Gay community turns assertive in workplace
10 Jul 2009, 0530 hrs IST, Dibeyendu Ganguly, ET Bureau
Last Thursday, gay men and women across the country were going around their offices with a spring in their step and a grin on their faces. They
were constantly on the Net and on the phone, typing endless messages and talking excitedly about parties. Some even parked themselves in front of the office TV, unabashedly switching from business channels covering the Economic Survey to channels reporting on the Delhi High Court judgement de-criminalising homosexuality.
All this surely posed a bit of a dilemma for their colleagues. Were congratulations in order or should one just let the whole thing pass? Did one have to be a close friend to congratulate someone on matters of sexuality? What exactly does one say under such circumstances anyway?
In some offices, however, there was no dilemma. When Parmesh Shahani, Editorial Director of Verve magazine, entered his office late in the morning, he was greeted with a big hurrah. “It was like India had won the World Cup,” he says. “My straight colleagues were as excited by the judgement as my gay colleagues. It became a way for them to show their support.”
Never has it been harder to stay in the closet in India . After Facebook, Dostana, pride parades and television talk shows, the Delhi High Court judgement is the latest in a recent series of opportunities for gay men and women to declare themselves. “This is such a morale booster,” says Shahani , who authored the book Gay Bombay: Globalisation , Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India last year. “It quite often happens that everyone around you knows you’re gay but they’re just waiting for you to come out and tell them. Now the process has become easier.”
One might say these things are always easier if you’re lucky enough to be working at a fashion magazine, but Shahani actually began his corporate career at staid old Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M ) before Anuradha Mahindra whisked him away to Verve. He still holds the post of head, vision & opportunities, at the parent company and says, “I’ve been out at M&M since I joined. It’s a very warm, accepting group.”
While those in the closet ponder the possible process through which they could come out — start with the boss? Tell colleagues in the immediate team? Spill the beans to the office gossip and wait for him or her to spread the news? — others are making things simpler for themselves by declaring their sexuality during the recruitment process itself.
When Harish Iyer, 30, joined Shobiz five years ago, he made it a point to scratch out the marital status options in the event management company’s standard recruitment form and write ‘gay.’ “It’s a very important part of who I am and I wanted my boss to know right from the beginning ,” he says.
And then there’s always the option of coming out with a bang through the media. Fifteen years ago, when corporate India offered up no gay role models, Owais Khan was a pioneer when he addressed a press conference along with well known activist Ashok Row Kavi. Khan then worked for Pertech Computers and recalls, “The papers carried my photograph so prominently that even the security guards in my office congratulated me, though they probably didn’t know the context.”
Khan’s colleagues at Pertech found out about his sexuality through the newspapers, but while being interviewed for his next job at Compaq (now Hewlett Packard), he made it a point to raise the subject at the onset. “I was in the media quite often in those days, featuring in every other television programme on gays, so it was important they should know. The HR head just said they were an American company, so it was no big deal.”
Khan has since managed to live the middle class dream of retiring from corporate life while still in his 40s and lives with his boyfriend in Bhopal, the city where he grew up. His last word on being gay in the workplace: “Indian companies don’t want to hear about it. They have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. But as the new generation replaces the old, things may change.”
In the wake of the sweeping changes taking place around the world, gay executives may be less willing to be discreet. They might want to be spared having to participate in the usual office banter about attractive members of the opposite sex and they might possibly want to be able to bring their partners to office parties. They would definitely want their companies to provide them the concrete financial benefits that go to their heterosexual counterparts, such as being able to include their partners in leave travel allowance and health insurance plans.
Massive in its scope, the Delhi High judgement has explicitly brought gays within the ambit of anti-discrimination laws, which is likely to have wide ramifications as it is tested in the courts in the years to come.
Vikram, a 24 year old sales executive at the Taj group of hotels, hopes that corporates might now introduce their own rules to protect their openly gay employees from discrimination. “There’s a perception that the glass ceiling that works against us might disappear after this breakthrough judgement,” he says.
But history shows that when a minority becomes more assertive, there’s a backlash from the majority, so discrimination may increase rather than decrease in the years to come. Sunit Mehra, managing partner of placement consulting firm Hunt Partners has already dealt with two cases where high grade candidates were quietly eliminated when the company learnt they were gay.
Interestingly, the recruiting companies were MNCs. “The old timers in Indian companies are not a particularly enlightened lot,” he says. “The senior management quite often consists of Hindutva-types who don’t even like divorcees, let alone gays.”
Pride & prejudice
Can the MNCs then be expected to take a lead in creating a gay-friendly culture in their organisations or will it eventually be up to Indian business houses to bring about change? Most MNCs already have a stated diversity policy that lays down specific targets on the number of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender (GLBT) employees the company must strive to recruit. Their Indian subsidiaries may now be obliged to fall in line with global practices in the aftermath of the Delhi High Court judgement.
“The GLBT percentage norm just may come into force for India — we’ve seen it happen in other countries ,” says Abhijit Bhaduri, HR Director at Microsoft India. “But then again, India always seems to evolve in a unique way and the process may be different here.”
One of the most pro-active companies in this sphere is IBM India and reports are that some years ago, it sponsored its sole openly gay employee’s trip to the USA to attend a get-together of gay IBM-ers . Annice Paul, the program manager for GLBT and work-life integration at IBM India, says: “Our first commitment globally towards GLBT was made way back in 1983. We believe a diverse organisation fosters excellence.”
This kind of positive discrimination in favour of gays will go a long way in fostering openness in organisations (not to mention the benefit of the creative ideas gay people are famous for bringing to the table), but working against it is the deeply ingrained social stigma associated with homosexuality.
One of the top honchos of the Kantar Group, Balachandran Ramiah is a core member of GayBombay, a social outfit that works with the gay community in Mumbai, organising parties, film festivals, picnics, treks and Sunday meetings, where discussion points include coming out at work, grooming and managing your finances.
Ramiah is one of those who new-gen gays look to for advice and he says: “I know a lot of people who are still mortally terrified of their family and colleagues finding out that they’re gay. I’ve always told them there is no pressure to come out of the closet if you’re not ready for it. It is ultimately an individual decision.”
Now that criminalisation under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been revoked, the gay community will have to work towards changing social attitudes and that, as everyone knows, is an excruciatingly slow process.
But historian Saleem Kidwai, co-author of Same Sex Love In India, says that doesn’t take away from the importance of the Delhi High Court judgement. “History tells us there’s always been social disapproval,” he says, “but never to the point of criminalisation as was introduced by the British in India.”
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