Dial D for Diversity: LGBTQ+ inclusion in corporate India

By Anirban Ghosh

It’s like a scene out of Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory. The boy genius, Dexter is busy hacking away at his next tech innovation while his mischief-monger sister, Dee Dee tiptoes into the lab. She says, “Oooh, what does this button do?” As she’s about to press the big red button, Dexter pleads with her not to. He says, “Please Dee Dee, please, do not press that button,” but, before you know it, Dee Dee’s pressed the dreaded red button.

Today, I would say Diversity is the big red button. And Indian corporates who have just woken up from a deep slumber are rushing to press this button, and unleash the rainbow.

This new-found enthusiasm has undeniably had a positive impact — organizations are professing safe spaces where employees can bring their whole selves to work without the fear of discrimination. Companies are enhancing their Anti Sexual Harassment (ASH) and Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) policies to include the LGBTQ+ community. Gender-neutral washrooms, the formation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and same-sex partner benefit programs are being discussed and implemented. Leadership teams are encouraged to regularly speak about the importance of inclusion at organizations, hoping that a trickle-down effect will inspire every employee.

Some companies are also working with community-based organizations and NGOs to sensitize their employees and build an inclusive culture. Additionally, there are tech-driven investments evaluating tools and solutions that leverage AI to identify and fight unconscious biases, cyberbullying and stereotyping within the digital domain. All of these steps ensure that the queer community, who constitute a sizeable percentage of the workforce, do not feel excluded anymore.

Unfortunately, in spite of all this good, there are some cases where organizations’ attempts to support diversity and inclusion have gone horribly wrong — the Chief Diversity Officer of a large Indian IT multinational was recently removed from the organization for using homophobic and racial slurs against a gay employee.

Why ‘press the button’ now?

Let’s take a moment and step back to before corporate India pressed the big red ‘diversity’ button. Until a few years ago, LGBTQ+ inclusion was unheard of in Indian companies and a majority of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and gender-queer ‘employed’ individuals remained closeted. For those who could not hide their non-conforming gender behavior, bullying and harassment at the workplace went on as usual.

In May 2016, Tim Cook came to India. He visited Mumbai’s Siddhi Vinayak temple, met with the Prime Minister and spoke of business collaboration. Sadly, corporate India’s queer community were spectacularly disappointed with not a word on equal rights, from the well-known champion of queer rights during his time in the country.

Then came September 6, 2018, and India woke up to the first day of freedom from a draconian law that had historically criminalized homosexuality and legitimized discrimination of and violence against sexual minorities. The Supreme Court of India delivered a comprehensive judgment that’s been lauded for its inbuilt firewall that will stand the test of time and prevent regressive governments from overturning it.

The run-up to the SC’s landmark judgement saw many Indian start-ups and multinationals join the bandwagon of celebration and support.

You must be wondering why the sudden outburst of compassion towards a specifically marginalized community. Indian corporates are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that the people one works with, the people that businesses sell to and buy from have representation from the LGBTQ+ community. This realization extends to how these members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community could feel threatened or excluded due to heteronormative business policies. Add to this, recent and compelling global reports that talk about how diversity brings out the best in employees and results in greater business revenue. And, how expanding customer bases will start including more diverse groups, effectively tapping into the multi-billion dollar Pink Economy.

“The purchasing power of the international LGBT community is estimated at 4.6 trillion USD. We are the 4th largest economy in the world — take notice, we are no pushover!” says Christof Wittig, Founder, and CEO at Hornet Networks.

1. www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/why-so-many-businesses-support-lgbt-rights/
2. Diversity linked to increased sales revenue and profits, More Customers: Science Daily 2009
3. Delivering through Diversity, McKinsey & Company 2018
4. Cultural Diversity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, Journal of Economic Geography 2015
5. Diversity makes you brighter, NewYork Times 2015

At a personal level, as an out-and-proud gay man, I have noticed a spike in friends and acquaintances wanting to discuss ideas and initiatives around the queer community. One instance is of a former colleague who wanted to organize an LGBTQ+ themed Durga Puja in his locality, in Kolkata. He wanted community members to source sponsorships — “LGBT folks are well connected with NGOs. Could you ask them to bring along monetary contributions when they attend the Puja?”

