Home > Lounge > Features > Is post-Section 377 India ready for its LGBTQ+ workforce?

On a bright morning in Bengaluru last month, Uber riders woke up to find an unusual message on the company’s mobile app. “Bengaluru, today all roads lead to equal opportunity and RISE, India’s first LGBTI job fair," a pop-up said, signing off with an emoji of the rainbow flag. Every virtual route leading to the LaLiT Ashok Hotel, which hosted RISE (Reimagining Inclusion for Social Equality), was marked with a shimmering rainbow line. A special day on India’s Pride calendar this year, 12 July was commemorated by Uber, which participated in RISE, with a special gesture.

Srini Ramaswamy (left) and Ramkrishna Sinha, the founders of Pride Circle, at the RISE event in Bengaluru.
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Srini Ramaswamy (left) and Ramkrishna Sinha, the founders of Pride Circle, at the RISE event in Bengaluru. (Photo: RISE)

The first job fair in India aimed specifically at LGBTQ+ employees, RISE was organized by Pride Circle, a pan-India networking group for LGBTQ+ professionals, headquartered in Bengaluru. From 9am-5.30pm, the event unfolded in three parallel segments on the sprawling premises of the LaLiT Ashok—a day-long conference, featuring over 40 speakers from across the globe; a job fair, where more than 35 multinational and Indian companies interviewed some 350 pre-screened candidates for over 100 job openings; and an “LGBTI marketplace", in which 20 businesses owned by LGBTQ+ professionals were given B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) platforms to showcase their products and services.

In a country that read down the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which had effectively criminalized the LGBTQ+ population for over 150 years) only about a year ago on 6 September, RISE was a major step towards imagining equality in one of the most fundamental aspects of human life—employment.

Kiara Narayan Iyer, Mohul Sharma, Naina Dasan and Alex Mathew of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group at the Out & Equal forum in Bengaluru
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Kiara Narayan Iyer, Mohul Sharma, Naina Dasan and Alex Mathew of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group at the Out & Equal forum in Bengaluru (Photo: The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group)

Following on its trail, the last week of July saw Vividh—another job fair aimed at LGBTQ+ professionals—in Mumbai. In early August, the Out & Equal LGBTQI+ India Forum was organized by the The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group in Bengaluru, in collaboration with Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

CALL FOR ACTION

It is hard to believe that only about a year ago, companies could invoke Section 377 to justify not hiring LGBTQ+ employees, or discriminating against them, though the law only criminalized sexual acts, not identities. The tide turned with the Supreme Court ruling, followed by sustained advocacy by organizations like Pride Circle for employee protection and welfare policies across industries.

Founded in 2017, Pride Circle is a volunteer-driven support network for LGBTQ+ people in India to have productive conversations about the challenges they face in workplaces. The brainchild of Srini Ramaswamy and Ramkrishna Sinha, both of whom have extensive experience in the corporate sector, especially in diversity and inclusion. Pride Circle operates in different parts of the country, mainly via WhatsApp groups.

“Our aim is to enable local and contextual exchanges," says Ramaswamy. Those who want to join the groups are screened before they are allowed access. The relative anonymity of WhatsApp makes the platform a safe space for members to interact freely, circulate knowledge of best practices in their industries, and, of course, offer practical advice and remedy to anyone who is facing adversity at work.

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“Thanks to our WhatsApp networks, we had job seekers from tier 2 and 3 cities travel to Bengaluru to attend RISE," Sinha adds. “The vision of diverse representation that we tried to implement down to the last detail—by having badges for visitors with their preferred pronouns, for instance, and no judgement about the clothes they wore—touched many of the participants." He mentions an elderly gentleman who had come to find out what the job scene looks like for his gay son. A woman had brought along her infant child because she could not afford a babysitter.

The venue swarmed with people from as far as Chandigarh, Mumbai, Delhi and parts of Odisha, attired in clothing that defied the conventions of formal dress codes associated with job interviews. Unusual sartorial choices were entirely of a piece in a setting where some of the interviewers themselves were stunningly turned out in drag.

