Shanavi Ponnusamy, and the fight for trans-inclusive workplaces in India's public and private sector

After being denied a job at Air India and receiving no response from the airline, Shanavi Ponnusamy has asked to be euthanised. In her struggles lies the seed for a larger movement about inclusive workspaces | #FirstCulture

Harish Iyer February 19, 2018 19:12:34 IST
Shanavi Ponnusamy, and the fight for trans-inclusive workplaces in India's public and private sector

Shanavi Ponnusamy, a trans person, had to knock at the doors of the Supreme Court to fight for a job at Air India. It is beyond shameful that after the November 2017 directive from the apex court, asking the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India to respond to her in four weeks, it has been four months and she has still not received a response. I read that she has written a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind asking to be euthanised. Shanavi, I empathise with you.

To be denied the right to a respectable job just because you decided to align your sex with your gender is not something that should be taken lying down in any civilised country, let alone a nation that is legally (through the NALSA judgement) and constitutionally bound to respect the rights of transgenders. I am glad that she is putting up a fight and asking the president to either let her live with respect, or allow her to end her life. Though this may be seen as an endorsement of euthanasia by some, there will be other people who will understand the politics and the intent behind this fight. Her pain and gain all are personal, but by making her struggles public, she paves the way for other transgender persons who will look at her case to navigate the job market on their own terms. Her story will serve as a case study for many. Especially in times like these, when there have been attempts to take away individuals' rights to identify as transgenders, with other parties interfering and determining who is and is not trans. Truth be told, no one knows us better than own selves.

Shanavi Ponnusamy and the fight for transinclusive workplaces in Indias public and private sector

Shanavi Ponnusamy. Image from Facebook/

For the corporate world, this a moment to reflect on. There are several companies who are welcoming of transpersons. However, policies on paper are useless if we don’t practise them. You are not transgender-friendly simply by having a written policy, you must have a trans person certify that this policy is followed, after having worked at your firm.

And this is not just true of transgenders; it could also be someone whose sex assigned at birth, or discovered later through prognosis, is intersex. It could also be someone who is lesbian or gay or bisexual. The certificate of being gender or sexual minority-friendly should come from the employee, not the company in question.

I am certain that Shanavi, more than anyone else, feels that the last thing transpersons need when we enter the job market is to be treated as diversity hires. I have personally received calls from companies who have asked me to send them “some transgenders”. It almost seems like they are placing an order for food at a restaurant, or veggies at the grocers.

While diversity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a healthy human resource DNA of any company, they should not just be hiring strategies meant to showcase queer individuals, but rather a chance to ensure equal opportunity at the entry level and for growth. In fact, more effort needs to be put into making the workplace welcoming for marginalised and vulnerable communities, right from the hiring stage to appraisals, taking into consideration the fact that the privileged had to walk 10 steps to the door, but given socio-economic struggles as well as subjugation and prejudice, the marginalised communities had to walk 30 or 40 more steps to reach the doors of corporate companies. Just as the struggles have not been the same, so shouldn't the leniency. It is not favouritism; it is corporate empathy. This is affirmed by organisations such as Periferry, which specifically work towards transgender recruitment and assist in building inclusive workplaces.

Another challenge that transpersons face, and she as the first one to change things in Air India could possibly suffer, is co-worker stigma. I do hope that the airline as well as other companies take on the onus of setting up all-gender restrooms and have sensitisation workshops for employees, so that when she joins, she doesn't have to face derogatory remarks or patronising, personal questions about your sex life or your body.

Simple acts, such as asking a person which gender pronoun they prefer, go a long way. The Pride march in Mumbai featured a wonderful group called The Plane Jar (consisting of people aged 18 to 20 years old) who held a placard which said "My name is 'not gender specific', my pronouns are 'just ask'."

Shanavi, I am sorry that you had to go through the process of exclusion. The onus of inclusion should not be on the ones who are excluded, but rather on those who have always been included. However, within your struggles lies the future of a whole movement to sensitise workplaces about gender and sexuality.

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