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LGBTQIA Rights: The Fight For Queer-Friendly Workplaces in India

As the world celebrates Pride Month this June, the spotlight falls on India's LGBTQIA community, demanding equal rights and acceptance. While some progress has been made in recent years, the fight for queer-friendly workplaces remains a pressing issue.

By Kamna Batra
New Update

Queer friendly workplace
Queer-friendly workplace | Representative image | The Probe

“I began my professional career in 2013, and as a gay individual, I have unfortunately experienced discrimination during my tenure in various workplaces. Witnessing how people frequently make hurtful comments, pose uncomfortable questions, taunt, and even resort to bullying has been disheartening. I remember when my manager disclosed that the company’s founder had issues hiring queer individuals. Although there were a few other members of the queer community within my former company, the stigma was so much that they felt compelled to conceal their true selves,” says Agniva Das, a gay individual who hails from West Bengal.

Jayna Kothari, advocate and the Executive Director of the Centre for Law & Policy Research talks to The Probe’s Kamna Batra on queer-friendly workplaces

As the world commemorates Pride Month this June, many members of the LGBTQIA community stress that India must take significant steps to safeguard the rights of LGBTQIA individuals, particularly concerning their employment rights within workplaces. Sadly, India continues to lack queer-friendly work environments, both in the government and private sectors.

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Priyanjul Johari, a software engineer, shares his experience regarding workplace discrimination. Despite being a large firm, he reveals that his previous company surprisingly lacked anti-discrimination policies for queer individuals. “As a software engineer, my experience in my previous company was not good. I was completely taken aback to know that even such large companies do not have policies to protect and safeguard the interests of the members of the LGBTQIA community. The company lacked anti-discrimination policies for queer people, which made me hesitant to come out in the open about my identity during my time there. However, after joining another company that was highly supportive of LGBTQIA employees, I finally felt comfortable enough to embrace my true identity openly”.

Zoya Thomas Lobo, one of India’s first trans photojournalists, shares the experiences regarding workplace challenges faced by trans individuals. “I remember an incident while I was out in the field to take photographs; people were mocking and bullying me. However, I continued my work, and these kinds of instances only strengthened my resolve.” 

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Zoya states when companies hire trans individuals, it is essential to sensitise the entire organisation about preventing discrimination and creating a queer-friendly atmosphere. “There is a need for educating employees on fostering an inclusive environment where everyone feels respected and valued. Even simple gestures can have a significant impact. For instance, using gender-neutral language in restrooms, rather than traditional binary pronouns, can make a trans employee feel more comfortable. Small steps like these can go a long way in creating a welcoming atmosphere for the LGBTQIA community in their workplaces.”

Are our government offices queer-friendly?

Jayna Kothari, an advocate and the Executive Director of the Centre for Law & Policy Research brings attention to the lack of recognition for the LGBTQIA community within the government sector when it comes to joining the workforce. “There is absolutely no space for queer individuals in the government sector. While multinational corporations (MNCs) claim to be striving for inclusivity and promoting queer-friendly environments, I feel that much of it is just window dressing. True queer friendliness requires taking active steps to hire people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Non-discrimination should extend beyond the hiring process; companies need to make workplace changes that address the issues of discrimination that LGBTQIA individuals may face after joining the organisation”.

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According to Jayna, Indian government companies have a poor track record of addressing the issues faced by the LGBTQIA community. She points out that there is an evident lack of recognition and support for LGBTQIA individuals seeking to join the government sector workforce.

“We have witnessed numerous cases in government companies where queer persons encountered various challenges related to their gender identity and preferred name. We have handled cases where their preferred names were not properly recorded in the company’s employment records. Additionally, in government employment, we have dealt with situations where trans individuals who have undergone transition and legally changed their name and gender faced obstacles in recording their correct information in government records. Despite requesting these changes, the government refused to comply, and we had to go to court for it. This refusal to acknowledge their correct identity should also be seen as harassment and discrimination at the workplace,” asserts Jayna.

She adds, “Sexual harassment is one of the main issues faced by many members of the trans community in their workplaces. In numerous instances, these individuals have been subjected to such harassment, ultimately forcing them to resign from their jobs. Moreover, when they require leave for gender transition surgeries, they are often denied such requests. As a result of these hostile work environments, many individuals find it challenging to cope with the situation and feel compelled to leave their jobs. Others choose to pursue the legal route, but not everyone can afford the legal expenses. Consequently, most people are left with no option but to endure the discrimination and continue to work”. 

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Priya Patil, a transgender person, rights activist and the Maharashtra President of the LGBT Cell of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), explains that awareness is the key to making workplaces queer-friendly. “There are numerous misconceptions surrounding sexuality and gender, with gender being visibly observable, while sexuality remains hidden from view. To address these misconceptions, it is important to raise awareness among the public. Creating awareness is crucial in dispelling stereotypes and promoting understanding and acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. To effectively spread awareness, it is essential that initiatives are undertaken at various levels, including within government bodies and among policymakers. Many corporates still lack gender-neutral restrooms because they don’t think this is necessary. This is also a result of poor sensitisation and lack of awareness.”

Need for an equality law for the LGBTQIA community

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 is a crucial step towards protecting the rights of transgender individuals in India. However, the LGBTQIA community encompasses a broader spectrum of identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, and asexual individuals. To ensure complete protection of the rights of all LGBTQIA members, there is a pressing need for a comprehensive equality law that addresses the specific challenges each subgroup faces.

“The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 does have a provision prohibiting workplace discrimination. However, the Act is very new, and it is yet to be implemented in both the government and private sectors. But, it only deals with transgender persons. What we are pushing for is the need for an equality law that covers all members of the LGBTQIA community,” notes Jayna.

She adds, “To promote queer-friendly workplaces, guidelines should be established to ensure a safe and inclusive environment. Employers should be encouraged to adopt policies that protect LGBTQIA employees from discrimination, provide equal opportunities for growth and advancement, and respect their preferred names and pronouns. Sensitivity training for employees and management can help foster understanding and support within the workplace. Additionally, the law should address the issue of gender-affirming healthcare and medical leave for gender transition”.