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Inappropriate Texts, Gender-Binary Toilets: LGBT+ Men Share Why They Feel Unsafe At Work

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!

Vikram (38) got his first job at 17 back in 2000. He worked as a salesperson and lab assistant, among other odd jobs in Vadodara, but had to quit soon from each of them due to harassment. In case of Ahaan* (25), who had been working at a Delhi-based textile company for over a year, his HR manager was disapproving of him and got him fired on the pretext of the pandemic. “I was the only one fired from the company during the pandemic,” he said.

Twenty years afar, the shared experience of Vikram and Ahaan has one thing in common – they were written off because they identify themselves with the LGBTQ+ community. During these years, although Section 377 has been scrapped and rights of transgender persons have been recognised, there are no anti-discriminatory laws for queer individuals against hate speech or mistreatment, including at the workplace.

Since September 6, 2018 (when homosexuality was legalised in India), many brands – including apparel groups, social media influencers, BSFI companies, IT conglomerates and FMCG enterprises – painted their logos rainbow and advertised themselves as queer-friendly. However, while some hit the nail on the head, many painted it too bright and turned the inclusivity message right on its head. And then there were those who did not even bother to try.

Image credit: Fortune

“Corporations are only a subset of society, and society’s prejudices and acceptance are bound to reflect in the workplace,” said Harish Iyer, who leads the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team of an Indian private bank. With the rising momentum of social movements of LGBTQ+ rights advocacy both at a global as well as national level, companies across sectors have opened themselves up to a queer-friendly environment.

“Most multinational companies in India have a mandate of diversity inclusion and are much more ahead in their inclusivity agenda than Indian companies due to their global exposure,” said Praful Baweja (41), co-founder of 6 Degrees, a growth network for Indian LGBTQ+ professionals. He said that since most of these companies have a younger workforce, evolving with their culture and staying socially relevant directly impacts the company’s growth.

LGBTQ+ Sensitisation In The Corporate Sector

But how do companies become sensitised to concerns of LGBTQ+ individuals? Once a company realises the need to diversify its workforce, what next? Is it adequate to simply start hiring people from the community?

Before a company onboards an LGBTQ+ individual, they must make the workplace an inclusive and a sensitive space. There are many consulting firms that specialise in diversity management. One such organisation is Interweave Consulting, which helps companies in creating a culture of inclusion at the workplace. The firm also assists companies in making a safe space for women and disabled individuals.

Before a company onboards an LGBTQ+ individual, they must make the workplace an inclusive and a sensitive space.

“After 2018, we started receiving a lot of requests for workshops on LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace. We gathered a team of consultants to represent the community and designed a module to expand the understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” said Nirmala Menon, CEO and Founder of Interweave Consulting.

Besides a technical understanding of what the LGBTQ+ community stands for, Nirmala said, their workshops aim at emotional acceptance by via stories shared by LGBTQ+ employees. “The workshops include discussion on sexuality is not a phase or something to feel sorry for. We would sensitise employees about how coming out is a process and one shouldn’t casually out someone’s identity without asking them for permission,” she said.

Jitendra Yadav (27) talks about his experience at a Delhi-headquartered retailer: “At my first office party, a few members of my team asked me politely about my orientation and have been very accepting of it. But whenever I go to a different floor at the office or meet other teams for work, I am very noticeably looked at and talked about.” This has still been a pleasant experience for Jitendra as compared to his previous job at a small proprietorship of 5-6 people, who would pass comments on his colourful clothes.

This draws a crucial difference between the receptivity of companies towards inclusion. According to Praful, Indian companies and banks, with a few exceptions such as Godrej and Axis Bank, are more resistant to inclusivity than their multinational (especially IBM, E&Y and Standard Chartered) peers. “Many companies assume that they don’t require an inclusion policy as there is no one from the community at their workplace,” said Nirmala.

With almost 10% of the population openly identifying with the LGBTQ+ identity, this assumption by companies only points at their homophobia and transphobia. “Only when you make your workplace LGBTQ+-friendly will people come. You can’t expect for them to come and then think about making your office friendly,” Harish pointed out.

The least receptive, unsurprisingly, is the public sector, said Zainab Patel, Director Inclusion and Diversity at a multinational accounting organisation, who is also a part of the progressive task force of The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) for diversity and inclusion. “Many of them have started taking baby steps towards inclusion recently as they realise the value of investment in diversity in a competitive market. Those who aren’t investing and losing out,” Zainab said.

