The 21st century India Inc likes to toot a bighorn globally. It is time we looked beneath the veneer at their shameful secret: a hostile work culture where being gay is enough to get someone fired.
Please Note: The article was written before Navtej Singh Johar Vs Union of India case, in which the Supreme Court of India declared Section 377 unconstitutional.
Ishan works in the Pune office of a reputed MNC. He is gay and is out to his colleagues-cum-friends. His work always kept him busy and, until recently, there was nothing out of the ordinary that bothered him. However, one day that he was being discriminated against by his boss.
“I had come out to my friends at the office so that I could be myself around them. I don’t know who revealed my sexuality to my boss. Since then, I noticed a change in his attitude towards me. If I made a mistake, he would link it to my sexual orientation and would pass homophobic slurs. He would glance accusingly at me when I entered or left. He would murmur things about me to his colleague whenever I walked across the corridor. While the sidelining was evident, the dismal realisation that my sexuality was stalling my promotion hit me hard. I had no option but to stay mum, lest I lose my job.”Ishan feels embarrassed to narrate his humiliating agony. “I reached a point of time when I said to myself that enough was enough. I could take it no more. I approached the senior management, only to realise that they were barely acquainted with queer issues themselves. It was very embarrassing for me to explain to them as to how and why I felt humiliated and discriminated. It reached no conclusion, as I couldn’t quit my job. I had to be quiet.”
The MINGLE Survey Statistics
Workplace diversity and inclusion have been widely recognised as a business driver. However, one segment of the workforce that is still unrecognised is the LGBT employee. The Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE) published ‘The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report 2016’. The survey focused on three sectors of the economy- Information Technology, Banking & Finance, and FMCG & Manufacturing. A hundred respondents from various Indian and foreign multinational companies took the survey. The results were a mixed bag - more than half of LGBT Indians surveyed could be legally fired from their jobs for being LGBT. Only a small minority - 4% are covered by same-sex partnership benefits, unsurprisingly, for a country which does not recognise same-sex partnerships. 40% reported having faced some form of harassment, and two-thirds of the respondents reported hearing homophobic comments and slurs.
Despite nearly half of the respondents being covered by LGBT protections policies in the workplace, they were still not comfortable about coming out - an indication that policies and workplace culture may not necessarily be aligned.
Impact of Section 377
Section 377 impacted LGBTQ inclusion at the workplace by creating confusion and misunderstanding amongst organisations. The law was conveniently subject to numerous misinterpretations. Risk-averse legal departments have stonewalled HR initiatives in some cases, while others have withdrawn helpful policies that were initiated earlier. Often there is a lack of understanding of the legal nuances, especially of the fact that only certain sexual acts have been criminalised. Being LGBT is not a crime, nor are organisational efforts to promote the inclusion of LGBT employees. Also, the Supreme Court ruling on transgender rights (the NALSA vs Union of India verdict) has been largely ignored.
David, an IT professional working in Bengaluru says, “A lot depends on company policies. I know companies that support the LGBT community wholeheartedly. But the law can’t be the only reason that prevents implementation of LGBTQ friendly policies in Indian MNC’s. It could be social stigma and homophobia that is still prevalent in the larger society.”
Atul, a 23-year-old medical student, believes, “I don’t think repealing Section 377 will have any significant impact on the workplace being more queer-accepting. The reason being that most of them are ignorant of Section 377. They do not even remember what it implies.”
Out and Proud at the Office
Coming out- the process of disclosing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity to people around them- remains a defining experience for every queer individual. This very personal decision is perceived differently by different people. Some may never feel the need to come out to their colleagues and managers. On the other hand, those who wish to, often undergo a traumatising reception.
David says, “Being able to come out to my office will impact me immensely. I had done that in my previous organisations and lost two jobs. I don’t regret it because it’s better to be in a place where they accept you the way you are rather than face mental torture.” He adds “Coming out is one’s choice. To be bold and assertive about one’s sexuality is something we need in any environment. It affects all aspects, not just professional life.”
Chetan, 23, a civil engineer from Raipur feels an acute need to come out of the closet, but his surroundings do not allow it. “ I mostly feel like a woman trying to fight the man’s world without letting my sexuality hinder my professional growth.”
The Way Ahead
Corporate culture demands high professionalism in today’s competitive times. But true professionalism is only possible when we not only move towards diversity acceptance but diversity appreciation. Many reforms need to evolve so that professionalism is achieved in the truest sense. Some of the important ways ahead are:
1. HR policies- The equal opportunity policy should cover gender identity and sexuality. HR forms need to be more inclusive of LGBTQ individuals and partnership benefits ought to extend to same-sex couples. Chetan says, “In a closeted society such as ours, LGBTQ people come from harsh backgrounds. It would be thoughtful if there are mentors/counsellors in the office to help people deal with these issues.”
2. Corporate Culture- To encourage inclusion, visible support and sponsorship from senior employees are necessary. Akash, an MNC employee suggests, “ We need Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) to develop within large organisations that include straight allies and their queer colleagues.”
3. Community Participation- Atul says, “ Many organisations in the West come to Pride marches with their company logos and banners. I would like to see the same happening in India. Large Indian MNC’s with their offices located internationally must not succumb to societal stigmas back home and should rather lead the way to break them.”
21st Century India Inc. claims to move forward purely on developmental agendas. With ‘Make in India’ is one of the guiding mottos of the present government, a sincere evaluation of the implementation of human rights of the workers is necessary. Until and unless we ensure equality, justice and a sense of safety, all of our progress is superficial and myopic.