It’s Time for Corporate India to Catch Up to a Post‑377 World
Prior to the Supreme Court’s repeal of Section 377, which effectively criminalized homosexuality, corporate India had a (poor) excuse to ignore the needs of their LGBTQ+ employees and customers. Despite a clear economic incentive to embrace the community, companies were hesitant to adopt inclusive policies, using Section 377 as a justification. With the statute nixed, their cover is gone — but it’s unclear how many are embracing change.
“I think that either that came out of ignorance, an irrational fear, or quite frankly, it came out of homophobia,” says Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Lab. “Because [377 was] a nice fig leaf to hide behind, and many companies hid behind that fig leaf. Now they can no longer do so.”
A handful of companies have been spearheading LGBTQ+ inclusion behind the scenes for years; IBM, Tata, Infosys, Barclays, Godrej and The Lalit Suri Hospitality group have been at the forefront of creating inclusive policies that range from providing medical coverage for partners of LGBTQ+ employees and covering gender transition costs, to offering leave for child adoption and gender-neutral harassment policies. In following the UN global standards of LGBTQIA inclusion, these companies have been able to reap the rewards. But most corporates have ignored the community to their cost; a 2016 World Bank report found India’s GDP suffers a 1.7% loss — close to US$32 billion — due to homophobia each year.
Talent — straight as well as queer — is lost, when employees don’t feel like their values are shared by their employers, Shahani explains. “Homophobia is not a millennial value,” says Shahani, and any fallout from it might damage a company’s reputation, especially among young recruits. After all, if corporates simply pay lip service to the community, posting rainbow-themed images on Instagram while their HR policies aren’t queer-friendly, they’re going to face a backlash from employees, customers, or both.
So what can companies do to be inclusive?
For Shahani, it boils down to three basic things: First, ensure equal opportunity policies that range from a very basic non-discrimination clause, to an equal extension of typical benefits, like partnership insurance, to LGBTQ+ specific policies like gender transition insurance for transgender employees. Second, actively recruiting employees from the queer community is crucial, Shahani says, whether via niche agencies or facilitators like Peri Ferry (a start-up creating work opportunities for the trans people), or through outreach to the local LGBTQ+ community. Finally, it’s important to not just be inclusive on paper, but to foster an environment in which LGBTQ+ people feel supported and welcome. Companies can sponsor queer events, he suggests, and engage with the community on a cultural level.
There are signs that corporates are tentatively embracing the changes Shahani suggests. Industry collaborations and conferences, like the Out & Equal LGBTQ India Forum, have seen a higher number of participants, and this year, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) planned their conference to coincide with the launch of Keshav Suri, a foundation for LGBTQ+ empowerment. “To my mind it’s the first time that a big industrial body has put its name and weight behind a large LGBTQ+ cause,” says Shahani.
While we applaud the corporations that have been working towards the goal of inclusivity, and encourage others to join their efforts, we should also acknowledge that this is the most basic request, from a community that has been marginalized and stigmatized for centuries. To treat employees, to treat the LGBTQ+ community, with the same respect and rights afforded to everyone else, is simply to recognize that they are human, too.
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