We generally tend to present a more “formal” part of ourselves in our workspaces. Consequently, one might assume that their gender or sexual identities can be kept private in such settings. But it only takes a quick observation of the world around us to realize that our personal lives are intertwined with our identities at the workspace and hence cannot be easily maintained as distinct alters. At the same time, this reality also puts queer individuals in a difficult position, since gender and sexuality are politicised and influence the role and nature of what roles we may be allowed to occupy as individuals in the workspace.
Adopting a view of biological essentialism leads to making inferences of gender, based merely on particular aspects of biological sex, which according to studies, is an incomplete representation of gender (Yes, I’m talking to you J.K. Rowling). While some workspaces have begun to recognize non-binary gender identities and sexual orientations, many continue operate under a heteronormative organisational culture. The feminist movement has played a detrimental role in ‘levelling the playing field’, yet consequences of gendered workspaces in the form of discrimination still take place, taking forms like glass ceilings, glass escalators and even violence.
The Indian workplace is a volatile setting. There have been improvements made in recent times, with the judgement on Section 377, the establishment of the country’s first Diversity & Inclusion firm, trans inclusive policies provided by organisations like RBS India, Accenture and IBM, and increasingly more companies recognizing the potential of including queer people in their workforce. At the same time, the practice of ‘pinkwashing’, where corporates commoditize on Pride month and allyship for better PR, socioeconomic disadvantages faced by queer people, the increasing unemployment rates in the country, as well as the Transgender persons Act 2019, bring to question the road ahead for queers in the Indian workspace.
Spotting the Signs: Queer Discrimination at the Workplace
Discrimination against queer folx in the workplace can take various forms. These include:
- Being denied employment or promotion because of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
- Employment and workplace anti-discrimination laws that fail to account for LGBT+ persons and families.
- Bullying or harassing an employee for their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. For example: making fun of a queer person’s gender identity or making sexual advances
- Termination of employment on the basis of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. For example: firing a transgender employee after their transition
- Transparent barriers in the form of glass ceilings and glass escalators, on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
- Gendered restrictions at the workplace. For example: not providing an employee with restroom facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
- A non-inclusive organisational culture. For example: socially excluding a queer person in the workplace or not addressing a queer person by their pronouns despite them making it clear
Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace: Strategies to Stop Discrimination
Provision of Comprehensive Rights
Most corporate anti-discriminatory laws fail to account for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, thereby providing no basis for queer individuals to seek justice. Anti-discriminatory laws should be amended to include these terms. Ensuring equal opportunity policies, which have already been mandated in some workspaces in India, helps build a framework to provide for safe and productive work environments for queer individuals.
Due to the unique socio-economic disadvantages that they face, about 87% of transwomen in India make a living through sex work or by begging. According to the Centre for Sexuality and Health Research and Policy (C-SHaRP), “transwomen sex workers have poor earning and have to share it with the policemen and ruffians who exploit them”. This further pressurises them to earn more and leads to risky behaviour during sex work, like consenting to clients without using protection, making them prone to risks of contracting STDs. Those employed in other informal jobs like domestic service, menial labour, street hawking, also face risks of abuse and exploitation because of transphobic behaviour. Labour reforms and reservations, along with increased awareness about trans rights can help improve the working conditions of the transgender community.
Sensitizing the Workforce
To overcome queerphobia and prejudice in the workplace, employees all across India should be given diversity training. Employees must be made aware of what constitutes queerphobic behaviour and the challenges that their queer co-workers face. The training should also highlight the importance of sensitive and informed organisational culture, that uses inclusive language such as gender neutral pronouns and has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination. The workforce must also have an understanding of the different identities within the queer community which is often assumed as being homogenous, and about identities like that of the transman, which is often confused with other queer identities.
Furthermore, the workforce must also understand how disengaging with the queer community is disadvantageous to the economy. The LGBT Foundation in Hong Kong estimates that if “the LGBT community worldwide were a country, it would be the 4th largest economy, GDP wise. (2018)” The brain drain of queer IIT alumni to foreign industries was also cited in the IIT petition against Section 377 in the Supreme Court. These implications can help other employees to understand how being narrow minded about inclusion can narrow down business prospects, since diverse workplaces create sustainable organisations.