The NestAway team at RISE—from left, Rose Srikrishna, Seema Vijay Singh, Riyana, and Soumya Mishra
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The NestAway team at RISE—from left, Rose Srikrishna, Seema Vijay Singh, Riyana, and Soumya Mishra (Photo: NESTAWAY)

In spite of the palpable spirit of camaraderie, the event was serious business for all concerned. “At least 10-12 companies among the 36 recruiters were part of an event like RISE for the first time," Sinha says. From tech and fintech leaders like Intel, Accenture, American Express and Mastercard, to startups like Delhivery, Unhotel, NestAway, the luggage manufacturers VIP, the range of participants was diverse. “All the recruiters were urged to hire only if they found candidates with the right skill sets," Sinha adds. “But every job seeker, no matter whether they had a degree or not, was treated with equal dignity."

An uncompromising culture of respect, as businesses are realizing, not only leads to a robust work culture but can also become the driver of growth and success.

The business case

In December, the Godrej India Culture Lab, incubated at the headquarters of Godrej Industries in Mumbai, published A Manifesto For Trans Inclusion In The Indian Workplace, a white paper that outlines a template for equitable working conditions for transgender employees. According to this paper, the LGBTQ+ community in India has an annual spending capacity of $200 billion (around 14 trillion). Another report cited in it—published by the World Bank in 2016—claims that India’s economy could be losing up to $32 billion every year due to homophobia and transphobia in industries. Read together, these figures point to a dire need for greater inclusivity in workplaces—for the sake of business sense, if not for humanitarian reasons alone.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community after the September 2018 verdict.
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Members of the LGBTQ+ community after the September 2018 verdict. (Photo: Sarang Gupta/Hindustan Times)

In his talk at RISE, writer, mythologist and corporate coach Devdutt Pattanaik stressed on the business case for creating an inclusive work culture. “If you can enable a business, then you have value," he said. “It’s all about value creation."

Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, affirms this hypothesis, recalling his first brush with the question of inclusivity at Godrej, which he joined around 2011. “I asked my boss Nisa Godrej if the company had a non-discrimination policy," Shahani says. “This question led to the discovery that there was no mention of sexual orientation in the wording of the clause." With Nisa Godrej’s unstinting support, it took barely minutes to remedy the situation. “When you ask a question, things can change," Shahani adds. “Of course, in our case, it helped immensely that the change was directed from the top. Any change of policy will mean little if you don’t have the top leadership of the company gunning for it."

Over the past year, businesses in India have been increasingly trying to walk the talk about inclusivity, though with varying degrees of success. For some years, a range of multinational companies (MNCs) and companies in India have been offering benefits, including healthcare, to partners of employees, irrespective of their gender identity, sexual orientation and marital status. Many companies have employee resource groups and employee assistance programmes to address the concerns of LGBTQ+ employees. Some, like Goldman Sachs and Godrej, fund gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapies for employees wishing to transition. There are others that have provisions for employees to choose their preferred pronouns and gender identities in the workplace, while gender-neutral bathrooms are gradually becoming the norm. The rhetoric of bringing “your authentic selves to work" is now common to almost any human resource (HR) department worth its salt.

Progressive policies, together with activities like hoisting the rainbow flag to mark the Pride month and sending out internal e-mailers about non-discrimination, are useful starting points for creating equitable work cultures. But such gestures can become mere tokens if the overall mindset of the workforce is not committed to engaging with the daily realities of working with LGBTQ+ employees.

“The HR teams in the India chapters of many multinational companies do not often have a clue about global norms and best practices," says Vijay Kumar Nambi, who is employed with an MNC based in Hyderabad. “While many MNCs fare highly in terms of metrics of inclusivity on the global stage, their work culture in India is often in violation of those very parameters."

Nambi recalls an incident involving a friend who was harassed by a supervisor at an MNC with pro-LGBTQ+ policies on paper. A complaint to the HR department did not help the employee, who continued to face micro-aggression at work every day for months. Such was the extent of her emotional trauma that she eventually quit.

