Aastha was late. On her way in, she managed to take the longer route through the door on the other side of the bay, to avoid passing by the front of Niranjan’s cabin.
Plopping her handbag and lunchbox onto the desk, she proceeded to check the height and reclining settings of the chair in front of her desk.
“Niranjan wanted to have a word with you.” Rachit grinned at the next desk. She realized he had seen her ninja moves. Also, despite her best efforts, Niranjan knew she was late again. She started making up the most plausible Bangalore traffic excuse she could make up in her head.
“About Friday, I hope?” Rachit’s face grew solemn.
Aastha rolled her eyes and sat down. She will get around to it later. But once she started her system, she saw a meeting invite from Niranjan. She was to meet him, the HR head and the COO in half an hour. It was surely about Friday.
Aastha entered the Krypton Conference Room. Everyone was already there. Aastha took her designated seat, the one right in front of the COO in the parallel row, facing the 3 of them. Namita, the HR Head, asked if she wanted a cup of tea or coffee. The level of formality struck her as funny. And Namita and Niranjan were visibly uncomfortable.
Namita broke the silence. “Aastha, we wanted to talk about Prahlad’s comments on Friday. We are very sorry for the kind of hurt that must have caused, and we deeply apologize.”
On Friday, their 32-year-old whiz-kid CEO had made homophobic comments in a private gathering. Somehow a video had leaked and it had caused a mini storm on social media. An LGBTQ group had even asked its 35k Indian Instagram followers to stop using their company’s product. Being a vertical e-commerce platform that exclusively relied on the 18-25 age segment, this could be cataclysmic for the startup. And of course, there was the matter of the upcoming round of investments.
Aastha flashed her most diplomatic smile. “I understand. I have to admit I was pained by the comments, but I understand the general societal taboo and lack of sensitization around homosexuality in India. Also, I would like to point out that none of the colleagues I work with directly have ever made me feel unwelcome at the organization, so it’s alright.” Aastha had delivered versions of this speech before.
Tell a lie a hundred times, and the lie becomes your truth.
Aastha noticed a sense of relief descend in the room, as she had expected.
Piyush, the COO, now took charge. Getting down to his I-Mean-Business voice, he said, “So we have realized we have not done enough for LGBTQ inclusion in the office. Keeping that in mind, we are launching a dedicated initiative. And we need someone to lead it. Niranjan told us that you belong to the community, and also about your amazing project management skills. We would like you to lead this project.”
Aastha knew how these initiatives went. She had attended the launch of the Women’s Initiative as a wide-eyed fresher a little over five years back. Speeches were delivered by the same CEO and the HR lady before Namita; there were free pizza and cokes for the eight female employees. But nothing much happened after that. None of the slightly senior women could even make it to the few meetings HR arranged for them. When Aastha came back to her desk from the meetings, she was inevitably asked by her teammates, even Rachit, how The Women were planning to take them down. Aastha initially tried to laugh off those jokes, but eventually she stopped going. She knew the other women did the same.
Also, if she was the only queer employee she knew in the 200-ish workforce, who would the group be for? Would people start coming out of the closet at work just because the group existed? Would Aastha even want people to? While Aastha was not exactly in the closet, she was a very private person. She had just mentioned an ex-girlfriend in an office retreat to a few close colleagues, and now the leadership wanted her to take up a mic and declare her “otherness” to this tribe of mostly upper middle class urban men with a shared delusion of meritocracy and hyper-competence.
But who could even explain it to them? Even the woke ones here had their heads filled with all the coming-out narratives they had seen on American TV, and did not understand how coming out was not a one-time process.
Also, how could she represent a whole community? She was hardly in terms with her own sexuality!
“So what do you say?” asked Piyush. He was getting impatient with Aastha’s silence. It was like he expected her to jump at the chance of being the organization’s LGBTQ mascot.
Aastha could not be not owning up to her identity. She remembered an essay she had read by one of India’s foremost businesswomen – a woman who had broken many glass ceilings. She had named the piece The First Lady, speaking about the burden of representation, and while Aastha will hopefully never have to be the first woman to do anything in her career, she will still mostly be the first openly queer woman to do many of the same things. And she will have to learn to be in the spotlight and deal with the added anxiety levels that would bring to her workplaces.
“I will be glad to do it,” she said.
They looked elated. Aastha was to come up with a proposal – a list of ideas that could be implemented by them to make the workplace more inclusive.
Aastha carried a thick binder with her to Krypton the next day. She had printed out her proposal, the one-page memo, all the supporting evidence which would go into the annexures color-coded with small sticky notes.
“We should organize LGBTQ-sensitisation workshops for all employees,” Aastha said.
Piyush let out a sigh. “We cannot impose this on everyone.”
Namita tried to say something, but stopped. Aastha moved on to the next point in her agenda. The sight of the eye-rolling between the co-founders at the mandatory sexual harassment awareness training came to mind.
“I found an agency that helps organizations hire qualified transgender employees. We could also place recruitment ads specifically targeting members of the LGBTQ community.”
“We cannot let the quality of our workforce go down due to some sort of reservation. You, of all people, should understand. You got here on merit.” It was now Aastha’s turn to sigh.
“Gender-neutral toilets? Preferred pronouns to be reflected with employee names on the intranet? – Not needed at the moment, I guess?” Aastha was getting combative. Piyush shrugged.
“Health-coverage for same sex partner?” Aastha was now just rattling off her list, waiting to be struck down on every point.
“Sure.” Aastha was caught off-guard. “Those are frankly the kind of things we are looking for.”
“Insurance coverage for IVF treatment and surrogacy, and maternity and paternity leaves for adoptive or biological parents of LGBTQ+ community.”
“But we do not have those policies for anyone.” Piyush was fumbling. Aastha kept staring at him unfazed. She had found her opening.
“But I guess we check with the insurance provider and introduce those benefits, for everyone, including the LGBTQ+ employees?” he looked at Namita. Namita nodded encouragingly.
Aastha nodded. Baby steps.
Namita flashed a wide smile. “Thank you so much Aastha for these inputs; we will get moving on them ASAP.”
Aastha stood up. There were handshakes and polite smiles all around.
Aastha was going to leave for home a little early today. She dreaded the company’s “Moment of Redemption” press release with her name on it that was inevitably going to pop up on social media in the next couple of hours.