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FEATURES/Real Issue | Jun 27, 2011 | 218599 views

Over The Rainbow: How Inclusive Are Our Work Places?

Workplace equality for sexual minorities is finally on the agenda
Over The Rainbow: How Inclusive Are Our Work Places?
Image: Dinesh krishnan
TRYING TO FIT IN “When colleagues talk about their weekends and heterosexual escapades, I cook up my own stories,” says Neha Dixit.

In January, 22-year-old Danish Sheikh stood before his co-workers at Google’s office in Hyderabad, where he was a public policy intern, and announced that he was gay. About 25 employees, comprising senior management and junior staff, had assembled in a conference room on the campus to hear him speak. Many others had joined in via videoconferencing from other Google offices in India.

Danish had the backing of Keerthana Mohan, the company’s diversity and talent inclusions manager. In November, Google organised “The 6th Sense” in its offices in Hyderabad and Bangalore — a week-long event to celebrate its heterogeneous work force that includes employees of different race, colour, religion and gender identity. At the event in Hyderabad, Danish was enamoured by a speech on the struggles of being homosexual in India delivered by Nitin Karani, a Mumbai-based editor with the Royal Bank of Scotland and a well-known gay rights activist. Karani had been invited by Google to conduct an employee workshop on this theme.

Hearing him speak — coupled with the fact that Google has in place a strong diversity policy that prevents discrimination against gay employees — gave Danish the confidence to sidle up after the event to Mohan. He wanted to organise a talk on campus about his personal reflections on the issue.
 
Danish, who graduated this year from Hyderabad’s Nalsar University of Law, stood before his audience that day, dressed in a checked blue shirt and jeans. It was an opportune moment to shatter some of the most hackneyed stereotypes about gay people.

He asserted that being gay is neither against the order of nature nor a Western construct — human sexuality is a random happenstance of birth. Being gay does not go against Indian culture — he pointed out that the ancient Khajuraho temples have sandstone carvings of same sex couples. He made a case for gay couples to be allowed to marry and adopt children.
 
His speech prompted some unlikely questions from the audience. Some carvings of the temples in Khajuraho also depict scenes of bestiality, a woman in the audience said. Does that make bestiality legitimate? No, replied Danish, unperturbed by the unseemly comparison. A gay relationship is legitimate if it is consensual. Bestiality never is, he said. Others in the audience sought his opinion on how to make the workplace more inclusive for employees like him.

“You shouldn’t have to lie about your sexual orientation at your workplace, where you spend up to 12 hours of your life every day,” he says, remembering that interaction. After his brief stint at Google, Danish recently joined the Alternate Law Forum in Bangalore. “Staying in the closet is an extreme form of self-censorship,” he says. “Gay employees need empathy and support of co-workers to come out.”

Until just half a decade ago, such an open debate about sexuality would have been deemed unthinkable at corporate enterprises in India. For many multinationals, “the conversation is just beginning,” says Vinay Chandran, executive director of the Swabhava Trust, a Bangalore-based LGBT rights organisation. Since 2003, Chandran has offered consultancy services regarding LGBT workplace issues to a few multinational companies based in Bangalore. He was approached in April by the HR team of a leading company that has never before considered including LGBT-inclusive practices in its HR policy. He was asked to make a presentation on best practices before the leadership team of the company.

Chandran offered several insights on ways to instil confidence in employees who wish to be open about their sexual orientation, ways to deal with bullying of male employees with an effeminate demeanour, and to adopt a more gender-inclusive language in official communiqués, such as the use of the word ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband-wife’. Chandran also pointed out that if members of the leadership team themselves embraced these changes, the message would trickle down faster to the lower echelons of the workforce.

At the end of his presentation, Chandran was asked by one member on the company panel if a diversity policy in its case was warranted at all. The company has never encountered any complaints about LGBT harassment in its offices so far.

“Diversity policies,” Chandran remembers saying in his response, “are meant to pre-empt complaints of harassment by creating an environment where employees understand that being different is alright. What matters is their work. LGBT people aren’t asking for special rights. They are only asking that they not be given special discrimination.” The leadership team, Chandran says, was receptive and is likely to take the discussion forward.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 01 July, 2011
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Comments (8)
Narendra Kv Jan 19, 2012
A compelling article to help us look beyond stereotypes. For someone who could never understand the "same sex issues", the article helped bring in a perspective. Thanks
Ab Jun 29, 2011
Thank you to the Forbes team for this article - it's great to see this issue being discussed with openness and sympathy. Though it is sad that Indian companies that talk of taking on the world are not keen to look at this, and did not respond to your questions - just that it is sad that it took a ten year legal battle to decriminalise homosexuality and move India from the league of Saudi Arabia to the league of modern civilised nations.

But I guess at last things are moving and the years to come will see genuine progress being made on this. Frankly, I think people today are quite open and accepting about this, notwithstanding the ignorant earlier comment comparing "gayism" with prostitution, and it would not be too big a deal if people did come out. I have worked in the same company for over a decade and am now in my mid-30s; I really don't think people would turn their backs on me if they knew I was gay, I'm sure most of them must have figured it out already. But anyway- it's great to see this cover story in your magazine.
Ian Johnson, Ceo, Out Now Jun 28, 2011
We are pleased to announce thet from today, India is being included into the world's largest LGBT study - http://www.LGBT2020.com .

This research looks at workplace diversity and inclusion, LGBT violence/harassment issues, demographics, leisure and lifestyle data as well as consumer benchmarking. We hope that as many respondents as possible from India will become part of this groundbreaking research.

First findings will be released on D&I research at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Dallas in October 2011, and the full report will be available from Out Now in January 2012.

Ian Johnson, CEO, Out Now Global
http://www.OutNowConsulting.com
Praveen Jun 28, 2011
We are living in days where prostitution which is there from centuries is still illegal but gayism which is imported one is legal and modern :)
Response to Praveen:
Suhaas Acharya. Jun 28, 2011
It is a pity that you have not read the Arabian Nights. It should be believed it reflects the East and not the West. Please do not blame the British for everything, Life would be yet beautiful ! If you have read with an open mind about child abuses you will realise (I dont expect that people would accept that fact..!) that there are also many boys who are abused by their near relatives also . Hats off to the Indian Hypocrisy.
Response to Suhaas Acharya.:
Praveen Jun 29, 2011
Openness doesn't mean supporting whatever the wild/weird things/behaviour which some people possess may be due to their mental condition which can be changed with proper tretment
Hypocrisy also meant not believing in things which is there (from a long time)
Response to Praveen:
Praveen Jun 29, 2011
I want to clarify that I didn't compare prostitution to gayness in my earlier comment. Just I want to say is in India prostitution which is there from centuries is not still legal as in west., bug gayness which is a new phenomenon is about to legalize as west is doing is. Both are quite different and I want to reiterate that I am just talking about laws but not comparing both.
Response to Praveen:
Danish Sheikh Jun 29, 2011
You are mistaken. Homosexuality is very much a part of Indian culture - the millenia old Khajuraho temple carvings display homosexual acts; the Manusmriti, our oldest legal text makes references to homosexuality; even the text of the Mahabharata has several references to same-sex desire.

And no "treatment" can reverse homosexuality, just like no treatment can reverse heterosexuality.
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