Work Culture / LGBTQ

What it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ working professional in India

. 7 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
What it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ working professional in India

This article was first published in July 2020. It has been re=published on the occasion of Pride month.

When we talk about workforce participation, we talk about cisgender, heterosexual women not being at par with men. But what about those who don’t fit these categories at all?

Winnie Chopra, who identifies as a lesbian woman, narrated an incident during her interview with me. She told me about the time when one of her reporting managers, a ‘woke’ man who knew of her sexual orientation, asked her a slew of inappropriate questions.

Did something happen to you during your childhood, because of which you’re like this?”

“Is it because you have three sisters and your parents always dressed you up as a boy that you’re like this?”

She had a befitting response. “Maybe your mom dropped you on your head a few times. That’s why you’re like this.”

This incident took place not long ago – in 2019 to be precise – one year after section 377 was struck down by the Supreme Court. But Winnie did not take it lightly. She lodged a complaint with the higher management, and he was demoted with immediate effect.

These are some of the many experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the Indian workforce.

The LGBTQ+ community is diverse. It encompasses the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons among others. Like cisgender, heterosexual women, they too face varied forms of discrimination in the workplace. However, unlike the former, their experiences aren’t always highlighted. But they exist and thrive, regardless of whether they are acknowledged.

So, what’s it like to be a part of the formal workforce when you’re LGBTQ+? What is the potential of having a workforce that is more inclusive and open, and what are the existing challenges? I talked to a few people to get insights.

The feeling of ‘otherness’ in the workplace is common

Winnie, an IT professional of 10 years, now works in an LGBTQ+ friendly company. But her career did not start that way – when she started out in 2003, she was refused jobs on several occasions because she wasn’t visibly feminine. Recruiters often disregarded the way she dressed, if not rejected her sexuality outright.

Ashish Chopra, a gay man working human resources, was asked by a manager why he discussed his ‘personal’ matters at work. His response? He was entitled to talk about his boyfriend if his colleagues could talk about their wives and kids.

Several LGBTQ+ persons feel othered at work. Whether it’s about how they dress or conduct themselves, many of them are discriminated against because they seem ‘different’. A 2016 study conducted by MINGLE, India’s one-of-a-kind LGBT think-tank, had some telling insights.

What's It Like to Work As an LGBTQ+ Person in India?
The problem of otherness arises from the deep-rooted homophobia that goes largely unaddressed.

While some actions can be dismissed as naivete or ignorance, others can be unprofessional, hurtful, and even violent. This feeling of otherness is more pronounced among transgender and non-binary individuals, often owing to their appearance.

Shakti Iyer Singh, a trans woman working as a business analyst, had a difficult start to her career. She was asked to leave her previous company because there were complaints about her using the women’s restroom, despite the fact that the management knew of her gender identity. They did nothing to stop it.

Ayaan Agarwal, a trans man who works as a program developer, was often misgendered by both colleagues and management, despite having been clear about his pronouns. However, the worst experience he recounts is when he was forced to be a part of the group of women employees cutting a cake on International Women’s Day. That incident pushed him over the edge, leaving him no option but to quit.

Says Shakti, “When your identity is the first topic of discussion rather than your work, it feels like you’re being watched all the time. And no one likes to feel watched all the time.”

Shakti and Ayaan are now part of two of the several LGBTQ+ friendly companies in India.

Resource groups: a key to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace in India

Formal inclusion is an essential part of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace, but that is just the beginning. As integrated above, it’s not only the policies (or lack thereof) that can make a workplace hostile, but also its employees.

In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the regressive Section 377, which was a big win for the LGBTQ+ community in India – but that hasn’t changed people’s perceptions.

Payal Shah, a gay woman, believes that the state must do more than just strike down a regressive law. True inclusiveness comes when citizens are given equal responsibilities, and it does not end at validating their already valid existence.

This is where employee resource groups (ERGs) play a significant role.

ERGs are employee-led forums that connect people on the basis of shared characteristics or life experiences, and LGBTQ+ related groups can provide support to employees who aren’t out to their colleagues or family. Ayaan heads the ‘Pride’ ERG – the oldest and strongest ERG in his company. Through this group, Ayaan has organised workshops, meet-ups, and sensitisation programs to foster an empathetic work culture.