Another is of an acquaintance who was a beauty pageant contestant. She wanted her pro-LGBTQ+ stance to be voiced on social media with the help of a few videos. She confessed, “The event organizers advised me to post pro-LGTBQ+ views online. This will increase my chances of winning the crown.”

The third instance is of a friend’s boss’s request to find out if the man her daughter was engaged to be married to, was gay or straight. My friend came to me for help. She said, “It’s a valid concern these days, right? Could you please check within your circles and figure this out for me?”

In the Dee Dee-like madness of coming out as advocates of social change or engaging with the queer community, there are bound to be missteps that should be avoided. Here are some of them:

Distorting history by relegating the heroes of the struggle to the margins

There were those who spearheaded the movement long before it was considered a cool thing to do. We should not forget them or the time when the people running this country refused to accept that there were gay men amongst us.

We should not forget that there were only fifteen individuals who walked the first pride march in Kolkata, that Siddharth Gautam’s AIDS Bhedbhao Virodhi Andolan filed the first petition for decriminalization of homosexuality, that copies of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine in English, were secretly sold in brown paper bags, that the Naz Foundation relentlessly fought courtroom battles over years or even that sex-workers groups, and Dalit rights activists walked alongside the LGBTQ+ community in pride marches making the event a historical hotbed of anti-establishment voices.

We should also not forget many of the queer rights movement’s unsung heroes are not with us today. Their efforts have been invaluable to where we stand today when it comes to diversity. It’s imperative for progressive organizations to include support groups outside the corporate sphere, in conversations, which helps look at the movement from a broader perspective and not as isolated events, articles and marches.

Homogenizing the movement by ignoring the intersectionality of class, caste, religion, and culture

The nature of freedom that emerges out of the Supreme Court judgement should be shaped by queer individuals, allies and communities that are Indian. And, the first step towards that is to recognize that Indian here, is not synonymous with corporate queer circles alone. These circles are not representative of all indigenous cultural, sexual, gender and religious identities of the subcontinent. The Kothis, Panthis, Double-Deckers, Hijras, Jogappas, Jogatis, Aravanis and Shiv-Shaktis are still miles away from accessing the boardrooms and coffee shops where urban India discuss policies of inclusion.

The fight against Sec 377 was a unified one, and the judgment impacts the entire LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, in its current avatar, the fight for equal rights carries the risk of being fractured and fragmented.

Tokenistic representation of the community without really empowering them

In some of the companies that I have worked at, senior colleagues have walked up to me and said, “We respect your ‘choice,’ and it is entirely your ‘personal matter’.” They would also add that just as straight folks do not talk about their personal lives, I too can/should keep my personal life, private.

But, the reality is that heterosexual men and women without even realizing it, talk about their personal lives, their sexual orientation and gender identity at the workplace. Every mention of their legally-wedded partners, their engagements, baby showers, religious ceremonies are deeply rooted in hetero-patriarchy and is a celebration of being heterosexual, able-bodied, fertile and ‘normal’ beings. No one sees this as unusual or as a privilege.

It is deplorable to add a queer person to the company’s payroll without creating an ecosystem of support for them. There are enough and more stories about how members of the trans community are made a part of organizations but excluded from team lunches. Interestingly, even within the LGBTQ+ groups inside organizations, there is an increasing need to define LBT-only spaces to ensure minority voices within the community are heard.

In addition to the safety nets that inclusive policies create, organizations should also show zero tolerance towards discrimination. For instance, a ‘no-jerks’ policy should ensure that no employee, however highly valued at their place of work, can continue if they are known to be disrespectful, and dismissive of diversity and inclusion.

Coming back to the Dexter-Dee Dee analogy, the enthusiasm around diversity and inclusion is sometimes misplaced. And, it’s imperative to put in the substantial hard work that will help organizations avoid cultural appropriation and tokenistic representation of minorities.

Between the two extremes: of organizations sitting on the fence, using Section 377 as an excuse (until recently) to avoid driving inclusion policies, and organizations that have been forerunners of the cause — there are companies that are genuinely interested in treading the reformist path.

The message to them is to keep the eagerness alive, but balance their full-steam-ahead approach with introspection. Inclusion may seem like a destination that we need to arrive at as soon as possible, but it’s always going to be a work-in-progress.

Originally published at https://www.thoughtworks.com on March 4, 2019.




Essays on Technology, Innovation, Product Strategy and Leadership. Readers favorites and editors choices from ThoughtWorks Insights.

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