Following India’s move in September last year to scrap a colonial-era ban on gay sex, an increasing number of corporations are opening their doors to LGBT+ people and ushering in policies to make them feel more welcome.
However, smaller firms across several industries are not racing to diversify just yet.
At a dusty roadside eatery in northern Haryana state, Babu Ram Bhoshne and six of his workers burst into laughter at the idea of hiring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and introducing LGBT+ policies at their workplace.
“Do I want to run my business or do I want to keep worrying about these people flirting with my waiters,” the mustachioed 62-year-old said, laughing at the cash register, with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses on the wall behind him.
“If I have kinnars [transgender women] and [gay] men walking around, I will lose all my customers. They are not ready for such things,” Bhoshne said, adding that his restaurant is most frequented by truckers, farm workers and local villagers.
Experts have said that such homophobic and transphobic comments are not surprising in India, which, despite making great economic strides, remains a largely conservative country where homosexuality and premarital sex are still frowned upon.
Most of India’s 60 million small and medium-sized enterprises — which contribute nearly 30 percent to the national GDP — are in rural areas, government data showed.
Bhoshne’s Goldy Vaishnav restaurant was one of more than a dozen small firms the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited, with most owners unaware of or uninterested in gay or trans-friendly policies, such as health insurance for same-sex couples.
Prominent LGBT+ rights activist Ashok Row Kavi said that while most firms, including those in cities and satellite towns, continue to struggle with a wide gender gap, expecting LGBT-friendly policies in smaller ones was “far-fetched.”
“There are no women in these places, so from where would you get LGBT+ [people] in? If there is an effeminate boy, he’s in big trouble, and they won’t employ trans [people] for heaven’s sake,” Kavi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It won’t happen until we accept that the system has gone wrong, that there is a toxic masculine atmosphere all over, and until we learn through the education system to change it,” said Kavi, chairman of Mumbai, India-based charity Humsafar Trust.
India is home to nearly 56 million LGBT+ adults, according to Paris-based Out Now Consulting, a marketing company that helps businesses target gay clients.
Yet, the LGBT+ market remains largely untapped, mainly due to discrimination.
That is why large Indian companies are rushing to change policies to include gender-neutral bathrooms, insurance for same-sex couples, leave for sex reassignment surgeries and sensitizing employees.
They are finding growing resonance after gay relationships were decriminalized in the world’s largest democracy, said Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, which encourages Indian companies to adopt LGBT-friendly policies.
“Corporate India has realized that whichever way you look at it — from an economic or talent perspective — everyone wants to hire millennials, and for them, being inclusive really matters; they won’t work for homophobic companies,” he said.
The World Bank has estimated that homophobia costs India US$31 billion per year.
While Shahani said that he does not see rural or even urban India becoming fully inclusive any time soon, he was hopeful that small businesses would follow in the footsteps of the corporate world, “otherwise they’re not going to get the brightest minds.”
Studies have shown that inclusive policies result in benefits such as greater national GDP, talent retention, more productivity and a better reputation that can lead to direct investment.
Not all small businesses are against diversifying.
Three of those the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited were on board, but said that the time was not right because of problems ranging from a lack of financial resources to fear of backlash from workers.
“It has never even crossed my mind. In the past 25 years of running this business, no such case has come up. I don’t think any of my workers are [LGBT+],” said Rajiv Mehtani, owner of Indo Farm Implements Ltd in Haryana’s Karnal District.
“It doesn’t matter if someone is gay or transgender as long as the job gets done... We have to evolve with the times, but not immediately,” he said.
Gaurav Kaushik, who owns Bharat Polymer, a small company that sells irrigation pipelines to farms, said: “I am happy to employ [LGBT+ people], but nobody is openly gay around here, [because] word travels fast and consequences are usually high.”
Outside cities, coming out has risks — from so-called “honor killings” to corrective rape, which rights groups have said are seldom reported as they are often carried out by husbands, brothers and fathers in a bid to “cure” gay women.
Kavi said that the violence LGBT+ people face is often from their own families, who beat them to make them conform and maintain the social balance.
To escape the beatings and find a sense of belonging, LGBT+ people flock to cities, and increasingly many leave India altogether.
Shubha Chacko, executive director of Solidarity Foundation, which helps transgender people find jobs, suggested that industry lobbying groups hold seminars outside metropolitan areas and engage with small firms to bring in tailor-made LGBT+ solutions.
However, for mustard oil company owner Jaswant Singh, LGBT-friendly policies are intrusive and best not to be introduced at work.
“Why should I bring in something that may make my employees feel pressured to reveal their sexual orientation,” 30-year-old Singh said. “That is their business and I am here to mind mine.”
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