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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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