Assistance through Support Systems
Organisations must ensure that there is a group or authority to look into the unique challenges of the queer workforce. An LGBT employee network can be beneficial to both the company as well as the employees. Positions of Diversity & Inclusion officers have been included in workspaces, however the regulation of their contributions is low. There should be provisions made to monitor employees in such positions, to verify if they are reliable representatives and spokespersons for queer individuals in the workspace.
Some workspaces also provide for same-sex partnership benefits and gender neutral adoption leave, which reflect the acknowledgement and understanding of the unique challenges and life events that shape a queer individual. Medical health coverage for transition related procedures should also be mandated. ‘A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Workspace’ (2018), recommends strategies for trans inclusion in the workspace.
Respecting the Narratives of Queer Employees
Being outed without consent can be a traumatic experience and can cost a queer person their job and possibly, even more. A colleague may use knowledge about a queer individual’s identity to bully or harass them at their workplace, using the possibility of outing them as a threat. In other cases, they may even out them directly to a higher authority, which may cause them to instantly terminate the queer employee or deny them promotion and other benefits. Such examples of discrimination must be protected against through anti-discriminatory policies. When queer individuals at the workspace form friendships and reveal their identities, even if one’s intentions are good, one must be careful to not out them to others, instead letting the queer person decide for themselves if they want to disclose their identities with others in the workspace.
Progressive Brand Positioning
When engaging with the LGBT community, brand positioning must be well researched and sensitive to queer stereotypes. The queer workforce can be a resource in providing insights about the queer market.
Just as a Fairtrade stamp isn’t marketed on products without actually adapting the company supply chain, the rainbow shouldn’t be used by marketers as a mere accessory. Pink washing should be avoided at all costs, with efforts instead being directed to tangible support for the community through initiatives like hiring queer people and correcting existing discriminatory processes.
Queer Mental Health Care in the Workplace
Choosing to reveal personal information in the workplace, regarding sexuality and mental health can be quite scary, particularly in a country like India where both mental illness and non-binary identities are stigmatized. Many queer individuals who have come out about their sexuality in the work place on experiencing a negative response, choose to hide their mental health experiences because of fear of further discrimination. At the same time, if the workplace culture of a particular organisation reflects values of acceptance and respect, it could prove useful to disclose information regarding mental health, to ensure that one isn’t burdened and can make use of any available resources.
Some ways to manage one’s mental health at the workplace are:
Maintaining work-life balance
Being queer can cause increased pressure to perform well, either within oneself or from others in the workspace, to “overcompensate” for one’s identity. Ensure that you are engaging yourself in a balanced approach to work by identifying the amount of time and energy you invest. This would help prevent overworking, which could have mental health implications. Introspecting on your involvement in the different areas of your life, including work, relationships, mental health and personal interests, helps in developing a holistic approach to your life.
On facing discrimination
When making efforts to manage a mental health concern, being subject to discrimination as a result of one’s identity can be particularly difficult. Unfortunately, because of the high financial risks involved, amidst a homophobic society, it can be difficult to fight back and would demand increased mental energy. However, if it is possible to make a complaint to an understanding boss or an informed human resources manager, it would be a brave step to follow through. If such a step cannot be taken and the instances of discrimination continue to worsen, it may be advisable to quit the job if the situation allows for it, and hopefully find a more inclusive workspace.
Making use of available resources
? Many companies tie up with an external service provider to offer Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).
? The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016): Provides a legal mandate for employers to ensure “reasonable accommodations” for conditions that are legally considered disabilities — mental health included.
? The Mental Health Care Bill: Clause 21(1)(a) provides for rights against discrimination on any basis including gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, culture, caste, social or political beliefs, class or disability”.
Queer Achievers in the Workplace
Visible queer role models in the workspace help queer employees feel represented and inspire us to work through barriers that our identity may pose on us at our workplace. They also help pave inclusive spaces for the others in the community. The Stonewall, an LGBT rights charity (UK), affirms that “visible role models demonstrate organisational credibility around diversity”. Creating visibility about queer folx in the workplace also helps the general public understand how queer employees are everywhere and it’s societal discrimination that makes us transparent. For instance, in interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Supreme Court advocate Menaka Guruswamy confided how during the 2013 court hearings on Section 377, a senior judge asked a law officer if he himself knew any homosexuals to which the officer laughed and replied that he wasn’t so “modern”. Thus in a heternormative society, visible role models help promote increased awareness about the non-binary identities in our population that contribute to talent in the workspace.
