“My sexual behaviour is legal now, my identity is legal now, I am legal now,” Rovin Sharma, a self-proclaimed drag queen, who was fired from his job for trying to use a woman’s washroom once, posted on Facebook minutes after the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual gay sex in a landmark judgement last week.
The HR manager told me to “resign or get terminated”, recollects the 24-year-old, who currently works with EXL Services as a corporate trainer.
“There was no gender-neutral washroom and I felt hesitant to use the washroom for men, who would stare at me,” said Sharma, who has already changed four jobs since 2012 and feels the third gender remains discriminated at the workplace.
So, when Justice Indu Malhotra remarked that “history owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries”, on the day of the historic judgement, Sharma and others in the LGBTQI (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queer, and inter-sex) community heaved a sigh of relief.
“I had tears in my eyes when I heard the judgement,” said Sharma, who was born male to an army officer in Ambala, but doesn't want to labelled male or female and uses Mx as a prefix to his name instead of Mr or Ms.
Corporate India’s concern for the LGBTQI community has been dismal. In fact, a 2015 report jointly published by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in association with BD Foundation, a global think tank focussing on inclusive growth revealed that a whopping 98% of the 21 (includes 15 MNCs) surveyed companies did not take steps to make the workplace LGBTQI-friendly. "Diversity in terms of LGBT was a language that only 2% of the organisations surveyed (only MNCs) seemed comfortable speaking about,” said the report titled ‘Inclusion in India Inc’.
But the good news is that we have progressed. India Inc has been taking baby steps to make the workplace inclusive for men, women and the third gender. “We are hoping that with this landmark judgement, things will change,” said Sarika Bhattacharyya, founder and CEO of BD Foundation.
Embracing the LGBTQI community employees at work has been relatively easier for startups that are mostly run by millennials as compared to traditional firms. However, a lot depends on the founder, Bhattacharyya said.
With this historic judgement, companies need to step up and amend existing policies and infrastructure focussing on LGBTQI inclusion like insurance benefits for same sex partners, parenting leave policies, medical leave for gender affirmation, a restroom for the gender-neutral and so on.
With several top industrial leaders in India welcoming the Supreme Court's decision publicly, chances are that they will try and ensure that the workplaces of their respective organisations will strive to be more inclusive for employees belonging to the LGBTQI community as well.
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, took to Twitter to express their views on the matter. "This doesn't require too many words. I just have to say that I am very, very proud of our judicial system and proud to be Indian," Mahindra said.
"We should live our lives in a state of inclusion and wonder at the diversity of humanity. Human beings are human beings. Let's treat everyone like that. A great victory for justice," tweeted Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises.
Tata group, the salt-so-software business house, also tweeted on September 7 to welcome the court's verdict and reaffirm that the conglomerate is an equal opportunity employer. "We welcome the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court on Section 377. We have always provided equal opportunities for employment at Tata, irrespective of race, caste, gender, religion or sexual orientation," the group tweeted from its official handle.
Business houses like the Godrej group have already taken a lead when it comes to making their organisation more inclusive. "We have been reworking and modifying our people policies to make them more inclusive. Making and documenting these policy changes has been critical. Both, because of the conversations they necessitated and because by institutionalising them, we sent across a very definite message," said Sumit Mitra, head, group HR and corporate Services, Godrej Industries Limited and Associate Companies. "This was not just a nice thing to do and nor is it something that we see as a one-off exception. It is very much par for the course.”
The consumer goods-to-real estate Godrej group has made some significant changes to its people policy documents to include ‘other’ as an option to represent gender; the word ‘spouse’ has been replaced with ‘partner’; the adoption policy has been designed keeping in mind a gender neutral primary caregiver; the medical scheme offers a choice to an employee to choose a spouse/domestic partner as a dependent and covers same sex dependents, AIDS patients and fertility treatments, the company said.
Corporate leaders including Nisaba Godrej, executive chairperson at Godrej Consumer Products; Radhika Piramal, vice-chairperson & executive director, VIP Industries; and Keshav Suri, executive director of Lalit Suri Hospitality Group have been strong proponents of LGBTQI rights in the country, especially at the workplace. “Yesterday was a glorious, rainbow-filled awakening for India, justice and civil rights. I feel so proud and hopeful for my country and grateful to our Supreme Court for taking the only decision it should take,” said Godrej, in a LinkedIn post.
Keshav Suri, executive director of the LaLiT Group, a hospitality chain, who married his partner of 10 years in June, is also an advocate of gay rights. In fact, his organisation has now collaborated with leading insurance provider ICICI Lombard, to cover employees from the LGBTQ community on its payroll. In a media statement in July, the hotel group claimed to be “the first hotel group to include same sex partners, adoptive parents and children, and children born through surrogacy under its employee health insurance cover”.