The bubblegum pink hair makes everyone take a second glance at 24-year-old Armaan Singh*. “They were a nice shade of dark brown a year ago,” he smiles and takes another sip from his second serving of Kiwi Margarita. People continue to stare and occasionally give a mocking smile while looking at Armaan but he says he is used to the attention. “People are always ready to put you down if you stand out; if you’re different.”
Armaan was 15 years old when he came out as gay to his parents. “It was just one of those things I never wanted to hide. Jo hai so hai, yaar (It is what it is).”
While Armaan’s parents and friends are very accepting of his sexuality, “as they should be,” Armaan adds, in 2015 his male colleagues at work welcomed him with ‘inspiringly tasteless’ comments like, “Tu yahaan kaam kaise karta hai? Tera toh pura time khada rehta hoga humko dekhke. (How do you work here? You must be erect the entire time from watching us.)”
Armaan decided to leave a month later after four of his colleagues cornered him in the washroom. “I went there to pee and they came and stood right behind my cubicle. They didn’t do anything but smiled - a smile I’ll never forget. I knew it then that I couldn’t work there. I didn’t want to know what more could happen. I didn’t even want to think about it. I called in sick the next day and a day later I gave my resignation and I was out.”
Yes, Armaan’s case can make anyone uneasy but it is also an exception. Armaan is among the token ‘open LGBT individuals’ in India who have been fearless enough to come out at work. As for the rest of India’s rainbow population? Well, they would rather keep their rainbows out of the monotony of the chaotic corporate life.
Freedom of sexuality is a very theoretic concept in India. Period. After the historic Right to Privacy judgement of 24 August, 2017 where the verdict said, “Sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy”, it was casually assumed, almost believed too, that Section 377 would be immediately decriminalized. The privacy judgement, which expressly proclaims that no individual will be discriminated against based on their orientation, will be celebrating its first anniversary next week. Although the judgement on Section 377 is currently 'reserved', the rainbow community has never been more hopeful for a vibrant and legally sanctioned future.
Presently, a general conversation on sexuality and gender expression almost always focuses on acceptance and tolerance towards the LGBTQ community. Acceptance by whom? The 'normal' heterosexual society of course -- which sits on its modest throne and takes copious amounts of conceited pride in passing token judgements that in anyway validate the existence of the LGBTQ community. "Oh, now that I've accepted you, it's ok to be queer."
The rainbow folk, which unfortunately does source a majority of its annual validation quota from the 'superior' straight community is perfectly alright with the pretense that they don't exist.
But how long can this idea exist? What happens when the straight community is brought before the homosexual community in a confined space like an office? That's where the problem begins.
Hera Datt*, 22, recently came out as a bisexual to herself. A fresher in the cut-throat media industry, she feels her coworkers would think she was ‘unprofessional’ if she were to, hypothetically, come out at work.
“People do sometimes talk about their sex lives here, but I always try to stay away from those conversations because I don’t want to risk being singled out.”
If she decides to come out, Hera believes she wouldn’t just have to face the ‘Oh, so you must be into threesome?’ queries but also be at a risk of losing out on important news assignments.
While freedom of sexuality emancipates its expression from arbitrary shackles as prescribed by an archaic law or customary traditions, it continues to remain locked in its own closet, fearing uncensored insults, crucifixion of character, and unwarranted harassment.
As opposed to popular belief, harassment especially when it concerns the LGBTQ community, is not limited to being sexual in nature. Harassment is also casual banter and homophobic jokes (“Oh, but we made them in jest, yaar”), insults made regarding sexuality and/or threats, degrading references to a person’s sexual orientation, and absolute isolation at the workplace.
Ranveer Verma*, 33, who works as an HR manager in a software company in Bangalore says, “I didn’t care to hide the fact that I was gay and casually mentioned it at work. Luckily, I’ve managed to stay away from people who carelessly crack homophobic jokes. I think when you’re bullied as a child, you develop an evolutionary mechanism where you sense potential threat beforehand.”
Ranveer says that although his organisation has strict policies and tie-ups with NGOs for each stigmatized and oppressed group, it doesn’t prevent people from expressing their beliefs.
“People are people,” he says, “People will never change their nature and beliefs because of an HR policy.”
In the wake of growing number of cases of sexual assault and harassment taking place in workplaces, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, which superseded the Vishaka Guidelines, was implemented in 2013 to provide protection to women against sexual harassment at the workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment.
Every organization – private, non-profit and even government – was legally required by the 2013 law to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to deal with sexual harassment complaints.
However, with no mention of harassment – sexual and otherwise - of men or minorities, most major organisations continue to stick with the 2013 act, adding no provisions of their own that pertain to either party.
The general consensus in the Indian LGBTQ community is that the HRs are completely incapable of handling harassment that concerns LGBTQ employees. Ultimately leading to no option but a hasty resignation, in case the harassment becomes too much to handle for the said LGBTQ employee.
Ranveer feels these ‘harassment policies’ are there only for a firm to be protected from lawsuits. "Most Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) have these polices for namesake, that too when they are mandated by some other country to have a firm-wide policy," he said.
But of course, not all workplaces reek of casual homophobia and ignorance. For Nakul*, a trans man, who has has been rejected from several jobs, has found himself a happy place. "I have been pre-operated. But my female name has not been changed in the official documents," he said. Nakul said that a series of interviewers explicitly told him that the jobs are for females but he can't get it because he looks like a man. For the last five months, Nakul has been working at The Lalit. "I am the only guy who is allowed to take the cab service at 10 pm. The staff tells me that my safety is important to them."
According to Richa Bajpai, the Corporate Learning and Development Manager at The Lalit, in order to maintain an inclusive and diversive workplace, they regularly organises workshops to sensitise employees about the LGBTQ community. Along with the sensitization workshop, The Lalit also has a strong Equality and Diversity policy, the first of its kind in India, which promises to provide equal opportunity and treat all employees equally and fairly.
Kiara, a trans woman working with The Lalit, has been privileged to have had the opportunity to work with LGBTQ inclusive organisations such as the likes of HSBC and Ericcson. She tells that she decided to leave Ericcson when she started her transition, however, it was her boss who rejected her resignation and asked her to continue working with the company. She says, "LGBTQ inclusive or not, people continue to be ignorant and will always stare at you like you're an alien. That's when you go up to the individual and sensitise them about the community. They'll stop the next day."
Often, the onus of sensitising employees about the LGBT community falls on the shoulders of the token ‘open LGBT individual', more so if the said individual is an authority figure in the organisation.
Kiara, however, feels that the LGBTQ community feels obligated to offer an explanation because they, in turn, feel that they understand what ails them. She believes that because the LGBTQ community is the one facing problems, they do carry a certain responsibility to be vocal about the said issues only because they would have first-hand knowledge about it and "people will always listen to a person in power." She adds, "We always listen to a teacher and not an illiterate individual. It is only human to do so."
But it’s not only for the LGBTQ community to take up the position of standing against discrimination. The problems faced by the community aren’t ‘LGBTQ issues’, they are direct violations of basic human rights.
Even after 71 years of independence, how free are we? How free are the Indian citizens? It depends on who you ask. But for the LGBTQ community, freedom is still a myth. In homes, schools, offices -- everywhere. The queer community is waiting -- waiting in their closets to taste this elusive freedom.
(*Names changed on request)