Inclusion at the workplace still a distant dream for the LGBTQIA+

From recruitment to employment, Bengaluru & Chennai-based members of the LGBTQIA+ community lay bare their struggles and expectations to ensure inclusivity in the office.
Image for representational purpose only. ( Express Illustration | Sourav Roy)
Image for representational purpose only. ( Express Illustration | Sourav Roy)

BENGALURU: It had been four months since Vedana* joined her new workplace and had forged friendships with her colleagues. Comfortable in her new circle, she began coming out as cis gender lesbian on public platforms, unaware of what would follow. A change in attitude for the worse, constant criticism and dismissal of her opinions — it became evident that the team she had considered a friend circle was turning its back on her.

“Previously, I had received the best performer award. Now, even the mistakes my teammates make are blamed on me. Though we have LGBTQIA+ support groups in my company, it’s difficult to bring this up since they haven’t explicitly pointed out that their problem is with my sexuality,” she says.

This is a frequent experience for the LGBTQIA+ in office spaces. Pride month may be over but there is still much conversation to be had about the struggles of a queer person at the workplace.

The right match

While some companies don’t consider the community for a position, others seek them out for diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, these practices are nominal. David*, a trans man, was welcomed with open arms into a company, but at the cost of having to prove his identity. “They didn’t have any problem with my resumé and gender identity while I applied for the job. On my first day, they asked for an ID which proves my sexual identity. That time, it was my transition period and I looked like a woman and because I couldn’t produce the ID, they didn’t hire me,” he shares. According to the National Legal Services Authority Vs Union of India (NALSA) judgment in 2014, the discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation represents inequality before the law and unequal protection of the law and violates Article 14, but some organisations seem to have a found a way around it.

“The companies know that asking for a certificate of proof is unnecessary and they won’t state this in official emails to avoid legal trouble. Instead they state it as ‘the other document which we had discussed’,” explains TD Shivakumar, founder of Nirangal, an NGO for LGBTQIA+ welfare. As a diversity and inclusion practice head of an MNC recruitment agency and a member of the community, Azhaikadal spells out the flaws in company policies.

“There are four subcategories under Diversity and Inclusion — women on break, ex-army personnel, disabled people and the LGBTQIA+. But, MNCs tend to allot higher roles for marginalised people, without proper understanding and expect a 100 % relevancy profile. It’s hard to find people, who are ‘out’, with such qualifications. Many have faced a lot of discrimination. This affects their education. So, while I understand that MNCs don’t want to lower their standards, it is important to consider the lived experiences and hurdles. If they provide a basic job and train the person, that would be great,” Azhaikadal says.

Inside the office

While some are outright denied opportunities, others are subject to inappropriate questions. For Ankita Mehra, a cis gender lesbian, this resulted in the kind of invasion of privacy that the cis hetero community hardly comes by. “My sexual identity became my introduction — people started introducing me as Ankita Mehra, a lesbian,” she says.

Microaggression and ignorance aside, people from the community also report instances of sexual assault from higher authorities but their complaints are not treated with the seriousness as their straight counterparts’. SR Chakravarthy, an intersex person and former TV anchor, recalls, “There is little knowledge about intersex people. There are certain things we cannot avoid (such as periods) and since I had a surgery for the removal of my uterus planned, I had to disclose my identity to my seniors.

A particular male senior began asking me how I get periods, what I think about when I masturbate, and how is my body ‘so sexy’. When I recorded these conversations and reported them to another colleague, she heard it and deleted it,” they share. Furthermore, programmes they had recorded were also buried, never seeing the light of day. All this and more caused them to, understandably, resign. Toxic working environments and lack of empathy are also demonstrated by the long working hours, poor income, increased workload, and lack of post-surgery concern.

“After surgery, a trans person cannot lift heavy weights. Despite knowing this, the management continues to make them lift weights and perform manual labour,” says Swetha Sudhakar, founder, Born2Win, for education and employment of trans people. It seems the problem is not restricted to the people from the community but also extends to those associated with them. Sharmila, a cis straight person, is a trans man Saathvik’s partner and both of them have faced verbal abuses and discrimination because of their relationship. “Everyone in the office isolates us. They pass derogatory comments and establish that our relationship is something bad,” she admits.

Where is the change?

There is much to be changed in the workings of India Inc. But where do we even begin? Azhaikadal believes it has to go back to education. “Companies and recruiters need to educate themselves. You can’t ask every person from the community to give a TED talk. Please educate yourselves, learn to address people, use gender neutral language, ask people pronouns. The latter will make them feel better and trust you more,” Azhaikadal explains.

Senthil (a cis queer person), Delfina, and Vedana also call for sensitisation workshops (preferably mandatory) that will better equip non-queer people to understand the community and their struggles. With the need to educate, there is also a need to balance the scales. Several people speak of their expectations to be treated the same as the cis hetero community in various areas. Chakravarthy calls for treating LGBTQIA+ reports of sexual assault with the same intent as others, while Kritika Pant, head of operations in the hospitality sector and a cis lesbian, adds, “We want equal benefits for our long-term partners that are granted to straight couples — health insurance, inclusive bathrooms, parental leave, etc.”

While MNCs are moving toward this, local companies have a long way to go. Policies and enforcement of the same are important to the safety of queer people, but there is certainly also a need for coworker support, the positive effects of which were noticed by Satish Kumar, assistant vice president at Swiss Re and a gay person. His story is a positive one, thanks to the involvement of his team. So, what went right?

“My coming out at work was due to immense support from my senior leaders. The organisation had strong policies towards discrimination. It had a culture of inclusion and I was comfortable bringing my self to work. I proudly wear make-up to the office and there has not been a single negative comment. Rather, I get compliments and sometimes have been asked for make-up tips. I respect and value work culture that promotes individuals purely based on their merit rather than the privilege of belonging to a certain gender or sexual orientation,” he says.

One day, hopefully, Satish’s experiences will be shared by the entire community, but for now, we hope to see the changes recommended in action and the scales tipped more to accommodate the LGBTQIA+.


  • - 87% LGBT respondents do not have access to formal LGBT Employee Resource Groups within their organisation. Source: The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey, 2016
  • - 48% Firms (worldwide) provide a standalone global policy with specific reference to the LGBTQIA+. Source: Inclusion of LGBT Community at Workplaces - The Indian Context, 2018

- 767 Companies achieved a top score for LGBTQ-inclusive workplace policies despite having a tough year in terms of businesses, stakeholders and customers. Interestingly, the CEI index soared by 12 per cent as compared to 2020. Source: Corporate Equality Index (CEI), 2021

(*Names changed)

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