Are Our Workspaces Inclusive? 5 Transgender Indian Professionals Weigh In

Are Our Workspaces Inclusive? 5 Transgender Indian Professionals Weigh In
Anand Kishore x Cheryl Mukherji

A cursory glance through the first two pages of results for a Google search on ‘gender and the workplace in India’ reveals a distressing reality. There’s no dearth of information - article after article talks about gender inequality at work, the pay gap between men and women, the need for higher numbers of women in the workforce. All true, and relevant, of course. But in the wake of the Weinstein scandal that erupted last month, conversations around women’s safety and inclusion at the workplace have gathered steam. No doubt, we need more women in every industry, in every office, and we need to make sure they’re treated as equals.

The distressing reality is though, that our very understanding of gender remains flawed. How can we talk about inclusivity in the workplace when we’re still looking at gender as a binary of man/ woman? How can we talk about diversity when the underlying assumption is that all of us are happy with the gender identity we were assigned at birth-something we had no say in? How can we talk about gender equality, at the workplace or otherwise, when we’re completely discounting the existence of those persons who don’t identify with the bodies they were born with at all?

In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognized transgender people as the “third gender”, stating that “it is the right of every human being to choose their gender”. A landmark ruling, (though I personally find the terminology problematic – who’s the “first” and “second” gender?), it finally recognizes the rights and citizenship of transgender people, many of whom have been living on the fringes of mainstream society. The Court also added that the Indian government must treat them as they would treat other minorities officially categorized as “socially and economically backward”, enabling them to make use of quotas in jobs and educational institutions.

There seem to be some encouraging signs. Earlier this year, Zara Sheikha became the first transwoman in Kerala to be employed at an MNC, UST Global. As recently as last month, a trans woman moved the Supreme Court after being denied employment as an air hostess at Air India. The Court in response issued a notice to the airline, questioning why there is no mention of the third gender in its recruitment application. However, it is worth noting here, that even in the rare case where a trans person finds employment, we don’t often come across news of trans men being employed, most news reports talk about the hiring of trans women.

In a well-publicized move in May this year, Kochi Metro hired 23 transgender persons, deploying them in different sections based on their qualifications. The progressive move garnered a great deal of attention, and rightly so. However, soon after the news broke, about 10 of these employees quit, as they were unable to find accommodation in Kochi.

Thus, with regard to transgender people in mainstream employment, we still have a long way to go. Employment is the first step in an ever-continuing process- one of providing a safe and welcoming environment, at work and outside.

We spoke to five transgender persons, working in sectors ranging from academia to IT, and asked them to share their experience of integrating within professional spaces in India with us.

I. Nayana Udupi, Marketing Associate, ThoughtWorks.

On navigating professional spaces

I was born a male, but I had feminine characteristics. My intention was always to live like a girl, work like a girl. I managed for a while within the hijra community, but because of my education I felt this was not my kind of work. I did not want to continue with begging and sex work. It took me almost 10-12 years to get a job after completing my computer course. I had to continue with sex work for a while to fund my degree in multimedia. I looked all over Bangalore, giving interviews with my identity hidden.

I lost a freelance job once my employer found out about my identity. I used to reach the 2nd, 3rd round of interviews but never got a job. I had to find a way to earn my bread. I finally got a job at an NGO as an administrator, but I wanted to find a job where I could better use my knowledge of computers. Solidarity Foundation is associated with ThoughtWorks, so I found out about an opening, and now I’ve been at ThoughtWorks for almost 4 years.

ThoughtWorks believes in inclusivity. The culture is different from other companies. Though we do face a lot of problems that we can’t always explain…we have to overcome them. I often face problems with vendors, who I deal with a lot since I am in the marketing team…but our diversity head at ThoughtWorks has always been by my side. ThoughtWorks held several workshops on sensitisation before and after I joined, and now I continue to hold film screenings on the issue.

On LGBTQIA friendly industries/ sectors

I feel IT is more welcoming than any sector. I’m only speaking from my own experience.

On making workplaces more trans-friendly

There needs to be more awareness about transgender people, more sensitivity. Most transgender people have to drop out of education, and face immense financial hardship. Society still isn’t broadminded enough to accept us. The seniors in my company have made me feel so welcome. So for any kind of workplace, change starts from the top, leaders need to be friendly and supportive.

Nayana Udupi; source - Facebook

II. Karthik Bittu, Associate Professor, Ashoka University

On navigating professional spaces

I don’t think I’m a good example of somebody to talk about the situation of trans people in employment. I carry a lot of privileges which enable me to find work- privileges of caste, class and access. I have a PhD from Harvard. The main thing that gets in the way of me finding work is not my trans identity but my political identity. Of course, being trans may compound the way I’m treated, I can’t disentangle these things from each other.

