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When the workplace gets a rainbow hue

For real inclusivity, firms have to go beyond hiring from the LGBTQ+ community and help new recruits make the transition as well as introduce anti-discrimination policies

Riyana R. says her colleagues accepted her for who she is
Riyana R. says her colleagues accepted her for who she is

When Riyana R. gingerly stepped into the corporate office of home rental aggregator NestAway in Bengaluru more than a year ago, she was sure she wouldn’t get a job as an HR executive. She’d been rejected by more companies than she can remember even though she was qualified for the jobs she applied for.

“They would not even consider my application because my documents said I am a transgender woman," says the 22-year-old graduate from St Joseph’s Community College in Bengaluru. “They’d say they don’t have jobs for transgender people. That’s why I had no hope of getting a job," she says. “But I passed all three rounds of testing and interviews and got the job I applied for in human resources." On 8 March 2018, she received her offer letter.

For transgender and gender-nonconforming people, getting a job can be an insurmountable challenge. While the job crisis is real across sectors, for people from the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer) LGBTQ+ community, discrimination makes getting a foot in the door even harder. Even if they land a job, often dealing with the hatred from other colleagues or from vendors makes continuing work a trial. Kochi Metro, for instance, hired 23 transgender people in an effort at inclusion but all of them quit within two months, as co-workers and vendors were abusive.

Coming out to colleagues

Riyana says NestAway was the first place outside of the non-profit sector where she is accepted for who she is. “I know this life calls for a thick skin," she says. “I anticipate the worst reactions from people I meet so I am not taken aback by the hate. But when I joined NestAway, my HR team told me, ‘Riyana, you are a woman. We will not consider you any different’. And that made me so happy," she says.

Sophia David played a vital role in introducing protection policies for the LGBTQ+ community at her office
Sophia David played a vital role in introducing protection policies for the LGBTQ+ community at her office

Before joining the corporate world, Riyana worked with Jeeva Foundation in Bengaluru to spread awareness about the transgender community. NestAway is one of the few organisations in the country that holds sensitization programmes at the beginning of every week for new recruits and has restrooms that anyone can use regardless of gender identity or orientation.

“The major fears transitioning or closeted individuals have is whether they will get fired for coming out," says Kalki Subramaniam, who set up Sahodari Foundation in 2007, two years after she transitioned. “I tell them that courage is the most important. The second most important thing is education and a good skill set. If you make yourself indispensable for a certain job, no one would be able to discriminate against you," she says.

Sahodari Foundation works for the social, political and economic empowerment of 4,90,000 transgender people in the country.

Subramaniam saved enough for her sex reassignment surgery and to start her foundation by working for two years in IT services firm KGiSL, and at 365 Media company. She says her colleagues in the corporate world were understanding.

Most people, however, don’t have it so easy. She now works with corporates on training and sensitization, and to “ensure the corporate world doesn’t miss out on the talent the LGBTQ+ community brings, and that the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t miss opportunities it deserves".

“The cases of hate and transphobia lessen significantly when the hormones kick in and the individual begins to physically look like they belong to the gender they are transitioning to. I transitioned when I was very young which is why when I joined the corporate world no one knew I am a transperson until I told them," she says.

Anupama Easwaran, founder partner of in.harmony, a consultancy firm that provides companies with customized diversity and inclusion solutions, believes that among the stepping stones traditional corporate companies will cross eventually, the first would be gender, then perhaps the hiring of people with disabilities. LGBTQ+ employment will be the last one the corporates will step over, says Easwaran.

“A lot of our work has largely been on the gender space because that was what the corporates initially wanted, it is after the change in the Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code) we see so many companies today talking about LGBTQ+—prior to that I think there were a few multinational or IT companies which had actively started working with the LGBTQ+ inclusion space."

Real inclusion

Easwaram says hiring people from the LGBTQ+ community alone does not mean a corporate is inclusive. “As cisgender individuals, it is very easy to make oversights or not anticipate things. Sensitization programmes should also include features that make employees and board members aware of the concepts of gender neutral washrooms, health policies and plans for hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery or the implementation of an anti-discrimination clause, says Easwaran.

Family support matters

Easwaran believes the level of coping for transgender individuals can vary based on whether they have family support. She says those who don’t have family support cannot complete their education and face financial problems, and rarely come close to entering the corporate sphere.

For her, inclusivity programmes in corporate offices are important, but providing education to the young in the transgender community without discrimination is essential.

“A skill set is the first thing they require. How else will they qualify for interviews at corporates later in life," asks Easwaran.

Sophia David’s earliest memory is of imitating her grandmother tying a headscarf during prayers as women in her faith do. She always knew the journey towards bodily transitioning to the gender she psychologically identified with would be difficult.

While recalling her coming out story, she says, “At age 29, I was diagnosed with stage-III cancer. Battling that and going through the biggest surgery of my life made me decide that I had to come out even if it was so late."

Today, 36-year-old David works in a consultancy firm as part of the leadership development and communications team. She has played an instrumental role in introducing protection policies for LGBTQ+ people in her office. “It took about a year to get this policy in place. It was challenging, some of the hurdles we faced were a basic lack of empathy, wrong cultural notions and hierarchy in getting approvals," she says.

After coming out to colleagues three years ago, David began transitioning. Friends have helped her set up a crowdfunding account on Milaap platform to raise funds for the last of her surgeries, the gender confirmation surgery.

“I want to get this surgery in a hospital in Thailand as they have the expertize to work around my medical history of cancer," she says.

She’s noticed interesting differences in the way her seniors deal with her now that she’s transitioning. “I’ve had leaders who considered me extremely articulate and assertive when I was in the body of a male. Once I started transitioning, they said I am ‘confrontational and bold’ though I know that my approach remains the same. It is clear that I’m assertive as a man but challenging as a woman," she says.

David says companies, either in the private or public sector, are not making an effort to hire transgender people. “There are other ways in which corporate could help. For instance, they could use their legal teams to help people to change their name legally," she says.

“There has been some change since the writing down of Section 377. We’ve managed to get a foot in the door and it’s a good start."

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