Recently, he had organised an LGBTQ+ sensitisation programme for parents, believing that change begins from home.

Ashish’s company, still in its nascent stages regarding policies for LGBTQ+ persons, was eager to do better. This led to several proactive efforts – the company now celebrates Pride month, and over time, introduced same-sex partner benefits in their official policy.

What's It Like to Work As an LGBTQ Person in India?
Ashish Chopra

Sensitisation programmes for both employees and management are a starting point for LGBT awareness in the Indian workplace. It has helped build a conversation around non-normative identities at work. Ashish remarks how these workshops helped some of his colleagues come out to him, which he sees as a victory.

The importance of team-building activities for LGBT awareness in the workplace isn’t lost on employers, but these opportunities must be utilised for the benefit of LGBTQ+ employees. In some instances mentioned to me, companies have made efforts to educate HR on how to interact with LGBTQ+ employees and how to tackle questions that are specific to them. In Ayaan’s case, the employers had informed existing employees of his gender identity and pronouns in advance. This made his transition into the new company smooth and pleasant.

It’s important for companies to move beyond tokenism to become LGBTQ+ inclusive and start looking at resource groups as drivers of change.

Should you come out at work? It’s up to you, but people who live their truth feel more confident

Almost all of the LGBTQ+ people I spoke to said that coming out is a deeply personal experience. That said, they were encouraging about it – live your truth, they said. There are several factors that prohibit an employee from coming out, but it definitely has its benefits.

Ashish stated that his productivity boomed when he came out to his colleagues and felt overwhelmingly accepted. Winnie and Ayaan too felt the same. Studies have also shown that

LGBTQ+ employees who feel accepted in their organisations have high self-esteem and a boosted sense of confidence to carry out their work, which has also shown a rise in productivity.

However, it’s important to first test the waters.

Coming out to a close work friend is a good way to start. If not, having informal conversations around LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace can give one a sense of the environment. In some cases, one could even come out to the management if it’s easier. It’s important to have a confidant to feel safe and secure. Of course, the choice is up to the person – but the more authentically one lives, the better the organisation becomes.

What's It Like to Work as an LGBTQ+ Person in India?
Payal Shah

Several global companies are LGBTQ+ friendly, but many have a long way to go

In 2018, Godrej India Culture Lab published an insightful study on the inclusion of transgender persons in the Indian workplace.

What's It Like to Work As an LGBTQ+ Person in India?

In a review of 50 Fortune 500 companies, it was also found that productivity was the most frequently mentioned commercial benefit of adopting LGBTQ+ inclusive policies. Though gradually, companies are understanding the importance of being inclusive and diverse, and their policies are starting to show it.

The company where Shakti works, for instance, covers same-sex couples in the empolyee’s insurance policies. Her office also has a gender-neutral washroom and an enthusiastic bunch of employees celebrating Pride month every year.

Aside from a strict non-discrimination policy, Aayan’s company provides financial and emotional support to employees who wish to transition – a big win for LGBTQ+ inclusive policies in India. The most positively welcome policy, however, was their gender-neutral sexual harassment policy.

These companies, though inclusive, are also global, which has influenced their decision for LGBTQ+ friendly policies. However, this does not take away from their significance – they can influence native, small and medium-sized companies to follow suit.

Companies such as Tata Steel, Thoughtworks, and Lalit Hotels are making concerted efforts to become LGBTQ+ friendly with the help of Periferry, Diversity Dialogues, Orinam, and Solidarity Foundation, which are some of the diversity hiring portals in India.

Some suggestions to make LGBTQ+ inclusive Indian companies are:

  • Regular gender sensitisation programmes
  • Gender-neutral washrooms
  • The freedom to use display names of choice, along with pronouns
  • Limiting dress-code restrictions
  • Extending CSR efforts towards NGOs that work for the LGBTQ+ community

India has barely started to address its antagonistic relationship with its LGBTQ+ history – even the government is far from following suit. Regressive laws and judgements, especially around gay marriage and transgender rights, continue to add to the list of problems faced by the LGBTQ+ community in India, but this is where private organisations must come forward in support.

It is important for all people to live well-rounded lives, and a stable job at an inclusive organisation is a great start.

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