A slew of self-doubt, all too familiar for queer folx, gripped Varsha*, a 27-year old product manager at one of India’s mid-sized fintech startups. Their company had recently changed insurance providers, and the new provider had mentioned one major change that instantly caught Varsha’s attention: insurance coverage for LGBTQ partners.
“Almost immediately, I was excited to opt for it, in the hopes that my partner can also get at least free consultations, if nothing else,” Varsha said. Their partner, a trans woman, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — a chronic illness that leads to inflamed bowels.
Varsha, like thousands of queer people working across startups in Bangalore, has not come out to their employers yet. Most colleagues are unfamiliar with their identity too, although Varsha jokingly says that the “septum ring should have been a dead giveaway”.
Even then, coming out (or worse, outed), to your workplace is a daunting move even in the most supportive of offices. Opting for this insurance scheme would involve disclosing theirs, and more importantly, Varsha points out, their partner’s queer identity — a risk they aren’t willing to take just yet.
While Varsha’s company outlined the LGBTQIA+ friendliness of the insurance deal multiple times throughout the presentation, they did not talk about confidentiality. “This was a glaring error on their part. They should have at least mentioned, in passing, that those who avail these services will remain protected.”
But would Varsha have opted for the insurance if confidentiality was assured? “Probably not,” they add.
Varsha’s fears aren’t unfounded. Dhruv*, a closeted gay Human Resources (HR) executive at another, bigger startup, said that employee details are often shared freely between HR professionals within the company.
“People give a plethora of information when they sign up for a job. While we don’t misuse this information [procedurally, at least], there certainly aren’t any illusions of privacy one should have at any Indian company,” Dhruv said.
Dhruv’s company employs more than 500 people scattered across India’s metro cities, which makes his staying ‘closeted’, easier. The closest Dhruv has come to coming out to his workplace was earlier this month during Pride Month, when his office conducted a slew of sensitisation training sessions. Dhruv organised for a queer-affirmative organisation to come in and speak, and said that the reception surprised him.
But, towards the end of the last session, a callous comment by a male colleague ensured that Dhruv would not be outing himself in the near future.
“While we were winding down on the last session, this guy started joking about the [LGBTQIA+] community. He called them ‘meethe’, and said he never likes their loud tones and flashy dressing. Just very casually dismissive.”
Over the last few years, startups have basked in the goodwill of announcing multiple LGBTQIA+-friendly policies. Quotes by Chief Human Resources Officers (CHRO) adorn headlines across most business news publications, but the actual on-ground effect has never been calibrated.
“Every Pride [month], every company changes their logo to a rainbow. They’ll have some token sessions, and cash in on the marketing. But it’s rare for any colleague of mine to address my pronouns correctly, and they ask me the age-old question: ‘shaadi kab kar rahi hai?’ (when are you getting married?)”, said M, a 34-year-old non-binary marketing executive working at a unicorn startup. M is out to her boss and colleagues, and uses they/she pronouns, which have been mentioned on Slack.
“People will only refer to me as ‘her’, and never ‘they’, including younger people in my team. It sucks, but I’ve made my peace with it,” they added.
Apart from insurance, other queer-affirmative benefits offered by startups include 30-day leaves for gender-affirming surgery and menstruation leaves for employees irrespective of their stated gender.
These too have found few takers. I spoke to 6 employees and 1 hiring manager working in Bangalore’s startups; none had anecdotally known about any colleagues of theirs opting for such a scheme.
Admittedly, one positive could be that the employee opted to avail such a service and confidentiality was maintained. But in the case of long leaves, word would have gotten out.
“Indian offices gossip a lot. So if a manager asks why one of their team members is off for a week or so, the reasons are usually disclosed, if the employee doesn’t do that already,” Dhruv, the HR executive, said.
Abdullah*, a 34-year-old bisexual man, works as an engineer at a London-based company. He’s in charge of hiring for his team, and has visited colleges for the last two years as part of his company’s campus hiring programmes.
“At engineering colleges, you don’t find many people who are out. So while we’re giving our ‘why should you join us’ presentation, I always at least have a couple of slides talking about our LGBT-friendly policies. But they’re usually met with some giggles,” Abdullah said.
At his office, queer-affirmative actions and practices aren’t just marketing gimmicks, Abdullah says. Part of this is because of western practices being imposed right from a new joinee’s orientation. “I’ve never been fearful of being outed. If someone from my Indian office asks me about my sexual preferences, I’d be happy to be honest with them,” he said.
“However, it’s still an Indian office at heart. While some will be impeccably well-behaved during meetings with our colleagues from London, the same people won’t think twice before commenting on someone’s hair or dressing in India,” Abdullah said, adding that his earrings are often the subject of jokes within the organisation.
Abdullah has disclosed his identity to his boss, who works in London. He has also opted for his office’s queer-friendly policies. Although currently single, he hopes that his eventual partner can enjoy life and health insurance benefits like his cis-het married counterparts do. “At least that part is sorted,” the hiring manager said.
It’s clear that Indian startups, some of whom boast about running queer-affirmative workplaces, have a long way to go to make their LGBTQIA+ employees feel safer at work. While the policies are well-intentioned, they turn out to be nothing more than marketing tactics in the end. Queer employees don’t use these amenities due to fear of being outed, and every Pride month invites more ridicule and fear. Perhaps some day, the Indian queer workforce can enjoy the same discretion that western counterparts are granted freely.
*Names have been changed to protect identity