Coming out stronger: Parmesh Shahani releases his second book, Queeristan
As unfortunate as this year has been, 2020 began with a plea in the Kerala High Court seeking recognition for same-sex marriages, while Chennai saw a transperson marry a man.
“Focus on the positive.” That, with a generous helping of anecdotes that highlight the many milestones for the LGBTQIA+ community in India from author and activist Parmesh Shahani’s point of view, is how his second book, Queeristan, could be described.
Don’t let the business book format fool you – Queeristan reads like a memoir, while it is also handy for reference. It traces the multi-pronged struggle, speeded up by the 2018 Supreme Court verdict on the decriminalisation of Section 377, of the queer community, and how it’s come out in the corporate world, the government and society.
“Now, the struggle is to be equal legally,” the author tells us, as we struggle for network one stormy morning.
Having spent a decade as the head of Godrej India Culture Lab, Shahani’s snapshot of what it means to be queer in India today focuses on crucial life lessons he’s learnt. The first being that sometimes companies can just be ignorant. Ignorance is not homophobia. And it can be overcome with knowledge.
“You think, ‘what if my company is homophobic?’” he says, recalling how he raised the issue of equal policies for queer people with Nisaba Godrej. “They didn’t have a policy as no one had asked her before! We started with an anti-discrimination policy and partner benefits,” the 44-year-old reminisces.
Ask and you shall receive
Though smaller companies are yet to catch up, IBM, Tech Mahindra, Wipro, Tata Steel, Bank of America and the Lalit Group of Hotels, which have hired 100 LGBTQIA+ people over the years, in various capacities, have same-sex partner benefits, all-gender washrooms and are even paying for gender affirmation surgeries for trans employees.
Every now and then, though, someone will say something silly, like, ‘what if the transperson joins just to get the surgery?’
“What they don’t understand is that it’s a long process. It’s like saying someone is joining the company to avail the seven-month maternity leave,” exclaims Shahani. Questions are great, though, he adds. That’s how misunderstandings go away!
The hurdle now is ensuring the policies are executed uniformly across organisations. For which, spreading awareness via film screenings, discussions and emails sent on May 17 – International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia – is vital. “It’s a constant conversation, not just an annual pride month feature,” says Shahani.
One basic aspect is the need to hire queer people – which is proof of inclusion. “Not only do you improve your reputation with millennials, but you also get better talent onboard. The Kochi Metro is hiring trans people,” Parmesh adds.
Inclusion in an organisation also has a ripple effect that extends to the employee’s family, bringing about a societal change. What also helps is to know that India was quite inclusive of sexuality and gender non-conformity till colonisation happened.
“That introduced conservative values into our society. Being Indian has always meant being inclusive. Homophobia is a Western influence,” points out Shahani.
To all our allies
Yes, people still assume that queer people are promiscuous and say things like, ‘I’m okay with gay people, just don’t hit on me’. For there’s no correlation between education and empathy. “That’s when you need to speak up. And you need allies to speak up,” says Shahani.
“Ultimately, we are all striving for equality and so, our movement is linked to women’s and anti-caste movements. Even kids who rebuke their parents are allies,” he says.
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From HT Brunch, August 16, 2020
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