Employed but not accepted - Being trans in a workplace
Transgender persons continue to face stigma and discrimination at workplaces after undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgerry.
This report was produced through the grants provided under the Laadli Media Fellowship 2022.
Snehal Mutha | "I was working in a hospital, but post-Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), I had to resign. The employer asked me to keep the job on the condition that I dress like a man," said Renuka. Renuka is a 25-year-old transwoman, a resident of Janata Vasahat, Pune. Despite having a graduate degree and a nursing course certificate, Renuka does Mangti (begging). After working for a while, she did her SRS. Later she stayed with her guru and picked up mangti to sustain herself economically.
Likewise, Trinay, a 27-year-old Transman, emphasised that his manager was well informed of his surgery. The manager approved of it, but a few colleagues did not. They bullied and clapped behind his back. Trinay said, "I have created a safe environment for myself over the years. So while being on SRS procedure, I cannot afford to change workplace, I am dicey about colleagues at the new workplace." He has four years of work experience in his current company and counting.
SRS refers to procedures that help people transit to their self-identified gender, involving physical and hormonal changes in the body, becoming female if male and vice versa. First-hand accounts of transgender (TG) suggest these visible changes are unacceptable in workplaces. Ayan, a 28-year-old Motion Graphic Designer said, "Life changes post-Hormonal Reassignment Treatment (HRT) or SRS. It has helped me reduce anxiety and anger issues, increasing my focus on work. Basically, it does improve your mental health and quality of life."
A study by the American journal of psychiatry states, an individual's odds of needing mental health treatment declined by eight percent each year after the gender-affirming procedure. Although TG, including Ayan (non-binary TG), wants to take HRT slow or avoid surgery, citing society, especially the workplace perceptions. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) research supports the argument stating trans people delay or hide social or physical transition to access education and employment. Overall unemployment in India, irrespective of gender is a major issue. For transgender, it further aggravates as they end up getting involved in conventional income sources, including sex work, Mangti (begging) or Badhai.
Streets, brothels, traffic signals, outside retail shops, trains and NGOs are presumed as workspaces for TG people.
A National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) survey states that 96 percent of transgender refused jobs and 92 percent, including qualified ones, are deprived of the right to participate in any form of economic activity in the country. Renuka's account reflects that despite qualifications, it is arduous for the transgender community to live a mainstream life; she is one among the 92 percent. The community is actively visible in public spaces, but it also depends on which space it is. Streets, brothels, traffic signals, outside retail shops, trains and NGOs are presumed as workspaces for TG people.
Renuka adds, "Even while purchasing utilities from a retail store, the shopkeeper offers me Rs 10. Retailers are not yet ready to treat me as a customer. We can evaluate the acceptance level of our society through such instances. Why will the employers keep us on the job if we are unsuitable as per their binary definitions!”
Apprehensions in hiring a Transgender
The primary reason behind this is the hysteria among binary gender pertaining to TG’s lifestyle - largely assumed to be loud with a probability of being unpredictable. "The employer feels this may appall customers and impact business adversely. We may sympathise with a TG, treat her godly but won’t take a step ahead and empathise with her situation," said Shamibha Patil, Jalgaon-based TG activist, and creator of BaiManus YouTube channel.
Set notions and superstitious attitudes about the community serve as the basis for job denial. For example, Vaidehi took time to accept her sexual orientation, thinking about the TG lifestyle. She had heard stories of TGs abducting children and sacrificing them to god while growing up. Society had labelled the entire community as kidnappers. Vaidehi, 26, migrated to Pune from Nashik.
Ayan adds, "My friend asked me to speak cautiously as transgender people tend to curse a lot. If my friend has this assumption, think about workplace treatment."
Photo - Snehal Mutha
Amruta, a project coordinator of Muskan NGO, Kolhapur said, “The entire community must not be designated as loud, violent or sex workers. If a man is violent, do we tag the entire male gender as violent? It is the society that pre-decided to discriminate. Our attributes are the outcome of their prejudices.”
The transgender community is presumed to be divided into two sects. One is a cultural sect such as Hijra and another may be grouped as the independent transgender, not a part of the cultural sect. The stigma and discrimination attached to cultural sects over their appearance, work practices and habits affect the overall transgender community. The stigma dominates the qualification of a person.