“Operations are usually reluctant to investigate cases involving senior management," Nambi adds. “Such procedures can be expensive and long drawn." While the intention to do right by employees may be at the heart of an inclusive workplace, it often opens up a Pandora’s box.

In 2018, when Seema Vijay Singh joined NestAway Technologies as the chief human resource officer in Bengaluru, she was mandated to hire transgender employees for the young company. Through PeriFerry, a Chennai-based placement agency that works exclusively with the transgender community, she found five people. But the legwork that went into the process was arduous, with numerous challenges along the way.

“I was asked by these hires what I would do if others don’t treat them right," Singh says. “I promised them that if anyone misbehaves with them, I will have them fired." Having to make such a pledge was only the tip of the iceberg. One of the recruits, who had a master’s degree in law, had never had a chance to practise for 12 years. She had lived most of her life in a community of transgender persons and did not even know how to switch on a laptop. Another employee refused to sit next to male colleagues in the office. “Everybody’s history is different," Singh says. “No amount of policy can address it without attention to their personal details."

Given the extent of upskilling required to hone the capabilities of the new hires, Singh decided not to subject them to reviews for the first year in order to allow them to get to a level playing field. She treated them as a company would treat its management trainees.

Rose Srikrishna, one of the beneficiaries of this policy, was originally trained as a civil engineer, but could not work in her field due to discrimination in her previous workplaces. Currently employed as a senior HR executive with NestAway, she acknowledges the advantage of not having targets at the outset. “I was not familiar with corporate culture, so I benefited from the time I got to adjust to the environment," she says.

Apart from attending to these practical details, Singh ensured that employees across the board, especially the senior management, were trained to behave sensitively with their transgender colleagues. She would have lunch with the new hires, invite them to socialize with their colleagues after work, and encourage other team leaders to do the same.

Sensitization drive

If a company’s culture rests with the people who make it, the work of passing on that legacy lies with its senior management. Uber, for instance, trains its recruiters to remove any bias during the process of interviewing candidates for potential jobs. Vidya Lakshmi, head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs in Bengaluru, explains the philosophy of the Reverse Mentoring Programme that is part of the company’s DNA.

“This is a global programme where managing directors are mentored by an out LGBTQ+ professional in the firm," she says. The process makes it possible for senior leaders to understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ members of the company. “They also drive LGBTQ+ inclusion efforts in their divisions…and encourage other leaders to participate in the programme." It’s no surprise perhaps that Romel Baral, a former employee of the company, was one of the petitioners to the Supreme Court to read down Section 377.

Professional support can not only encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, but also enable them to have a fuller life in the public domain.

Indrajeet Ghorpade, who currently works with Facebook in Hyderabad, was not sure about coming out in his earlier job with another MNC. “Not that my team had evil intentions, but sometimes they cracked insensitive jokes," he says. At Facebook India, working closely with a small team of women colleagues, Ghorpade felt more at ease about coming out. “Since I work with a social product, I feel people are organically more aware of issues like inclusivity," he says.

In the last three years, Ghorpade has made Pride At Facebook, a global initiative of the company, more visible to its India chapter. “That was how I came out to the company," he says. From organizing guest interviews with public figures like transgender activist Gauri Sawant, to working closely with the Humsafar Trust in its social initiatives, he has not only done his bit to make Facebook more inclusive but also lobbied for change outside work. Earlier this year, Ghorpade started a petition on Change.org to urge Zomato to cease working with restaurants that discriminated against LGBTQ+ customers and encourage the company’s network of restaurants to become more inclusive.

Neelam Jain, founder of PeriFerry, has witnessed the impact of such positive discrimination up close in her work over the last two years. “So far, we have placed about 100 transgender employees across industries," she says, “in roles ranging from HR to housekeeping, including one person as assistant vice-president in a marketing firm." In March, a TEDxChennai event was managed entirely—from registration to catering—by members of the transgender community, for instance.

