Parmesh Shahani dreams of transgender employment at every workplace
What if every major company—private and public—had a multiple-level transgender employment initiative, asks Parmesh Shahani of Godrej India Culture Lab
I am writing this from Bengaluru, where I spoke at the first Out & Equal LGBTQ+ India Forum to more than 100 executives from Indian and multinational corporations. This is a huge increase from the approximately 40 corporate representatives present at last year’s launch of the UN Standards of Conduct for Business report for LGBTQ+ inclusion, held at the Godrej headquarters in Mumbai. The report outlined guidelines on how the workplace can tackle discrimination against lesbian, bi, gay, trans and intersex people. On 1 July, I was at the Indian School of Business Mohali’s Pride Walk. I have lost count of how many other college campuses I have visited in the past two years to launch their LGBTQ+ clubs and initiatives. I have been tracking LGBTQ+ issues in India for 15 years now and I can tell you—never has the rate of change been as fast as it has over the past two years.
Now that the Supreme Court has given an indication that it will scrap Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality, it is time to shift our attention to the battles we still need to fight in a post-377 India. My idea for this Independence Day issue relates to a post-377 India. A positive verdict from the Supreme Court may lead to decriminalization, but it won’t lead to equality for the 45 million LGBTQ+ citizens of our country (according to a 2014 report on Firstpost.com). For equality, we need to be included in every aspect of society.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has said that “if we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people, businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, they must become active agents of change”. My recent experiences in corporate India and at institutions of higher learning have convinced me that Indian corporations are ready to become change agents. So here’s my idea—what if every major company, private and public, had a transgender employment initiative?
At the outset, focusing on LGBTQ+ employment for corporations isn’t just good from a welfare and uplift angle, but also makes business sense. There is enough research globally to validate this. According to the venture capital firm LGBT Capital, the spending power of the global LGBTQ+ community in 2015 was $3.7 trillion, or around ₹254 trillion (this number doesn’t include allies, friends and family of LGBTQ+ individuals). The LGBT Foundation in Hong Kong has calculated that if the LGBT community worldwide were a country, it would be the fourth largest economy in terms of GDP. Closer home, we have the oft-quoted 2016 World Bank report that placed India’s loss in GDP due to homophobia up to $32 billion, or 1.7% of our GDP. According to a study by Forbes India and Out Now Consulting, 4% of our population is LGBTQ+. Research globally shows that LGBTQ+ inclusion leads to both business innovation and happier workplaces because employees can bring their “whole selves” to work with the confidence that their workplace is protecting and empowering them.
While LGBTQ+ inclusion makes eminent sense whichever way you look at it, I propose that Indian companies focus specifically on trans employment, and I do so for three reasons. First, the legal context. We have the strong landmark National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) judgement of 2014 which affirmed the right to self-identify as male, female or trans irrespective of gender-affirming surgeries or hormonal therapy—and this is among other directives in the judgement, such as job reservations and provision of healthcare. This judgement provided a framework for the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, which is set to be reintroduced in Parliament. The passage of this Bill will create genuine momentum for wide-scale trans employment.
Second, trans people are the most visible of the LGBTQ+ community, and this leads to a high incidence of violence and discrimination against them. The Delhi-based youth-run YP Foundation released a policy brief earlier this year which shows that in Kerala, 89% of trans people are mistreated at the workplace and 96% do not raise their voice against violence. Shockingly, 100% of the respondents had had at least one experience of being denied a job due to their gender identity (Kerala happens to be one of India’s most progressive states. Imagine the figures elsewhere). Out of India’s trans population of 490,000 (as per 2011 census data), very few make it to gainful employment. There are valiant efforts being made to change this narrative. For instance, PeriFerry, a Chennai-based start-up, is working towards the social inclusion of the transgender community, but it has only been able to place 42 trans people in its 14-month existence. So focusing on trans employment at the workplace is absolutely vital.
Finally, I believe that a focus on trans people is necessary because trans employees face a distinctly different set of challenges at the workplace that are not part of the lesbian, gay or bi experience. If we can address these challenges, we make the workplace inclusive-ready. By focusing on inclusion and meaningful participation of trans persons, we hope this will lead to greater confidence among both employers as well as not so visible LGBTQ+ populations—so as to cater to a whole range of sexual and gender minorities.
