In late 2013, India’s highest court suddenly turned me and millions of other gays into criminals — once more.
It was a devastating blow. Nearly five years earlier, the Delhi high court had struck down a draconian part of the Indian Penal Code declaring homosexual acts illegal. But the Supreme Court said that decision should be up to Parliament, not judges, and overturned the earlier ruling.
My friends and I quickly gathered after hearing the news, fighting to hold back tears and stay strong for one another. We were like so many others, weeping over a victory — one that had brought us such peace and relief — wrested from our grasp.
But I knew we didn’t have the luxury of grieving. It was clear that we would need to seek protection in our workplaces and our communities since we wouldn’t have it under the law.
I reached out to the human resources department at my employer, Symantec, in 2014 to start the company’s first Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG) in the Asia-Pacific region. After nearly two years of delay — first for a company ruling on the ERG, then for recovery from floods in 2015 that ravaged the southern city of Chennai, where I work — we launched this year.
To this day, Parliament hasn’t taken any action on the law, but their inaction has only served to fuel our cause: We’re making one cubicle safe at a time.
And that’s just the beginning.
I was always out and active in the community, advocating for gay rights before the ruling. I never had the coming-out talk. I was a visible target.
Early in my career, before coming to Symantec, I felt the sting of discrimination at another tech firm. I’d be moved off projects without explanation and my colleagues referred to me as “ombodhu,” or “nine,” in Tamil or by making a hissing sound, “usss” — both are derogatory expressions used to refer to gender non-conforming men and male-to-female transgender people. They would say “nine” randomly in my presence and once, I found the number nine written with a marker on my car hood in the office parking lot.
I’d internalized the harassment almost to the point of feeling others were not responsible for their actions. I felt helpless and didn’t take it up with management because the company’s culture was not inclusive and I didn’t think the higher-ups would support me.
When I came to Symantec nearly four years ago, I found acceptance for who I am. There was trouble with only one colleague, who called me “chakka” — a slur for transgender and gender non-conforming men. He would cut me off, too, and make snide remarks, but I told him that such behavior was unacceptable and cited the harassment policy. He never repeated it — at least not in my presence.
But my managers and colleagues on my team have always been supportive and nonjudgmental. I never tried to talk to them about my sexuality. They knew about me and treated me like any other person. Still do.
When being gay was re-criminalized, my manager at the time wrote on his Facebook page that any kind of discrimination was wrong. That post gave me such a boost. I had been depressed and suddenly felt there was someone standing up for me. I thanked him for his support and he replied that he stood with me no matter what.
During the brief time that homosexuality was legal in India, some companies sponsored LGBT ERGs. But with re-criminalization, they stopped, and I realized that starting an ERG would have to come from employees — like me.
Given the political environment, our HR department felt nervous about taking a stand and pushing our group forward. They reached out to our legal department, which ruled that an LGBT ERG would be OK, since technically being a homosexual in India isn’t a crime, though homosexual acts are.
We started work on forming the ERG in 2015, but heavy rains pounded Chennai, triggering floods, death and devastation. The recovery would take months; the ERG would have to wait.
In the post-flood trauma, I wanted to get the group back on track. If we were going to make this happen, we needed to make it known. “Can you send out a notice?” I asked the HR chief in India. Recalling how my former manager supported me after re-criminalization, I knew support for this effort from higher management could help make people feel more comfortable.
We announced the start of the ERG — one of the first of its kind in India — in an email, and people were told that I’d lead it.
In India, there is a huge gender disparity in the tech workforce and I worried if queer women would be okay with a cis-gendered gay man leading the ERG. But I was energized by how many women responded.
Officially, we have 12 people in our Pride group email list — including some allies who don’t identify as LGBT — spread among Symantec offices in Chennai and Pune.
We have ordered signs that people can place in their cubicles. They say things like, “No tolerance for intolerance” and “I’m inclusive, are you?”
Unofficially, there are a few others who want to be involved but don’t want to be on the public distribution list. They may not be ready to be out or fear the working environment will not support them. Despite the progress we’ve made, the feeling of inclusion takes time and is hard work.
Could our ERG be a first step for colleagues in the process of coming out?
From the beginning, our group has strived to create a welcoming environment for our gay, lesbian and transgender colleagues as well as to rally potential allies.
We want to make everyone feel secure at work. That’s why we say we’re making one cubicle safe at a time.
While our HR training materials are LGBT inclusive, the Pride ERG will soon offer training to educate staff about what it means to have an accepting, inclusive workplace.
The prospect of having more support is encouraging. If people are made aware at work, they can take that awareness home. It makes it easier for them to accept LGBT people — friends and family — off the job.
Still, there’s a lot of work to do and our numbers are small. At a recent forum that I attended, only four of the 36 tech firms had LGBT ERGs. Seeing this pushed me and two friends working at other tech firms to form a grassroots group we call “Queer In Corporate India.”
We help encourage support for workplace inclusivity as we embrace each other in friendship, which gives each of us a little extra support. We provide others tips on how to talk to HR and the legal departments — sharing how we crossed those thresholds — and how to start a conversation with upper management.
You have to push even harder in an organization where the culture makes you feel like no one is listening. Don’t give up.
Today, I feel safe and at ease at work. I don’t have to pretend or hide my social life. I can say that I went to a Pride march or I went out with queer friends. I can bring my whole self to the job.
That’s not the case for others in India, but we’re working to change that.
Together, we can make one cubicle — and one company — safe at a time.
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