Here are some queer folx who have made a mark in the various positions that they occupy in workspaces in India. With most of them identifying as queer rights activists, they have relentlessly championed the voices of the community through their contributions.
Siddhant Talwar – An artist, designer and poet. Co-founder of Mardaangi, a safe space for male identifying members to document and discuss various issues that they experience.
Sonaksha Iyengar– An illustrator, designer, graphic recorder and writer, using art as a tool for social movements. Her work reverberates with the themes of gender, mental health, body image and feminism, and has been featured in various international publications.
Bonita Singh Rajpurohit – An artist, writer, activist, model, and 2nd runner up – Ms. Trans Queen India (2019). She is also a Co-Founder at DURT Studio, an online experimental photography profile.
DJ Aparna – Resident DJ at Kitty Ko and holder of the Limca Book of Records for conquering the Khardung La pass on a 110cc scooter.
Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli – A founding member of the Telegana Hijra Transgender Samiti, her vital contributions to the society include helping hijra and trans people to file FIRs against their perpetrators, and highlighting the injurious effects of conversion therapy through her affidavit in the “Suresh Kumar & Other vs Naz Foundation and Others” case.
Menaka Guruswamy – A Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India and Lecturer at Columbia Law School (NY), she has played a significant role in several landmark cases, including the case against section 377.
Arundhati Katju – An Advocate at the Supreme Court of India, she has litigated several high profile cases including queer rights cases like the section 377 case, the Suresh Kumar & Other Vs Naz Foundation and Others case, and the Shivani Bhat v GNCT of Delhi case.
Joyita Mondal – A social worker and founder of the NGO, Dinajpur Notun Alo Society and the first ever intersex judge of a Lok Adalat.
Kiran Nayak – A transgender, disability and Adivasi activist. He has founded several support organisations like Nisarga and Karnataka Vikalachetanara Sanghatane (KVS), that work with issues of disability and sexuality.
Ditileka Sharma – Coordinator at Sangat, an intersectional feminist network. As a researcher, Ditilekha’s literature focuses on gender, sexuality and education and has been published in renowned journals like The Economic and Political Weekly and InfoChange India.
Anish Gawande – A Rhodes scholar and director of the Darah Shikoh fellowship. Co founder and curator at Pink List India, which features the first archive of queer+ve politicians, and with whom he has also worked on a database of NGOs providing relief to the queer community during the pandemic. He is also Co-Founder of the Mumbai chapter of Youth Feed India.
Sadam Hanjabam – A social scientist, researcher and founder of Ya-All, the first registered youth and queer-led focused organisation in North East India, working towards creating an inclusive society by providing resources for health and education.
Parmesh Sahani – Vice President at Godrej Industries Ltd, and Founder of Godrej India Culture Lab, an experimental ideas space. Author of Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (2008) and the soon to be released, Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace (2020).
Rafiul Alom Rahman – Founder of The Queer Muslim Project, a democratic space for creating visibility and awareness on queer Muslim issues in India and South Asia. He is currently one of the members of the Beijing +25 Youth Task Force, assembled by UN Women to strengthen gender responsive action.
Gee Imaan Semmalar – A filmmaker, theatre actor and co-founder of Panmai Theatre. Also a journalist and academician, his writings have appeared in Dalit Camera, Women’s Study Quarterly, HuffPost India, and FirstPost, and have added to a dearth of research literature on queer theory, citizenship, caste and social movements.
Ritu Dalmia – A celebrity chef and restaurateur, with a cookery show and several books to her credit.
Dutee Chand – An Olympic athlete, national champion in the women’s 100m event, and India’s first athlete to publicly talk about her same-sex relationship. A silver medalist at the 2018 Asian Games and the first Indian sprinter to win gold at the Universiade. She is also an executive officer at The Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd.
Grace Banu – A Dalit and transgender activist, and India’s first trans engineer. Founder of The Trans Rights Now Collective, she has been on the front lines of the protests against the discriminatory Transgender Bill (2019), and the battle against the pandemic to ensure the safety of trans folx.
Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju – An artist and medical student who has been fiercely vocal about queer rights through her words and artwork, as well as her narrative as a transwoman in India.
Divya Dureja – A counselling psychologist, international spoken word poet and co-founder of Performers’ Consortium, a platform for artists with various talents. Her poetry taps into her activism for LGBTQIA rights, which she also discusses as a panelist at seminars and when conducting sensitisation sessions.