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I see a flow towards inclusion: Parmesh Shahani on LGBTQ representation at the workplace

Parmesh Shahani   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In his latest memoir meets manifesto, Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Godrej Culture Lab in Mumbai, speaks about why it makes business and humanitarian sense for companies to employ and embrace the everyday realities of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and queer/questioning people.

It has been 12 years since your last book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India. What has changed for society in this time?

What has changed for society is that queerness is very much a part of people’s consciousness. A bunch of things has led to that. First, the judgments. Whether it was the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality, the 2013 Supreme Court judgement that reversed that, or the 2018 judgement which decriminalised it again. The NALSA judgement of 2014 for transgender rights and the right to privacy judgement of 2017 kind of paved the way for the 2018 Supreme Court judgement. We right now have a problematic trans act, and one hopes it is modified over the next couple of years. All these and the conversation around them made people aware of LGBTQ rights and people.

How has society itself changed?

Media representation has increased by leaps and bounds. Twelve years ago there were maybe a few books; today I was talking to Shobhna (S Kumar, who runs the Queer Inc bookstore) and at last count she says there were more than 200 books. If you look at cinema, whether it’s a film like Aligarh, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha…; or web series, whether it’s Made in Heaven or Paatal Lok; or Romil and Jugal -- what we’re seeing is more queer people telling our own stories. So it’s very important that Aligarh was written by Apurva Asrani, or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha… was written by Gazal Dhaliwal, both from the community.

The axle of a lot of this change has been parental acceptance. For example we have parents groups like Sweekar in Bombay, which comprises more than 200 parents of queer children — they meet, share thoughts and ideas.

In your journey, which are the families that are the most accepting?

The only common trait that I have found is that they love their children much more than what they care about what society may or may not think about them. This fear of LKK — log kya kahenge (what will people say?) is not there. After Samyuktha Vijayan transitioned, her mother takes her to a wedding and says, ‘This used to be my son; now this is my daughter, welcome her,’ and all the family members do.

The business book that advocates for inclusion of the LGBTQ community in workplaces

The business book that advocates for inclusion of the LGBTQ community in workplaces   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

How is your book feeding into the change?

We’re seeing a lot of workplaces talking about inclusion, and that has made a huge difference, because say your parents are not supportive, but your workplace is, you can talk about it at work. It’s not just for queer people, it’s also for straight people. So many straight people go home and tell their family members, ‘You know we have LGBT partner benefits,’ and that’s how you change people’s hearts and minds. We should acknowledge that there has been a huge change in the way states approach it; some states have been more progressive than others: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha. Kerala gave a scholarship to the first trans pilot. In Chhattisgarh, Raipur pride was organised with the support of the State. Maharashtra has set up a Transgender Welfare Board. So whether you look at workplace, family, representation, the law, we’re on our way to living in more empowered times.

Do you think the change in any company must begin at the top?

Completely, and that’s what I target, because we’re still fundamentally hierarchical in India. Once people at the top put their mind, weight, money, intent behind it and say, ‘Let’s work down the organization,’ it is communicated to everyone down the line. Even at Godrej, Nisa Godrej said, ‘This is important and we need to do it.’

How has your own approach changed over the years?

There have been a bunch of realisations. It’s two broad understandings: intersectionality and collaboration. Earlier I used to think that LGBTQ rights are everything, but over the years because of the friends I’ve made across academia, the NGO space, business, I have recognized that we need to think of them in the context of all the other social justice movements. So we can’t think of LGBTQ rights without thinking of the anti-caste movement or climate change and the environment.

The second change in me is that earlier I used to imagine we live in silos, that people who work in companies do their work and earn salary, and people who work in Government govern the country, those in the NGO space are activists, and people in cinema or art are artists. I now realise that if you want to bring about change, you can, no matter where you’re located. I’ve also started to think of collaborations across silos. For example, the Solidarity Foundation or PeriFerry uses a combination of skill building, CSR, employment and placement.

To what extent is homophobia present within the LGBTQ community, because sometimes we internalise external voices?

It’s a struggle to assert who you are, what you feel, and your orientation as normal and valid. The work has to be done by society, because society is putting this pressure on queer people. Which is why this book is so important, because it’s telling companies that the onus is on you to create safe and welcoming spaces for your queer employees. When you create spaces where people can be themselves, their productivity rises. It’s also about overall wellbeing – anyone trying to suppress or hide, it causes a whole lot of stress.

In the ‘new India’ there’s one arm that’s progressive and one that’s quite the opposite. How do you hope we’ll navigate this?

I don’t see things as binary. I see at any given time in our past, present, and future, there is always change happening. I think of it as a flow towards inclusion. It’s not that in the river there will not be obstacles. Even in the states that are doing good work, it’s not that violence is not happening or that patriarchy does not exist. Look at the Kochi Metro case study. Kochi Metro does the right thing – it goes out and hires trans people, but the trans people were not able to get accommodation. And then Kochi Metro stepped in and said, ‘How can we help facilitate this?’

The point I want to make is that there is an understanding now. Whether it is Supriya Sule, or Kanimozhi, Shashi Tharoor or Gautam Gambhir, who inaugurated a trans festival, across the political spectrum, we’re seeing voices coming up more and more. Apsara Reddy is the national general secretary of the Mahila Congress. She is trans. Parties are pushing trans and queer people to positions of importance. All this is possible. Inclusion is Indian; to be Indian is to be inclusive.

Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace (Westland Publications) is available in bookstores, online, and on Audible

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 5:04:26 PM |

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