I sometimes face the standard things that trans people face everywhere, where people who are not familiar with trans politics, will misgender you, then there’s the question of bathrooms...these are standard things. I made some requests to the administration through some supportive faculty, and those were requests for, for example, changing my email ID, so that I wouldn’t have to be referred to by my official name. My students also all refer to me by my preferred name and pronoun, and I just made sure the staff were aware that I would use the male bathroom, though navigating this remains a bit of a challenge. You never know how you’ll be reacted to. These challenges remain…but Ashoka has always been very supportive. The university also hold workshops on gender…though I’m not sure how trans identities fit into those.

On LGBTQIA friendly industries/ sectors

I’ve always only been in academia, where it can sometimes be difficult to find administrative support.

On making workplaces more trans-friendly

Workplaces can start by employing more trans people. Also, every workplace should have single gender-neutral bathrooms instead of gendered bathrooms. That makes a lot of difference. They need to maintain confidentiality where applicable, treat employees as belonging to the gender that they prefer.

Karthik Bittu; source - YouTube

III. Anjali Lama, Model, Inega Model Management

On navigating professional spaces

Well before disclosing my identity, when I was 17-18, I came from my village to the city and people use to really tease me. I used to work in hotels where colleagues and customers passed offensive comments about me, the customers complained about me which led me to get fired. I was asked to leave because “I looked like a boy but behaved like a girl”.

In 2005, I disclosed my identity as a transgender, and started dressing as a woman. I got confidence from my community. From 2006 till 2016 I was working within the community. I began my modeling career in 2009, and even then, I faced issues due to my identity. I used to question why I wasn’t selected for shows and I was told it was because I am transgender.

In 2012-13 I tried but did not get selected for Nepal Fashion Week, but today, I am walking in Lakme Fashion week - a huge platform. When I came to Bombay I wanted to join Inega. They’ve been very good to me. I have not faced any kind of problems at the agency.

On LGBTQIA friendly industries/ sectors

If I was not doing what I am doing I would probably be working in hotels, still as a boy. But the fashion industry, this agency, has been good to me. I am happy with the work and treatment.

On making workplaces more trans-friendly

Just like male and female, transgender is just another category. Look at it that way. Just don’t differentiate between people.

Anjali Lama; source - Indian Express

IV. Taksh Sharma, Freelance Stylist and Model

On navigating professional spaces

As somebody who is trans and is quite visible, the fact that I do have a few internships behind me, getting work is not too difficult. Yet, my trans identity is something that does tend to come up – I currently treat it as a medical condition, because that’s what it is. Due to the hormones I’m taking there are times when I may not be at my fullest working capacity.

When potential employers look at me as “male” who’s (according to them), flamboyant, maybe homosexual, and pass comments like “you’ll be ok”, it feels extremely patronizing. This patronizing attitude can make navigating work spaces extremely difficult. I’ve also been told that it would be difficult for me to find any kind of “traditional” job unless I “tone it down”- but I don’t understand how me using nail paint, or looking a certain way interferes with my ability to do my job. Yet, almost everybody I’ve worked with thinks that it will- so much so, when I show up to work on time, it comes as a surprise to them. Adding to that, the constant misgendering, apologetic smiles, can get extremely frustrating.

The fact that everyone around me at work is walking on egg shells, afraid of “offending” me is what often hinders my ability to do my job. It’s either that, or an overtly familiar attitude where people will say things like “I’m cool with you”, “My XYZ was gay/ trans”, “What do you think about Caitlyn Jenner?”- this is what bothers me, the fact that I have to stop in the middle of work and take an impromptu class on gender.

On LGBTQIA friendly industries/ sectors

In an ideal world, your skills should speak for themselves. I hate to say that fashion is an accepting industry, because it’s such a cliché. Maybe academia is a safe space, but I guess even that’s not true anymore, if you look at the long list of allegations that have recently come out. Still, it’s perhaps the only space where trans people can be accepted, maybe even happy.

On making workplaces more trans-friendly

In the Indian context, for any employee who is femme, who doesn’t look like the “norm”, there is going to be a safety issue- in terms of the different kinds of people one has to interact with at work, the chai walla in the morning, guards, in the fashion world, karigars, and so on. HR needs to be mindful of these varied interactions, and needs to consistently hold talks and workshops. The entire patriarchal culture, the “bro” culture, needs to be unpacked at every workplace. Also, hiring trans people would be a start- and understand that they must be treated the same as any other employee. Hire trans people like you would hire cis people.

Taksh Sharma; source - Anand Kishore x Cheryl Mukherji via Taksh's Instagram

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