While many of PeriFerry’s achievements are the result of sustained sensitization of higher management, companies are also beginning to understand the need to run such workshops for their ground staff. Discrimination and hostility often start at the lower levels—with drivers, peons and the housekeeping staff. “Since we ran a sensitization workshop for ground staff at Walmart in Bengaluru, we have been getting calls from companies with similar demands," Jain says.

The road ahead

With over 100 LGBTQ+ employees on its payroll, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group is a model for inclusion and continues to push boundaries. Keshav Suri, chairman of the group, was not only a co-petitioner in the Supreme Court to repeal Section 377, but has also implemented a bevy of initiatives to make the LGBTQ+ community more employable (see “Queering the pitch,"page 16). At a panel at RISE, Suri spoke about the culture of “tough conversations" that his company has never shied away from and which have eventually led to its championing of the LGBTQ+ workforce.

Four of the Lalit’s LGBTQ+ employees, who spoke at the Out & Equal forum earlier this month in Bengaluru, embody the group’s success story. Alex Mathew, a public relations and marketing executive at The LaLiT Ashok, Bengaluru, identifies as gay but also performs as Maya the Drag Queen at LaLiT’s chain of nightclubs, Kitty Su. Kiara Narayan Iyer, PR executive at Kitty Su, identifies as transwoman. She describes her workplace as her “second home"—now how many of us can say that about ours?—and transitioned during her stint with LaLiT, with the support of her employers and colleagues.

Naina Dasan, who fought a fierce battle against society as an out lesbian woman, is an assistant manager at Kitty Su, Delhi. Her job with LaLiT, she says, has not only helped her cope with her mental health issues better, but also enabled her to “become mentally healthy". Last, but certainly not least, is 21-year-old Mohul Sharma, who identifies as a transman. Employed with the food and beverages services at The LaLiT New Delhi, he also transitioned while working with the group. Having lost his earlier job with a BPO because his voice had deepened beyond acceptable limits for “women", Sharma reinvented himself with the help of the skill-enhancement training offered by the Lalit group. “At work, I feel totally accepted," he says. “I use, for instance, the male washrooms and lockers."

While stories of LGBTQ+ empowerment in white-collar jobs are gaining currency, more needs to be done to bring in systemic changes in laws pertaining to employment—which may then go on to have a cascading effect on public-sector and non-corporate jobs.

A report published by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, timed for the first anniversary of the historic 6 September Supreme Court ruling, lays out the ground reality from a legal perspective. Queering The Law: Making Indian Laws LGBT+ Inclusive exposes the loopholes in imagining equality at workplaces, often in spite of the best intentions of companies.

It’s not enough to promise no discrimination against LGBTQ+ employees, for instance. That pledge needs to be supplemented by reimagining “the composition of family" in an LGBTQ+ context, says Akshat Agarwal, lawyer and author of the report. Existing workplace policies—pertaining to maternity, paternity and adoption leave, for instance, or to deal with incidents of sexual harassment—need to be reconfigured to factor in the intersectional realities of LGBTQ+ lives.

“Often, the government brings in laws without adequately consulting members of the community whose lives are going to be affected by them," Agarwal says. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, recently passed by the lower house of Parliament, for instance, fails to take into account the wider views of the stakeholders. The result, activists say, is a series of proposed “remedies" that are regressive, doing more disservice to the transgender community rather than ensuring their rights.

Perhaps the worst-served members of the LGBTQ+ umbrella are those who identify as intersex, but are unthinkingly clubbed with transgender people. Speaking at the Out & Equal conference, Daniel Mendonca, an activist for intersex rights, described the pernicious cycle of social, psychological and physiological trauma that has been his life’s story so far.

Born with external male organs and female organs inside his body, Mendonca has been through 29 major and 19 minor surgeries. Although he was lucky to have an education, he still finds it difficult to find employment. “Corporates are willing to have me conduct sensitization workshops but they never offer me a job," he says. “The usual refrain is, ‘We aren’t sure if your gender will make other people in the field comfortable.’"

The absurdity of that statement conveys the extent of the challenge that lies ahead.

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