Reflections of a member of the audience at the panel discussion ‘Towards LGBT-inclusive workplaces’ held on Saturday July 13, as part of Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival 2013.
The workplace occupies significant part of our daily lives. Gone are the days when we used to carry only our heads to work. These days, a work situation requires so much creativity and energy that it demands you in complete form. It is essential for one to take one’s head, heart and needless to mention—physical or ethereal— body! Our sexuality and gender, naturally, follow us to our workplaces.
Putting aside the more advanced aspects of human resource policies around LGBT inclusion such as partner policies and spouse health benefits, I’d like to reflect on the many everyday instances where our genders and sexualities are made to feel left out; or by contrast, picked on. Take, for instance, the office water cooler. While gulping down a tumbler-full, one feels the need to make small talk with one’s co-workers. One cannot help but touch upon topics of market, politics and – everybody’s favourite – relationship status. I have been asked about my non-existent girlfriend so many times now, that I feel obligated to have one just so that those few seconds of futile socializing pass by without choking. Nothing very dreadful for LGBTQ so far, and one’s LGBTQness doesn’t need a place in documents and policies of the firm just for this much. We have learnt well, over the years, to dodge these prying questions.
But, then if you become the outcast for not incessantly talking about girls (speaking for self here, my lesbian and bi women friends can modify suitably), and not being interested in ogling at every “chick” walking by, you are likely to attract some nasty comments. No, being called gay isn’t nasty. Being called gay nastily is. Because then you are being discriminated against, and you know that the ludicrous thing here is not something you said or did, but your being (or even the notion of your being) gay. Now these jokes and jibes at your expense may or may not make you strong, depending on your mettle, but you definitely don’t deserve this at your workplace. You are fighting enough battles within and out already!
To reduce this struggle for workplace equality to a mere consequence of being in the closet, and exhorting all people to come out, is inappropriate. Coming out has always been, and will always be, a matter best left to each individual’s circumstances. We all get there at our own pace, with or without support, with or without effort. To push sexual minorities to a corner through callous remarks and insinuations, and then expect them to bounce back, knocking down their closet doors and emerging in a flurry of rainbows so that the politically correct response “Oh, you’re Gay! We support you!” can then be activated is rather cruel. There is no need for that kind of pressure, at least not at the workplace where there is already pressure to perform.
Organizations are well within their right to chose their modes and values of their functioning. But it is productive for them in the long run, if they are able to keep people together. A company need not be ostentatiously “gay-friendly” with designated staff sporting ‘ally’ badges and websites celebrating their Gay Employee of the Month, or whatever. A ‘be and let be’ policy is good for starters. What I ask for is sensitization of everybody in the workplace. If individuals choose to come out as a consequence of this policy then all’s fine and well: we could then go for ‘all homo’ picnics and probably drag along our ‘fag hags’. But it’s paramount that the modern company in India acknowledge that we LGBTQ people are here, visible or not, and that the company wants them here no less (and no more) than anybody else who is as qualified and competent.
Apart from the need to have non-discrimination policies at work, LGBTQ support groups external to the firm have a very important role to play in producing environments of understanding. Public discourse generated by events such as panel discussions, movie screenings, events that you could take or refer your co-workers to as part of sensitizing them, needs to keep happening. On the flip side, there is very little meaning in treating non-normative sexuality or gender identity as something flashy and different, and regarding LGBTQ colleagues as a rare or exotic species, in the name of inclusiveness. What we need in the workplace is an atmosphere of continuous and intrinsic inclusiveness that is not contingent on people being out. Such an atmosphere is not created merely by companies jumping on the gay-friendly bandwagon because of commands from headquarters or new policy imposed on a local office by the powers that be. Knowledge, sensitivity and genuine intent to address LGBTQ issues are the needs of the hour. Such inclusion without explosion will surely take some time, and businesses must take it up as a part of their larger inclusion and diversity mandate.
In a nation where persecution of inter-caste couples painfully makes it to the front page everyday, recognition of same-sex partners by organizations is still a matter of wishful thinking. Nonetheless, proper orientation (yes, the one with Powerpoint ppt-s too!) of the leaders of organizations is essential to make every individual more informed and sensitive on LGBTQ issues. We understand that a majority do not know, hence do not understand. Facts and data will work in our favour, if the point below does not:
It has been four years since the historic Naz Foundation judgement decriminalized us. We have four long years of evidence to our credit to say, “Look! The country hasn’t gone to the dogs because of us, as you feared! Has your family structure broken down? Don’t you still live your every day as it pleases you? The only difference is: now, WE have the opportunity to do so too!”.