A transwoman at a large conglomerate shared her experience of being unable to use a toilet freely after other employees raised concerns over the same, while another gay employee expressed feeling unsupported and not invited to the "boys club" despite the company's visible support for Pride. In another startup, a transman reported that he was asked to leave his workplace after his hormone therapy 'quoting how the client will be uncomfortable' as his voice had started to deepen. Meanwhile, another queer employee recalled that wearing nail paint made his other colleagues uncomfortable, rendering him isolated from his team. Some of them recounted, "Promoting brands and products by flaunting rainbow flags is fine, but when the company earns a big chunk of money in the name of gender & sexual minorities and invests a meagre amount in the welfare of the community, we feel cheated.”
The trend of rainbow washing is hugely widespread, with many companies striving to present themselves as inclusive and woke, as it has become the next new “cool”. It doesn’t come as a surprise that in 2021, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign, over 1,000 companies changed their logos to include a rainbow flag or colours during Pride month. And why shouldn’t they, when they have been throwing more than $26 billion every year by excluding the LGBTQIA+ community according to a report published by Newsd. As per the calculations by Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studied the issue for the World Bank, India has lost as much as 1.4 per cent of its national output as a result of the discriminatory rule.
Rainbow washing, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is: “The act of using or adding rainbow colours and/or imagery to the advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks… to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality (and earn consumer credibility)—but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result.” Simply put, it is when a company, conglomerate, or other for-profit organization uses the rainbow Pride colours to signal to customers that they support the LGBTQIA+ community without actually making an effort or providing a concrete result for queer people.
When June rolls in, the transformational burst of rainbow colours can be seen all over the company’s social media handles. They even feature individuals from the community to look authentic, by underpaying or at times not even paying them for their time and emotional labour of educating. By the time the month comes to an end, so do the commercials with LGBTQIA+ content, brand collaboration with queer folx, and influencer tie-ups.
A Senior Advocacy Officer from a Mumbai-based NGO recalls how even the most skilled transgender talent is sidelined and preference is given only to gay individuals, citing the latter adds glamour to the organization. The ‘TQIA+’ are left far behind, not helping their economic conditions in any way, at times not even being allowed to enter establishments.
Unfortunately, this experience is not unique. The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce reported that 42% of LGBTQIA+ employees are not out at work, often due to fears of discrimination or harassment. This is a stark contrast to the majority of non-LGBTQIA+ employees, who feel comfortable sharing their identities with colleagues and have a more fair chance at a thriving career.
Many queers confirm that in many client-facing roles, LGBTQIA+ individuals are forced to feel the need to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid any uncomfortable conversations while queerphobic terms are continued to be used and often pushed under the rug, working in this space can create a stressful and uncomfortable work environment, leading to increased anxiety and reduced job satisfaction. Within a team, many LGBTQIA+ individuals face microaggressions and bias in the workplace, such as exclusion from social events. These incidents may seem small, but they can have a significant impact on an individual's well-being and sense of belonging within the workplace.
Rainbow washing is not just a corporate buzzword. It has unfortunately become a reality that many individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community face every day. A lot of people including some allies find it hard to talk or extend their support to the community folx. Some of it might arise out of lack of unknown and uncertainty, or just plain fear of offending the next person. However, talking to queer individuals just like how one would talk to any stranger might do the trick; with basic respect, without assumptions and an assumed responsibility on the queer folx to give you education.
Although in many other cases (which forms the majority chunk) it comes due to entrenched beliefs in traditional gender roles and heteronormativity. Even if one rejects outdated ideas such as women being confined to domestic duties, how comfortable are we really with the idea of a man staying at home and doing the same? It's worth examining why we struggle to accept those who don't fit into binary notions of gender.
Despite the internet generation rejecting gender roles that dictate men as breadwinners and protectors and women as homemakers and caregivers, many still struggle with accepting those who challenge binary notions of gender. Are we truly at ease seeing an athletic, tattooed woman or a man who wears makeup? Why do we still believe that a woman must be married by thirty or that men cannot openly express their emotions without being deemed weak? These ideas stem from patriarchy, a school of thought we may not fully buy into but still perpetuate to younger generations. It's time to challenge our beliefs and biases to create a more inclusive and accepting society.
For centuries, patriarchal power structures have relegated women and non-heterosexual individuals to second-class status, denying them the agency and opportunities enjoyed by those who conform to the prescribed gender and sexual norms. The entrenched nature of these norms means that any challenge to them is met with resistance, as those in power are loath to concede their privilege. This begs the question, what is the cost of maintaining these beliefs? We can go after the people who have a different religion than us, different ethnicity, different caste, different colour, different geography, and different belief system, but who do we go against when nobody is left? Power concedes nothing.
It is high time we recognize that traditional gender roles and heteronormativity beliefs are not immutable, but rather social constructs that have been used to maintain power imbalances. Because if we don’t, the results can be quite dreadful for our younger LGBTQIA+ professionals who are just starting their careers. A survey conducted by the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai found that 65% of LGBTQIA+ individuals had experienced verbal abuse and 25% had experienced physical abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not partaking in the mental health struggles portrayed in the study conducted by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that LGBTQIA+ individuals in India experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than non-LGBTQIA+ individuals or lack of medical care shown by the report from the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism which found that many healthcare providers in India lack knowledge about gender dysphoria and are not equipped to provide appropriate care to transgender individuals.
Not all is bleak though, some companies set benchmarks for others to follow. Companies like Google, Godrej Group, KPMG, ThoughtWorks India, TATA Group, etc. provide a shining example of championing diversity and inclusion in the workplace by having various initiatives and programs that proves their dedication to being strong allies and advocates of the LGBTQIA+ community. Hence, what is stopping others from following the same path? Understandably resource constraints are the biggest challenge for start-ups and SMEs to implement policies like these, but fortunately, having courage, conviction, and standing up for something right doesn’t cost a thing.
The actions of even one person can influence the beliefs and behaviours of the entire organization and set the culture in place. So steadfast commitment to equity and justice shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? Something as small as holding a company-wide Zoom sensitization session can go a long way in reinstating that behaviours like loose talk, and bullying will be reprimanded. Of course, a culture is held by every individual within the organization and their adherence to the same. Thus, leaving you all with this question
What is it about differences that make you so uncomfortable?
As queers and allies, we have the power to demand that companies move beyond superficial displays of superficial support toward genuine action. We must ask ourselves, are we willing to support companies that only engage in rainbow washing, or do we demand genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion? As members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies, we must ask ourselves, how far are we okay if companies continue wearing the rainbow blindfold and be blind to the issues of the community?