Anubhuti’s birthday: 20th November” read the notification on my smartphone, as I fumbled to switch off the alarm. Unlike all other birthday notifications that pop up through the month of November, this was one I could not ignore. It will be exactly a year from the day I let a colleague know about me, the day I came out as Anubhuti, a transgender woman. After 25 years of being a reflection, a captive of my own gaze, I entered reality. It is, in the truest sense, my birthday.
Like most transgender women, I had known of my female-ness from my earliest recollections. During the intensely troublesome post-puberty years, when I first heard of a sex-change operation, I immediately knew I wanted to make my physical appearance match my mental one. But I cared for my career and I am as ambitious as any other girl, so I decided to be a self-made woman.
I studied engineering and got a job in the manufacturing sector at one of the oldest companies in India. Because of its location, the nature of the industry and existing social prejudice, my workplace had relatively fewer women and little diversity. After a few years of working, during which time I was in the closet, I decided it was time to come out in my workplace about my gender identity and get on with being a woman physically, socially and legally. To my pleasant surprise, I found a lot of support from management towards my transition. I was asked to draft a policy with a view to making our human resources policies more inclusive and supportive of the needs of transgender employees. Now, while undergoing transition and awaiting surgery, I have come out to my colleagues as a woman. Not everyone is this fortunate.
A corporate workplace is a microcosm of the society we live in, where sexism is undeniable and many see transgender and gender non-conforming people as scandalous—mired in negative stereotypes of deceit and immorality. Soon after I came out at my workplace, I was shocked to receive some lewd messages and an invitation to “meet me tonight” from a colleague whom I considered a friend. Most workplaces have not yet recognized the opportunity to hire transgender people and make little effort to reach out to the community to understand our needs. Women have been fighting for a more equal workplace for decades, but it was only recently that a law against sexual harassment in the workplace was passed.
Transitioning in our society is challenging. The complex medical process and the tedious legal procedures serve to deter even the most determined. After one has made peace with oneself, friends and family, the next daunting prospect is the corporate workplace. Apart from at some companies—mainly multinational corporations or start-ups—the opportunities for someone with a different gender identity to have a rewarding career seem limited.
Yet, I feel optimistic. A policy for transgender inclusion, such as what my company has been working on, often goes a long way in demonstrating the management’s commitment. Provisions such as non-discrimination on gender identity, use of restrooms in accordance with gender presentation, making transitioning eligible for medical aid and leave, updating the name and gender in personnel records and incorporating non-binary gender identifications in hiring applicants are just some basic steps that companies can take to make the workplace more welcoming to transgender people.
Besides policy, it’s also important to make the workplace fair and free for the transgender person. Often the biggest impediment is a lack of knowledge and general awareness about gender identity. Sessions with NGOs and mental health professionals on gender identity and inclusive communication (something simple like using a gender neutral pronoun instead of “he”) could go a long way in sensitizing the workforce without compromising the confidentiality of trans employees who haven’t undergone transition, or those who aren’t out. Some workplaces are taking proactive steps to make the experience a happy one for the employee. Some organizations have established employee resource groups for gender identity and sexual orientation where employees can express themselves freely. In some organizations, such as my own, someone undergoing transitioning can be rehired as a new employee with their new name and gender.
My experience of coming out as a transgender woman at the workplace has taught me a few things. Society has definitely become more accepting; most of my colleagues were ready to support me, and all of them were curious. There are questions—a lot of them—and not all of them are comfortable. For example, a lot of people ask about the surgery, almost as if they want you to go through all that pain to prove you mean it when you tell them that you’re transgender. The inevitable comment, remarks, long stares and giggling are part and parcel of my daily life. Despite that, coming out feels good. To be able to live as I wanted to is an incomparable gift. The first time I was called “Madam” by one of my colleagues was an unforgettable moment, and recently, I was chosen to be part of a youth leadership group in my organization.
That felt like vindication.