No gay jokes at the office: The next frontier in political correctness?

"Tell me what is an LGBT-friendly workplace," a friend asked over the weekend.

It's a good point.

A new survey by an LGBT thinktank, MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment) of 17 corporations (most of them IT giants and MNCs) says only 12% are clearly LGBT-friendly. But the story in the Times of India does not elaborate what that means.

Does it mean health insurance or LTA benefits for your partner? Does it mean a resource group for LGBT employees? Does it just mean you cannot be fired because your boss does not like gay people? Or does it mean a ban on all gay jokes?

I remember a desi engineer friend in Silicon Valley saying he would love to work in India but couldn’t imagine doing that as an out gay man. "And I cannot go back into the closet again," he said. The fact that we are even discussing an LGBT-friendly workplace in an Indian setting, even in the rarefied bubbles of MNCs, is itself a huge step forward.

Times are changing. Yet almost 80 percent of the people surveyed by MINGLE have witnessed homophobic comments in the workplace, mostly from co-workers, and even from managers. Part of it comes because of visibility. Gays and gay topics are much more a part of popular culture. Ergo they are much more a part of the off-colour jokes that people forward to each other on BBMs.

(File Photo) Editorial members of India's first gay magazine "Bombay Dost". AFP Photo

The "gay joke" is the lowest hanging fruit when it came to humour. It gives heterosexual men a bit of masculinity bump. Unlike the Santa-Banta joke or the Parsi joke or the Muslim joke, it can always be open season on gays at the office water cooler because no one protests and gays are much more invisible. In fact, as Nehal, a gay but not out employee said in a cover story about this same topic in Forbesmagazine last year: "I laugh the loudest when someone cracks a gay joke in the office."

But does "gay-friendly" mean we are entering a paranoid world where even a casual, no-harm-meant kind of joke is off-limits? LGBT-friendly sounds like the ultimate in thin-skinned political correctness. Our paranoia is that being out at the workplace is all about flaunting one's sexuality and shoving it down everyone else's throat. And being LGBT-friendly means having to put up with that. Leave aside the fact that heterosexuality is shoved down our throats all the time – whether it's the family picture on the desk, the  invitations to co-worker weddings or endless the questions about getting married.

Heterosexuality is a public spectacle. Homosexuality has to be a bedroom thing.

Tellingly, the MINGLE survey says 57% thought their firms were "neutral" towards gay employees. That means they basically believe in letting sleeping gays lie. As Vinay Chandran, the executive director of Swabhava Trust, an LGBT rights organisation in Bangalore said when the Forbes cover story came out, "One MNC said why do we need a policy. We have not had any complaints about harassment. If there is no trouble why address it."

That leads us to the chicken and egg problem.

Unless you are out in the workplace, your company’s HR will not think you exist and matter. But unless your company has some kind of policy in place, why would any gay person feel comfortable being out in the first place? Who in their right mind wants to be the corporate guinea pig?

Vikram Doctor who has covered this issue for the Economic Times over the years said that anti-discrimination policies are  most important lower down the food chain, for the junior level employees, the ones with the least clout. In the Forbes story, the writer Parmesh Shahani writes about being courted for his job by Anand Mahindra while still at MIT. Shahani wondered if Mahindra & Mahindra had a diversity policy that covered LGBT employees. Mahindra promised that he would not be treated any differently than other employees.  Shahani said that assurance made him “a lifelong ambassador for the company.”

Shahani was lucky. He was out with the blessings of the big boss. The fresh out-of-college employee does not come with that kind of gold-plated armour. The problem is really the high-level employee who could afford to be out but still chooses not to be. It would have been fascinating if the MINGLE survey could have reached that group.

Being out obviously matters and not necessarily in a negative way. The MINGLE survey says 26.7% of homophobic jibes were attributed to managers. But most out LGBT employees faced no discrimination from their managers. This is not going to cause any rush to form gay support groups inside MNCs. Actually the last thing gay employees want to do is form little gay ghettos which draw more attention to their sexuality, inside their own companies. In  the larger world out there, young people are more blasé about sexuality, their own and others'. Even Hrithik Roshan has gotten the message. He’s happy to have his people send out press releases that anoint him a "gay icon' and organise special gay community screenings of his films. Whether he is truly a gay icon or not, the point is the gay and straight worlds are mixing and corporations should be reflecting that. The model is not the LGBT-support group as much as it's the Gay-Straight Alliance of American schools.

The LGBT-friendly workplace is not one which observes National Coming Out day. It's not one where you have to bring mithai when the Delhi High Court strikes down the sodomy law (though that would be a sweet gesture). It's not one where the issue is buried under yet another mountain of paper, yet another policy that no one really reads, least of all the just-hired gay employee.

It is one where your orientation is a non-issue when it comes to your promotion, your position, your career track. It's one where you actively recruit LGBT employees and welcome them from the get-go. It's one that can actively support an employee who decides he or she wants to change gender. It’s one where if one feels uncomfortable about a barrage of anti-gay jokes, one is able to say something about it (Remember, you don't have to be the gay employee to do that).

The irony is if the workplace is truly LGBT-friendly, the occasional gay joke would actually just be, well, funny. And Nehal could choose which jokes to laugh at.


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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2012 12:56:20 IST

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