For this idea to succeed, transgender inclusion would need to be implemented at multiple levels, both in the private and public sectors. Here are some strategies companies can adopt.
At the policy level, every company should have an anti-discrimination policy that prohibits discrimination not only on grounds of sexual orientation, but also of gender identity and expression. This would run in tandem with the proposed rules of the Bill of 2016 where each institution would need to set up a focal point for transgender-related redressal. This would require an understanding of what constitutes trans-phobic behaviour. Invasive questions about an individual’s trans history or verbal, sexual and physical harassment are all unacceptable.
In this regard, the Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust recently released a manual, Inclusion Of Gender And Sexual Minorities In The Workplace, that states there is no singular way for a person to transition, it is a personal process that is to be defined by the individual and it is integral that the company’s guidelines and formal documents communicate this. Furthermore, there should be a process at the company for updating the documents and records of the trans person once they have transitioned—for both legal and communication purposes.
Second, every company should have a strong transition policy as a part of employee benefits. Health insurance and mediclaim policies don’t normally provide for gender affirmation surgery, hormone therapy, and other transition- related procedures. However, there are a few progressive companies that have managed to negotiate these for employees. If more and more companies embark on trans inclusion, these benefits will become regular offerings by Indian insurers.
Third, if an organization truly cares about being inclusive, it should introduce a certain amount of flexibility in work processes to truly invest in trans talent. It’s important to remember that due to the systemic discrimination against trans people, 58% of transgender students drop out of school before class X. It is vital that employers of trans people offer longer ramp-up time periods for their trans employees to fit in to the organizational culture.
Fourth, the trans person’s work team should be sensitized to the transition process. This means that it must understand that name, pronoun and other changes might be adopted by the trans individual. The higher management of the company should show solidarity towards the individual, because that goes a long way towards making an employee feel accepted.
Colleague sensitization also needs to happen with respect to informal conversations. Being mindful of the fact that some of our conversations are gender coded and difficult for a trans person to engage in, we should be aware of the many ways in which people at the workplace talk about sex, sexuality and gender. It is key to collaborate with community-based organizations such as Bengaluru’s Solidarity Foundation and seek their expertise in sensitization, training, and making the workplace trans person friendly—whether in terms of documentation, communication or skill building.
Finally, during the recruitment and hiring stages, companies should adopt messaging which explicitly states that they would encourage trans people to apply for jobs. New recruits should be told about the company’s efforts in hiring and sensitization.
I am gratified to see so many companies—IBM, Intel, Tata Steel, Infosys, Goldman Sachs, Cummins, and others—working together and sharing their best practices. These include practices like infrastructural modifications, such as universal-access restrooms, which demonstrate that the company respects an individual’s self-identified gender identity and doesn’t take an anatomical, “biological” stance towards trans people. I remain enthused by Kochi Metro’s ongoing commitment to trans hiring—it is paving the way for other government and public sector enterprises to take up similar initiatives. Keshav Suri’s The Lalit group of hotels is another pioneer in this regard—over the past six months, it has hired 10 trans employees and placed them in locations of visibility across its properties.
I am also happy to see companies like Procter & Gamble bringing up trans causes to the mainstream with great success. The Vicks ad starring trans activist and mother Gauri Sawant garnered millions of views and made her a household name. There is increased trans visibility all over the country.
Mainstreaming of the trans community is also under way in states like Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with the introduction of skilling programmes, voter IDs, free health insurance, and soft loans to set up businesses. Be it VLCC, cafés in Navi Mumbai, Uber Eats or the Chhattisgarh police force—our country is slowly pushing for inclusion and I hope to see this materialize more and more across other organizations. Trans people have been a part of our country’s cultural fabric for eons. Let’s make sure their marginalization ends this Independence Day.
Parmesh Shahani heads the Godrej India Culture Lab and is the author of Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love And (Be)Longing In Contemporary India. He is a senior TED fellow, a former Yale world fellow and an academy member of the Global Teacher Prize.
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