Archana said, "I work as a mangti on Shankarsheth road. On the right side, there is a big society. I inquired to get work as a maid several times, but security forbade me to enter the premises. I was left with no other option but begging."
The stigma usually forces them to settle for humiliating jobs, further resulting in ruminative thoughts, a negative self-image, hopelessness, social isolation or other dysfunctional coping behaviours.
Education, employment, career, income and lifestyle within the trans community largely depend on socio-economic backgrounds and privileges that come with it. While elite class trans people fight for identity within the community, economically weaker sections fight for survival and employment. The resources, opportunities and guidance might be comparatively higher in the case of the elite class, but the struggle for acceptance from society more or less is the same.
Amala said, "I am privileged to be born in a family where there is unconditional acceptance. However, society fails to provide you with the same. My lifelong ambition was to become a doctor but I chose fashion as a career as it broadly accepts marginalised people".
Amala, 21, is a third-year student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Bangalore. She feels her journey so far was comparatively easy but might get tougher after joining the mainstream workforce. Amala aims to work in a clothing factory with workers from all walks of life. She is nervous about how accepting factory workers will be of her gender dysphoria. Nonetheless, for now, she is happy about her gender-affirming surgery.
The urban-rural divide dilates this further. Awareness and inclusion in cities are comparatively higher than in rural areas. Most of the abandoned TG migrate to cities. Highly educated one ends up in low-paying jobs and the less educated TG settle for blue-collar or conventional work. TG residing in rural areas either suppress their inside voice or join cultural TG sects. Migrating to cities given their familial background is not possible. Villagers being highly superstitious and the godly importance attached to them deprives the community of jobs. Few continue with their regular jobs putting a cap on their sexual orientation to avoid stigma.
Rejection and Mindset
Most of them pick up traditional economic activities, including sex work. The rejection from family, entry into the community and urgent need for survival forced TG to choose a different path.
Vaidehi said, "Sex work becomes habitual once you undertake it, also offers more money. Usually, remuneration earned is between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 per day, and the possibility of earning such an amount in a salaried job is less. Easy money and the routine become the basic attitude of the TG”.
Bindumadhav Khire, Bindu Queer Rights Foundation founder, said, “For example, a TG is a computer engineer, but works as a sex worker. Instead of working a 10-hour shift, five hours of work and good money sounds like a great deal. A TG goes through a lot, starting from acceptance of family. When the family rejects them over their sexuality, a part of them already dies. Hopes have vanished, so what career to choose becomes secondary. The real question is, can transgender people achieve mainstream life along with all the crisis?"
Money and Expenditure
An individual with gender dysphoria leaves their parental house and joins sects in the metro city. Guru provides them with safety, accommodation and helps for SRS or HRT. Guru act as parent to the Chela (Student). Chela, in return, pays certain cuts to her guru. Living independently or with Guru, both incur expenses. These expenses include guru’s installments, HRT/SRT expenses, facial treatment session payments, contribution to family income and their living expenses. The average salary of Rs 20,000 is inadequate to cover these expenses.
Aishwarya, 23, works as an office boy at a firm, and earlier did sex work. She said, "I am the sole breadwinner for a family of five, sometimes to get extra income, I did sex work, but it never felt right. Our conditions forced us to do this work."
Zoya Lobo, India’s first Trans Photojournalist said, “I am known figure now, have exposure. But look right now, as I am speaking with you, I am out for mangti. When Zoya is not on assignment, to earn extra bucks, she begs in railways.
We all have our share of biases to deal with.— Zoya Thomas Lobo (@ZoyaLobo) March 8, 2022
But the only way to bring change is to seek the right information and empower yourself. For me,
it was learning a skill that would become my career. What is it for you? #SearchForChange. @googleindia #ad #WomensDay2022 #IWD pic.twitter.com/FdaQEDTzH8
The pain caused in the journey from helplessness to compulsion and fast money as opium for TG had formed a mindset that refuses rehabilitation - a point where the urge for a better life is negligible. For TGs to start working in the mainstream require acceptance, good money and a mentality without prejudices.
Workplace Hostility “The environment was hostile at my previous workplace, a Pune-based call centre. Without even knowing my sexual orientation, colleagues made fun of me over my body language. To think how disastrous it could have been if they knew," said Vaidehi.
She was passively humiliated at the workplace even before being on Hormonal Reassignment Treatment (HRT). She is a BTech graduate from Nagpur who recently joined Flipkart in the logistics department. She also believes it would have been challenging to bag this job without NGO's support.
