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Based on the recommendations made by a panel headed by late chief justice of India J.S. Verma after the Delhi gang-rape in December last year, the new Act continues to retain its asymmetry when assessed from a gender-neutral point of view. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Based on the recommendations made by a panel headed by late chief justice of India J.S. Verma after the Delhi gang-rape in December last year, the new Act continues to retain its asymmetry when assessed from a gender-neutral point of view. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Minority report | A vulnerable gender

Direct or indirect sexual harassment of gay men at the workplace is very common yet the law offers no recourse for such complaints

Quite a bit has been said on the gaps in the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Based on the recommendations made by a panel headed by late chief justice of India J.S. Verma after the Delhi gang-rape in December last year, the new Act continues to retain its asymmetry when assessed from a gender-neutral point of view. In fact, the Verma committee had recommended weeding out some lacunae in the Vishakha guidelines of 1997 but Parliament ignored the finer points, going ahead with what can be called a lopsided Act.

Some would say I am being less sensitive to feminist concerns by bringing up ambiguities in the Act at a time when the nation is deeply concerned over sexual crimes against women.

But that hardly diminishes the fact that this Act, which could have included contemporary considerations, gives no recourse to same-sex harassment at the workplace, which is as rampant, if not sometimes more than that against women. Internationally, courts and legislators have recognized this and made suitable amendments to protect the rights of homosexuals in offices. Not in India.

Now that we are busy taking every culprit to the cleaners, isn’t it the right time to stand up against the sexual teasing and offensive verbal and physical exploitation meted out to homosexual men at workplaces? Their being in a minority doesn’t make their sexual victimization any less serious.

Also, consider this. International case law and Indian case law which include the Vishakha case of 1997 and the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013 have recognized that gender-specific laws made for women were created because sexual harassment is seen as discrimination on the basis of gender. If that is the reasoning, why can’t it be used for same-sex harassment, too?

“The sexual harassment Act of 2013 doesn’t even protect men who could potentially be sexually harassed at a workplace, so what do you mean by gay men? There is no such category as gay men as far as the law is concerned," chastises a senior lawyer who didn’t want to be named.

Mostly perceived as “sexually available" and easy game with an unnatural obsession for sex above professional talent and focus, gays, including those in senior positions, are often at the receiving end of cruel sexual jokes, scurrilous comments and offensive innuendos. These are usually made by so-called straight men at workplaces and in other situations by gay bosses.

Ironically, their situation mirrors that of women employees who are victims of sexual perversions of men and yet can’t complain easily because of the gender-based embarrassments involved. Sometimes it is worse. While not all women are treated as “fair game" by men in a changing India, almost all homosexual men are seen in that light, an unjust misreading of their sexual preferences. It can be very daunting and traumatic for them. “I often notice other men staring at me in office and then suddenly winking crudely. Besides, almost every day we are at the receiving end of sexual jokes," says one of my gay friends, who holds a senior position in a media office and didn’t want to be named.

He says that the possibility that a male colleague or a boss who calls himself “straight" will sexually exploit him seldom leaves his mind. “If I have such experiences at my level, I can well imagine how junior gay men struggle to fend off such unwelcome advances," says this man. He cites the example of a multi-national bank employee who quit his job because he had been turned into the “mistress" of three seniors at his workplace.

There is also the other side. “Strangely, all heterosexual men who I meet in professional situations think I will make a pass at them just because I am gay. It is so disgusting and presumptive," says a fashion stylist who works for advertising firms. Sexual exploitation of male models by gay designers, photographers and powerful older men in the fashion industry may be viewed as the stuff of flaky gossip or a Madhur Bhandarkar film, but quite a bit of it is true. “Under the guise of lavish parties, some senior designers prowl predatorily, victimizing young gay men who are dazed by glamour but too disempowered as a community to protest when the boundaries are crossed," says the stylist.

With most homosexuals in India still struggling with issues of identity, personal freedom, fear of law and of the homophobes, fighting for workplace rights remains a closeted issue. So any man harassed at the workplace—homosexual or not—has no recourse under the 2013 Act. His only option would be to seek legal help for common procedure to file a criminal case. Even if what he undergoes is exactly the same offence that may have been committed against a woman at the same workplace.

We do not need the special inclusion of homosexuals under the 2013 Act as a particularly vulnerable group, but for gender-neutral provisions that protect anyone who is sexually harassed, violated, teased, abused and ridiculed.

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