CHENNAI: Diversity and inclusion have been the constant buzzwords in the corporate world, and the LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) community has been at the forefront of the movement to promote inclusive workplaces.
While multinational firms and companies with a global presence have taken steps towards formulating these policies, where do Indian companies stand when it comes to gender-inclusivity? This was the agenda of discussion at the LGBT Workplace Symposium held in the city on Friday, which brought together MNCs, activists, academicians, lawyers and civil society.
City Express spoke to several keynote speakers and delegates at the event to understand its evolving nature.
“A lot of companies in India started recognising the LGBTQI+ community after the 2009 judgement that decriminalised heterosexuality. But the problem was that they also had a knee-jerk reaction when the Supreme Court struck it down in 2013,” said Ritesh Rajani, HR diversity professional, who is openly gay.
“Indian companies should realise that if we don’t talk about inclusivity, there will be discrimination. If somebody has an effeminate behaviour, they are going to be bullied and it will have adverse effects. If the company has a non-tolerant policy, it will prevent bullying,” Ritesh added.
“Since the 2013 judgement, companies think that there is a roadblock to promoting inclusion in gender diversity at the workplace,” said lawyer and LGBTQI+ rights activist .
Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, who was part of the keynote panel discussion with Ritesh, journalist Lavanya Narayan, and fashion choreographer Sunil Menon. “What they don’t realise is that it is only related to sexual intercourse and not gender identity. It is not illegal to be gay, or bisexual or part of any other community under the LGBTQI+ movement.”
Ritesh added that it is misconceptions like this and a lack of awareness that prevents other Indian companies from actively being a part of the movement to promote inclusion, despite venerable companies such as Godrej having extremely progressive inclusive policies.
“It is lack of awareness about legal provisions and rights that has held back the community for a long while,” added Sunil Menon. “In the early 1990s, we didn’t know our rights…even the police didn’t know the law! But today, that has changed to a large extent.”
Non-inclusive policies can prove counterproductive for companies in the long run. “Inclusion also has a business case for companies,” opined Ritesh. “If as a person of the LGBTQI+ community, you are forced to hide yourself every time you’re in public, it will affect your productivity at work and alienate the person further.”
Despite this, there are several members who have found the courage to come out to their own colleagues before their family. “I was one of them,” he said. “I found a support system at work with a large number of colleagues who were very open about their gender identity. It is only because of them I got the courage to come out to my family.”
According to a survey conducted by MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment), an advocacy and think-tank group for LGBTQI+ rights, there is a higher acceptance of gender identity at work because individuals belong to the same peer group while it is not the same case with family, where generation gap dominates.
Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Labs, shared his own experience as a proud gay man working in corporate India. “It’s important to have a culture of inclusion as an ongoing conversation through summits, sponsorships, film festivals and so on,” he said. He also stressed on the need for ‘straight allies’ to speak out. “An ally who does not speak up and stand up for their peers in the LGBTQI+ community is not an ally. So if you’re an ally, show up!”