"Maybe I would have been rejected in the first screening only," she says further. She is a classic example, who rehabilitated herself, leaving behind the traditional work and joining the formal workforce. Uma, in her 40s, who asserts herself to be transgender, perhaps never went on SRT or HRT due to her familial responsibility. Uma said, “People call me Umesh and sometimes Uma. My strong nature works as a shield from all the harassment that comes due to my sexual orientation. Coming out today at work won’t get me fired, but it will cause mental harassment".
Umesh (workplace name) works with Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) on permanent payroll since 2011. He was hired as male and never came out on work explicitly.
On inquiring about SRS, Vaidehi said, "There is already a delay in the process. Mostly it is done in the early 20s considering physical factors. Between all the struggle to earn bread and the want of acceptance from family, my HRT prolonged to start."
For transgender people, starting gender-affirming hormone treatment in adolescence is linked to having a better mental health than waiting until adulthood, according to new research led by the Stanford University School of Medicine. As mentioned earlier, Uma never went for SRT or HRT.
She also cites, “It was rare for the government to hire a trans. Besides, there are no changing rooms for ladies or other gender as only men work in this department. Me dressing as a woman would not help me in accessing utilities.”
Vaidehi and Uma, both belong to the two different generations, but somewhere their story meets on the same line - fear, discrimination and a long struggle to claim the mainstream workspace. Without surgery, colleagues noticed both of their personalities - the dressing, voice, walk and mannerisms. It attracted all forms of responses and incorporated humiliation, ridicule and random bantering.
A recent study in the USA by McKinsey examined the experiences of trans people in the workplace, 59 percent cited safety as the main reason for not pursuing work in certain industries. Such data for India is unavailable. Considering the population and associated stigma, it could be higher. A transgender person usually obscures sexual orientation due to insecurity.
Recently, ILO released a 100-page guide that addresses global practices, which impede and sometimes support LGBTIQ+ persons as they seek and sustain employment. The guide may be considered an 'Awareness Training Manual'. The report highlights how governments can work with diverse partners such as small and medium industry associations, sectoral unions and informal economy workers’ associations to monitor discrimination in the informal economy.
Challenges at workplace
Interview rounds and Leadership roles
"The panelists are more interested in our personal life than asking us questions regarding qualifications. Sometimes it becomes uncomfortable to answer," said Ayan.
He further adds, "HR assured me of lining up for an interview but never called back after knowing about my sexuality. I was rejected even before presenting myself in the interview.”
Many times transgender people's growth or promotion is restricted. Unfortunately, the organisation has an invisible glass ceiling. Most of them aim low as getting hired is a big deal. Leadership roles are secondary on the list. The focus is on stable income to sustain economically.
Vaidehi cites her friend's situation wherein Rucha (name changed) worked for a firm for 10 years and was later denied promotion on grounds of poor performance. However, in reality, it was about her orientation.
"This left my 30-year-old friend to battle depression," said Vadehi.
Vijaya feels even the NGO sector discriminates, TGs are assigned projects that are commissioned for TG. "In my career, I have not worked for the hetero crowd or in a leadership position, forget other fields," said Vijaya. She is a project peer at NARI, Pune.
A report by Accenture states that 79 percent of the LGBTQI+ employees indicated that their career growth has slowed down because of their gender identity and revealing their sexual orientation.
The LGBTQ community faces many challenges at the workplace, starting with access to toilets. The dilemma of which toilet to use is common among TG. Accessing a cisgender washroom is a discomfort. Trinay climbs down from the 7th floor to the ground floor to use the unisex washroom. Three toilet breaks consume more time, lengthening his shifts.
Priya Patil, a member of the Maharashtra Transgender Welfare Board (MTGWB), said, “Why should a transgender person have separate lavatories? While building toilets for women, can’t one be reserved for transwomen and vice versa. Constructing altogether different toilets for the LGBTQ further widens the discrimination instead of inclusions”.
Cisgender employees are resistant to TG using washrooms reserved for them, citing safety matters. Hence, unintentional discrimination arises. It is implicated that allowing the TG community will increase the risk of sexual harassment and assault against women. But a 2018 report published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy suggests that such incidents in bathrooms are rare, regardless of any gender-identity policy on bathroom usage.