At companies that are ahead in their inclusivity journey, next steps after sensitisation workshops are policy auditing. “We encourage companies to release a policy statement mentioning that the company is inclusive of all identities,” said Nirmala. Other steps comprise: introduction of anti-discriminatory policies against the community; upgradation of policies to a gender-neutral language — use of ‘they/them’ instead of ‘him/her’, ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband/wife’, ‘birthing parent’ instead of ‘mother’); change in health policies to include live-in partners along with married; inclusion of gender-affirmative surgeries and post-surgery therapy in employee mediclaim; removal of gender-specific dress code; introduction of gender-neutral washrooms; and facilitation of paperwork for transgender individuals.

“Only when you make your workplace LGBTQ+-friendly will people come. You can’t expect for them to come and then think about making your office friendly,” Harish pointed out.

Another important change is establishing an Employee Resource Group. “Instead of organising one-time workshops, companies should aim towards providing a forum where company employees can take up roles to hold regular conversations on the issue,” said Praful. This space must be opened up to allies as well as other marginalised groups such as divorces women. Young Indian companies including Flipkart and Swiggy run such support groups at their workplace.

After Ahaan’s bitter experience at the textile company, he started reading up online about inclusive workspaces. “Instead of avoiding questions about my orientation, I directly ask the HR if the workplace if queer-friendly and if not, I do not take up the job,” he said.

Are Inclusion Policies Helpful For Those Who Aren’t Out?

Madhavan* is a 30-year-old freelance teacher who has not come out to his friends or family as gay. For him, the possibility of students and faculty members finding out about him often leads to a lot of paranoia and anxiety, something that no Grievance Committee or Cell can address. “Many a times, my students have found me on dating apps and sent me inappropriate messages,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate in your class because I kept thinking about what you were wearing,” said one of the messages Madhavan received from a student after his first class.

शिक्षक
Representational image.

“Every time I would go to the class, I’d keep thinking about if he’d told other classmates about my dating profile,” he added.

Things get worse when it comes to private coaching institutes. Not only are all-inclusive Gender Sensitisation Cells missing in these institutes, the students feel they have the right to mistreat the teachers since they have paid lakhs of rupees to study. “I once went to the director of a start-up coaching institute I am currently teaching at to seek help inappropriate messages I had received from a student. The director said he can’t help me because he needs more students at his institute and “focus on business,” Madhavan shared.

Do We Dare Probe Into The Informal Sector?

Inclusion might be becoming a smart business decision in the corporate sector and an optional protocol – at best – in education institutes and small-scale companies, but in the informal sector, it is easier to find a pot of gold than it is to find inclusion.

Vikram is a trans man from Vadodara who was name-called, harassed and asked unsolicited personal questions by men at his first few jobs as a salesperson and lab assistant. Later on, when he decided to pursue a diploma in automobile engineering at a private college, the principal refused to give him admission as he was a female while the course was (unofficially) meant for boys.

By that time, Vikram had found shelter and guidance under Vikalp Women’s Group, a Gujarat-based grassroots organisation that advocates for the rights of marginalised women and gender/sexual minorities. “Only when I went to the principal with Vikalp and pressurised him to give us his refusal in writing did he give me admission,” Vikram said. He currently runs his own two-wheeler service centre.

Representational image.

With the contractualisation of the workforce and labour rights compromised, marginalised groups are further getting pushed into exploitation and uncertainty. “Transgender people have to look for jobs as delivery persons, salespersons, agricultural workers, security guards, traffic guards, call centres and so on. Even in these jobs, your sex and your clothing become barriers,” said Maya Sharma, activist and writer who works with Vikalp.

Due to lack of gender-neutral washrooms at these jobs, trans people have no option but to walk far off where they are not seen, or hold the pressure till there is no one around to watch them use the washroom.

The vast discrepancy among various livelihood sectors in the country show how individual efforts can make a lot of difference, but they mostly remain exclusionary for those from a lower socioeconomic position. Even before someone can reach out to a Gender Sensitisation Cell or Grievance Committee, a lot of trauma and anxiety is already happened. To ensure that gender sensitisation spreads uniformly across workplaces and demographics, an overarching effort in the form of national-level policies and awareness programmes is required.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity

Note: If you wish to contribute to Vikalp, you can reach them at +91 9879725969 or find their bank account details here

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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