Sonica Aron is the Founder and Managing Partner of Marching Sheep, an HR advisory firm specializing in Strategic HR advisory, Diversity and inclusion interventions and capability building. An XLRI post graduate, Sonica has worked with companies like Pepsico, Vodafone, Roche Diagnostics and ICI paints. She started her career with a sound understanding of business where she went route-riding with Pepsico and was part of the team that launched Pepsi 200 ml at Rs 5. She was the first lady HR Manager stationed at a factory in Upcountry UP and there the seeds to her diversity practice were born.
Interestingly, Homosexuality was never illegal or a criminal offence in ancient Indian and Transgenders and Queers were often important members of royal courts. They were however criminalised by the British during their rule in India, and continued to be so post-independence.
There was a lot of work and effort by a lot of people after which on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Section 377, which criminalised homosexuality as unconstitutional as it infringed on the fundamental rights of autonomy, intimacy, and identity, thus legalising homosexuality in India. Which meant that consensual Lesbian and gay sexual intercourse was no longer illegal.
The Supreme Court also directed the Government to take all measures to properly broadcast the fact that homosexuality is not a criminal offence, to create public awareness and eliminate the stigma members of the LGBT community face, and to give the police force periodic training to sensitise them about the issue. Under a legislation passed in 2019, Transgender people have been allowed to change their legal gender.
Despite recent legislations in favour of LGBT rights, there remains a significant amount of homophobia present among the Indian population, with around half of Indians objecting to same-sex relationships according to a 2019 opinion poll.
Organisations are but a subunit of the society and willi nilly the homophobia does get reflected in the participation of LGBTQ community in the workforce. If we look at the corporate sector, one can actually count the number of companies that are actually doing meaningful work in this area and making an inclusive workplace where the community can work and thrive. Most companies are yet to even begin the journey.
One of the issues that organisations and members of the community both struggle with is bullying and teasing from co-workers and peers. So while management is supportive, policies, processes and infrastructure are being made inclusive but the mindset of people continues to be an issue. Casual remarks on dressing sense, or exclusion from team outings and gatherings, vibes at family gatherings can make members of the community extremely uncomfortable and unable to build relationships of trust and comfort with their peers, thereby impacting their motivation, productivity and retention. Sometimes the exclusion is subtle, sometimes it is in the face. For instance, being asked to behave and dress in accordance with binary gender norms and not to disclose their sexuality or gender identity to co-workers is fairly common. Another unpleasant side is the fact the POSH is not gender neutral and does not cover same sex sexual harassment in most companies. This leaves members of the community vulnerable to sexual harassment- both physical and other forms of sexual harassment.
LGBT employees in many surveys have asserted that they have always faced one or another kind of discrimination at work place. They are even forced to quit their jobs and are often paid less than their heterosexual co-workers. In a survey it was found that amongst LGB around 44% of them were fired when their organisation came to know about their being homosexual, this ratio was comparatively high in case of transgenders, which was found to be 67%. Around 11% LGB and 3% Transgenders were denied the jobs and 46% of LGB and 30% of transgenders were not promoted at their work. Where and how should they start?
For organisations, there are following routes they can take ahead
- Policies and infrastructure – there have been some companies have been progressive in this area through gender inclusive medical policies for instance medical insurances that cover same sex couples, making their prevention of sexual harassment policies inclusive, having gender neutral washrooms, mental and emotional counselling, diversity strategies and so on.
- The second is to address the attitude– Proactively Address issues like insensitive casual banter, homophobic jokes, insults regarding sexuality, degrading references to a person’s sexual orientation, or isolation at the workplace. Drive inclusive mindset across the organisation through session on sensitization- Why do we need to be inclusive, why does it make business sense, what does inclusive language and behaviour look like, how does it impact professionally and personally and so on.
- Make sensitization a continuous exercise– continue to sensitize employees on language, challenges that the community faces, their sensitivity, issues, pronouns etc. it is not a one-time activity but needs continuous reinforcement. Homophobia has existed for centuries and will need time for people to change mindsets.
- Make a beginning– one has to start some time- Many organisations feel- we are not ready yet- we never will be unless we start. Start somewhere. Start with one department, start with the head office, start with one location, but start. Celebrate success and grow from there.
Inclusion is a journey that we all need to take, not just for ourselves, but for a world that we want to leave for generations to come. Each one of us needs to do our bit to make this world more tolerant, more welcoming, more conducive for the community which is suffering and marginalised for no fault of theirs.