A year and four months after the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, life for the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) people still remains a strife. Though the colonial era ban on gay sex that was used to blackmail, harass, and sexually assault LGBTQIA Indians is gone, the move for greater social acceptance is sluggish.
“Even though Section 377 is gone, people don’t understand that being [LGBTQIA] is not a criminal offense,” states Anjali Siroya, as she recounts a night of a cancelled Diwali party from October 26th 2019. The Diwali party in question had been organised at the prestigious Taj Lands Ends hotel in Mumbai, and when the pre-registered guests (a mix of people from the local trans community) arrived, they were told by the hotel administration that the party has been cancelled and they were subsequently asked to leave the premises.
The hotel administration later gave inappropriate attire – “Bandra station wale kapde” – as the reason for cancelling the party. However, Anjali recounts that they were dressed in appropriate festive attire, given the party was a Diwali themed event. She also recounts that non-LGBTQIA people wearing similar casual and formal clothes were let in. “People still hold a fear [of the LGBTQIA community]”, Anjali says.
However, relying on a faint simmer of hope, Anjali also acknowledges that progress is underway. “People recognise me as Anjali, even though my legal documents don’t,” she says, talking about her now-changed identity from Ajay to Anjali. She is a transwoman who came out of the closet about four years ago. Since then, she left an engineering program for a degree in Mass Communication from the Ramnarain Ruia College, and was crowned the Rose Queen in a beauty-pageant-like event at university. Winning the title of the Rose Queen gave her media attention that allowed her to claim recognition for herself and her community.
Today, Anjali works at the Humsafar Trust, an NGO in Mumbai which promotes LGBT rights. In her current work profile, she helps bridge the gap between people from the LGBTQIA community and the companies that want to hire them. However, she is also quick to admit that career has always been a concern for her. Fresh out of college, she felt lucky to have gotten a job with the Humsafar Trust, given the kind of work they do, and the inclusivity they could offer her. But she has not forgotten the rejection and hardship of trying to acquire an internship in her early days. She remembers giving interviews, one after another, and never getting the internship. Even today, despite a stable job, she is unsure of what her career would look like if she were to leave this job.
The truth is that the problem of finding an appropriate job for the LGBTQIA community is a two-pronged issue. On the one hand, there are organisations that want to hire such individuals, but they struggle to find the right talent. The socio-economic ostracisation of such individuals, especially transgenders, often leaves them with limited skills and a very low level of education. Most such individuals are not even able to complete their schooling, let alone get a graduation or post-graduation degree. On the other hand, the issue is sensitising the existing employees of the organisation, to ensure a comfortable and inclusive work environment for those LGBTQIA people who do qualify for a job.
Ankita Mehra – now a co-founder of Q-rious and the first-ever Indian to come out via a reality television show called Roadies – recounts her days at a banking MNC to be quite a struggle. “[People at the office] would ask me stupid questions like how do you guys (lesbians) get involved with each other, and how do you feel, and I didn’t want to answer these questions [in the workplace]”, Ankita tells us in a telephonic interview. Not unpredictably, Ankita left that job and company in less than a year. She subsequently founded Q-rious with Naren Krishna (Founder and CEO of equiv.in and stockroom.io), a platform for corporates to network with and understand the perspective of the LGBTQIA community. They organise job fairs that bring together companies and people from the community to explore employment opportunities together, and workshops at corporate offices to sensitise the existing employees about LGBTQIA individuals.
Describing a workshop to us, Ankita says – “we talk about general sex policies, pronouns, how the journey of the third person begins, their transition phase, and the basics of what a person should know. It’s an open-table conversation kind of environment where employees of the organisation can ask questions.” Q-rious considers these workshops very important to the process of sensitisation and Ankita states that it is only after multiple meetings and multiple such workshops that Q-rious considers bringing a company to its job fair and enabling it to hire from the LGBTQIA community.
“It’s not a one-day job, it’s a journey that we have to complete,” says Ankita. Currently, Q-rious has multiple companies on its list of recruiters, including big names such as Infosys, Walmart Labs, McKinsey and Company, Optum, Genpact, Dell, Microsoft, HCL, American Express, Wells Fargo, SBI Bank, Citi Bank, and Shell. It also held North India’s first-ever LGBT career fair on 19th November 2019 in Delhi, with the next one due in Mumbai on April 18th 2020.
Fortunately, Q-rious is not the only organisation working in this space. India’s first-ever LGBT job fair was seen on 12th July 2019, in Bengaluru, with companies like Intel, Goldman Sachs, and Uber recruiting from the event. This was organised by Pride Circle, an inclusion and diversity firm that handholds companies through their journey of making employees more aware and inclusive towards the LGBTQIA community. Pride Circle has now transformed itself into a dedicated hiring consultancy for the LGBTQIA community, with about 50 recruiters onboard already.
In addition to inclusivity for the already qualified, getting an education for the non-qualified is another major challenge. This holds especially true for the most vulnerable group within the LGBTQIA community – the transgender. For the trans community, the question of identity becomes the most important one. Gauri Sawant, India’s first-ever transwoman to adopt a child, explains this to us in a personal interview – We live in a patriarchal society, where there is such a huge gap between men and women themselves, that the space to understand a transgender person does not even arise. In such a space then, “being a transgender is a form of resistance in itself,” she says. The society has ostracised this community, calling it unnatural, because they don’t understand things outside of their systems and constructs. Sawant further talks about the need to understand and support the trans community better, stating that “those who have been able to imagine and manifest a different reality for themselves are called hijras. They become the support system for each other, because every person needs one. Just because you have a different gender doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a support system.”
Ankita acknowledges the same need for a better support system for the trans community, stating that in future, Q-rious could possibly form a support structure such that companies could also fund the education and skill development of the transgender people they could later hire. Thankfully, some headway is already being made in mainstreaming transgenders employees in non-menial jobs, with companies like Swiggy having a transwoman as their principal technical program manager.
For now, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn regarding the issues facing the LGBTQIA community, and that is that each faction of the community faces very different challenges. The struggles of a lesbian woman in a metro city are very different from that of a trans man in a small town, let alone an asexual individual of any gender in any space. If one were to boil them down for the purpose of articulation, they could be characterised as issues in access to basic necessities including livelihood and education, the need for inclusive policies on a state and national level as well as within each organisation that could possibly educate or employ them, and the need to sensitise the general society to make it more inclusive. With consistent steps to address all these challenges, small change is being seen. However, a more systematic overhaul is called for.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015