never seen a hijra then. But the way my father would say it, it seemed derogatory. I started hating that word, not knowing I will have to live with the community one day,” says Udupi.
Though her father kept abusing her, calling her all sorts of names, she continued with schooling, and developed an interest in sketching and designing. With her mother’s support, she says, she completed her SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) besides a short-term course in multimedia.
After being sent out of her house by her father for ‘not being manly’, circumstances threw her into sex work and begging in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. “While I was doing all that, I wasn’t happy living that life. I went around 40-50 companies but because of my apparent features, I couldn’t get any job. Meanwhile, I stopped doing sex work and slowly started taking up freelance projects as a designer,” says Udupi.
Nayana Udupi lost all her assignments and her career as a freelance designer came to an end, once her employers got to know that she’s a transwoman.
Both Indira, a graduate in economics, and Udupi, who has had some basic education till 2nd PUC (Pre-University Course), admit that their narratives are only representative of a sliver of what most trans people face in India.
“I come from a lower middle class family so I was lucky to get some education. Most people from the transgender community aren’t even literate, let alone educated, so finding a job is very difficult for them,” says Indira.
“Due to an upset growing-up life situation, many of the times, there is no formal educational qualifications. So, how do you ensure that they get on to their lives and get a proper job?” asks Shubha Chacko, head at Solidarity Foundation, an organisation that helps sexual minorities find corporate jobs.
Even if a trans person gets a job, more often than not, due to non-sensitisation of the workplace, they are forced to leave and go back to the street to sell their body or beg for a living.
“Many trans people have been forced to leave organisations due to circumstances created by fellow employees and seniors in the office. Many a time, people assume trans people are sex workers and seek to have sex with them after office hours. Everyone hires, but how do you ensure they remain in that job after that? How do you ensure they are not mentally and physically harassed?” asks an HR executive of an IT firm, who did not wish to be named.
Sensitisation, then, is an issue that requires an all-around approach, not just a top-down one. In one incident, a transgender candidate had gone for an interview “and after having a good look at her, the office guard didn’t let her set foot inside the office. That was unfortunate,” says Chacko. Previously, the senior management and the team had already sat down for sensitivity-sessions, but the guard had been left out.
“The scenario is dismal because even if one trans person leaves because of such (unwanted) incidences, it’s bad for the whole community because then the HR thinks, what is the point of hiring them,” elaborates Chacko.
But this is precisely what workplaces need to actively avoid. Open and accepting spaces for people of different gender or sexual orientations is hardly an unreasonable demand to make, and with the help of programs that help sensitise organisations, we may be able to rectify this situation to provide all with equal opportunity and visibility.
Avanish Tiwary is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. He has worked with Mint, First Post and Financial Express.