Shattering the glass closet

WORK & LIFE

Shattering the glass closet

Last month pop singer Ricky Martin came out of the closet, finally telling the world he was gay. And while many fans – gay and straight – reacted with bemused wonderment that it took him so long to come out, 38-year-old Martin’s statement at the time expressed what almost every gay man and woman must face at some time in their working lives.

“Many people told me: ‘Ricky, it’s not important’, ‘it’s not worth it’, ‘all the years you’ve worked and everything you’ve built will collapse’, ‘many people in the world are not ready to accept your truth, your reality, your nature’. Because all this advice came from people who I love dearly, I decided to move on with my life not sharing with the world my entire truth. Allowing myself to be seduced by fear and insecurity became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sabotage,” he said on his website.

In other words, and this is something gay people constantly hear from even the most well-meaning friends: why rock the boat if you’ve got a good thing going? If you do come out at work, either by telling friends and colleagues, it could work against you, they say.

Last July, the Delhi High Court overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising gay sex in India and removing any legal hurdles towards coming out. And for many gay people, coming out is simply one step in their own acceptance of themselves and their identities, a step towards living a free and open life, a life or pride rather than one of shame.

Inevitably, this leads to the workplace, particularly when it comes to occasions such as the office Diwali party or a colleague’s wedding.

“For the average young man or woman next door, an important aspect of coming out in India is the correct awareness of alternative lifestyles, consensual aspect of these lifestyles and the knowledge that it is natural to love – whether it’s the opposite sex or the same sex, that hardly makes a difference as long as you treat yourself and others with respect and don’t live a life of lies and shame,” says Mumbai-based public relations professional Praful Baweja (28).

Baweja is out and proud, and says he has no hesitation in attending company-organised events with his partner. “I have taken my dates to even office reunions as my work as a professional has nothing to do with my other choices. The purpose there is knowing each other better and sharing.”

But how does coming out impact your career and the way you are treated around the water cooler? Are you, in fact, putting future promotion and career advancement at risk by telling the boss you’re gay?

Karthik Iyer certainly thinks so. The 38-year-old IT professional works for a top global brand and has been in a long-term relationship for over a decade, with his partner accepted and welcomed into the family. Yet, despite his company’s much-publicised diversity policy, Iyer believes he’d be doing himself a disservice by coming out to colleagues at his Chennai office. “They have all these nice programmes and things, but that only works in the US office. My bosses are very conservative, it would certainly affect the way they treat me,” he says, speaking on condition that his name was changed for this story.

That’s not the experience of media professional Karan N (34). “I came out at work because I was constantly being asked about girlfriends and why I always turned up at work events on my own,” he says. “There weren’t any gay people in the office, but it couldn’t have been easier. My boss was actually quite cool about it and I now regularly invite colleagues into the home I share with my partner. I guess the only downside was having to put up with a lot of gay jokes and innuendo.”

And while that might be cause for a discrimination suit in the West, Karan chooses to look at it as acceptance.

Heterosexual human resources professional Savitha Nair, who works at a multinational which has offices all over India and in key international markets, says the situation varies across the board.

“Laws in Europe and the United States are pretty strict and homosexuality is an accepted part of the social fabric. People may have their own reservations but for fear of a libel suit may not even talk about. I think it’s probably a non-issue in most multi-nationals,” she says.

“But India still can’t handle it. The younger generation is more accepting, but not so much the bigger decision makers of the corporate world. People guess about people and talk about them, and informally, some people come out and admit, but not everyone talks about it. In fact, it’s not so much a question of one’s performance in bed, but about one’s performance at work.”

Baweja says coming out at work depends on where you are in your career. “Coming out will affect hiring, retaining or simple business operations even if we would not like to admit it. It can backfire if done without taking into consideration the interests of the person being subjected to this personal information. I would compare it to sharing whether you are divorced, married or part of any particular group. All of that has an impact on one’s career for good or bad as per our own ability to separate professional expertise from personal choices. Personally I am selective about sharing this information.”

Coming out on the office floor, says finance professional Nitin Karani, is pretty much what you make of it. “My boyfriend is part of my regular conversation at work, as an opposite-sex spouse would be. He’s even come on a trip to Goa with me and my colleagues,” he says.

Karani is Editor at Large at the gay magazine Bombay Dost and is not just out at work; he is something of a celebrity in the gay world, having appeared on television shows to talk about the challenges homosexuals face in India today.

“Not many people are out (at work) but from what I’ve heard, there are hardly any negative experience, especially if you are in the financial services industry or the media,” he continues. “I do know of a case where a person has claimed he was passed over for promotion because of being gay, but I have not heard of anyone who was driven out of the job because their sexual orientation became known at work. By and large, unless your family or the local police make your sexuality their business, or your employers there’s little to worry about.”

Karani says one reason for that seemingly happy state of affairs could be because few people are actually out at work, so cases of discrimination, likewise, are few and far between.

The transgender community, particularly hijras, must often face assault in their line of work.
But while no one may bat an eyelid at gay couples in the larger metros, when Dr Siras’s story hit the headlines earlier this year, it demonstrated that a battle for gay rights is being fought in India’s workplaces, particularly in smaller towns.

In February, Siras (64) was suspended and asked to leave his apartment by his educational institution after a secretly shot videotape surfaced, showing him having sex with a rickshaw puller. The sting was reportedly carried out on the orders of the university’s vice-chancellor.
In March, the Allahabad High Court stayed the suspension and ordered he be reinstated to his post and given accommodation until his retirement later this year.

On April 7, however, Dr Siras was found dead in his flat, and police believe he may have committed suicide, although the results of a post-mortem examination were inconclusive.
“The Delhi High Court verdict, implies equality is a fundamental right of LGBT individuals as well and this could be the basis for bringing in anti-discrimination laws,” says Karani.

For the marketing professional mulling a public confessional in the staff cafeteria, then, HR consultant Nair advises the softly-softly approach. “There’s no need to shout about it from the rooftops. I’m heterosexual, but you don’t see me jumping around waving banners and trying to talk about in every conversation. You only need to come out to people who matter to you and who need to know about it, if you think they need to know about it.

First, understand that few people really want to know, fewer people care about such things and no one really needs to take a stand unless forced to. Why force it? One’s sexual orientation is one’s own business in a ‘normal’ scenario, it should follow in a ‘same sex’ scenario too.”

Where it does seem to work against the individual, she says, is in the upper echelons of the corporate world, where anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the old boys’ club could well be bypassed when it comes to board directorships.

But for everyone else, the advice she has given gay colleagues who confided in her and asked her what to do should hold you in good stead: “I’d say follow your heart. If asked directly and the person wanted to admit it, admit it. If person wanted to deny it, deny. There’s no need to volunteer information on what are really ‘personal’ topics, but equally so, there’s no need to cower and hide.”

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