A World That’s Beyond The Binary

Written by
Bisma Kazi

‘How will my colleague react to my clothes?’
‘Will my colleague use gender-affirmingG pronouns if I ask them to?’
‘Can I really reveal my true self at my office?’

These are not random thoughts but significant questions that around 1.2 million non-binary individuals in the United States alone ponder daily. Around 4-10% of the potential workforce in India belongs to the queer community; as per Queeristan: Inclusion In The Indian Workplace, a book by Parmesh Shahani, formerly Head D&I Godrej India Culture Lab and LGBTQIA inclusion advocate working within the DEI space. This is no mean statistic and it highlights the importance for us, as individuals, and for workplaces as entities, to evolve in a way that is accepting of everyone. But first, we need to understand how gender is a part of everyday workplace interactions. 

Note - This article contains gender identity terms for which a glossary (denoted by G in superscript) is provided at the end by the author.

A world beyond gendered norms. 

Currently, a lot of problems plague those who lie beyond the binary or struggle with gender norms. Here are some of the common challenges:

1. Appearances speak louder than words

Clothes are how people express themselves to the world and at the workplace. There are gendered expectations (intentional or unintentional) when it comes to attire at the workplace. Elle*, a cisG woman and an HR professional at an MNC in Mumbai shares, “Although my colleagues are friendly and don’t really question why I don’t dress more feminine on most days, they do ask during festivities: ‘why no sari or anarkali or earrings or makeup?’. It is difficult to explain why because they are not yet ready to have a conversation on gender performanceG.”

Apurupa, a non-binaryG individual, who currently works as a Program Manager at a non-profit and as  a sexual health and wellness educator, has also experienced something similar. “When I was a practising lawyer, I remember showing up to the office without kaajal (kohl) and everyone asked me if I was unwell. There's a lot of pressure on femme presentingG folks to maintain high standards in regard to their hair, makeup, clothing and accessories; and whenever I have tried to subvert that, I have received a barrage of negative feedback.”

Elle* also talks about the dress code at her workplace. She admits that the formal dress code, while quite comfortable for her in order to express her identity, might be repressive for others. 

It is professional for women or femme presentingG persons to wear skirts, but for men or masc presentingG individuals, the same can be a cause for ridicule and sometimes, even bullying and harassment. 

2. Professions have pronouns

Performance of gender is not just limited to how one dresses. Some jobs or tasks are considered masculine and some are considered feminine. Ritushree, Transwoman, Lawyer, DE&I campaigner, Co-founder The Outcast Collective and Stand Up Comedian says, “There are certain jobs that are associated with a specific gender; certain traits, skills and expectations also flow from a gender lens, and that creates discrimination.” 

Manisha*, a working professional from Bengaluru also echoes this statement. “When planning an event or activity that is not formally a part of the job - such as ordering a cake - the onus always falls on the women team members, while the male employees cannot be bothered.” Known as ‘office housework’, this trend has been covered separately on Humanise.

On the other hand, Anmol* (name changed), a non-binary Sexual Educator and Program Coordinator, feels that there is an assumption that the feminine need protection whereas the masculine does not. They elaborate on this further. “For example, if a team is travelling via train and the seats aren't together, the AMABsG (assigned male at birth) are unfortunately expected to move to the farthest seat from the cluster of seats assigned.” 

3. Words matter

Most mainstream conversations, when discussing gender binaries, revolve around pronouns. A lot of people have started the practice of mentioning pronouns in their bios, as a way to normalise the practice for everyone. We must, however, remember that disclosing pronouns might not be possible for everyone. 

Apurupa is a femme-presenting, non-binary person who often gets clocked as a woman. They say that they continue to use she/her pronouns in addition to they/ them pronouns for this very reason. “While pronouns have nothing to do with gender, I have noticed people take one look at me and tend to use she/ her when referring to me. If I wanted them to pause and reflect, I'd have to be more masculine presenting. So I have retained she/her to make people more comfortable because if I'm being misgendered, I'd rather have it happen on my own terms.” She continues, “My current workplace has a lot of queer transG folks making the environment conducive to us showing our true identities. In the past I have either had to refrain from coming out, or come out but be one of those quieter, forgiving, adjusting nonbinary persons.”

These are just a few of the struggles that people outside the binary face on a daily basis. But it's not like these issues are unsolvable. With time and consistent effort, we can make a change. 

Community-Driven Solutions.

To raise awareness and also create avenues for seamless inclusion in the workplace, here are some suggestions from members of the community and beyond:

1. Change comes from within

Ritushree aptly says, “inclusion is not a policy against discrimination, it is more than that”. There is a dire need for conducting Gender Sensitisation workshops and having open discussions, to drive change. Education and awareness are critical. Elle* has observed the general disinterest among her colleagues in understanding gender or gender-based discrimination; and suggests that without a shift in mindset, there will be minimal impact seen from a bandaid implementation of certain policies or from hiring a handful of diverse employees.

2. Listening is key

There is a difference between hearing someone and actively listening to them. While interacting with someone from a marginalised community, it’s important to not only give them the space to share their opinions, experiences and stories but to also act on the same. For instance, if a person tells you that they go by masculine pronouns like he/him, even though he appears femme, it would be apt to use he/him pronouns even if you aren’t in the habit of doing so. Simple acts like these can go a long way in making a person feel accepted. The impact and importance of listening are clearly visible in Anmol’s* story. “Fortunately, I belong to a queer-transG team (not the entire staff, just my team) and that is the safest space for me. The constant affirmation of identity that we provide to each other feels like magic. It is euphoric. Never being misgendered in a team is probably the most basic, but also the happiest experience for me as a nonbinary person.”

Even if one may not have any friends or colleagues from the community, one can still read about their experiences and perspectives via internet blogs and social media accounts. A few related books and resources have been shared at the end of the glossary. 

3. Pass the mic

Involve people from marginalised gendersG from within the organisation and outside to understand their perspectives on certain policies, and adapt them in a way that is fair for all. Company-wide policies and guidelines addressing repeated acts of misgendering and aggression towards marginalised genders, need to be created. Travel and accommodation are tricky for queer-transG folks. Providing reasonable accommodations like single occupancy rooms, and inducting the hotel staff before arrival so that people don't get misgendered or violated in other ways (staring, passing comments etc.) can help reduce a lot of anxiety, fear and even improve productivity.

It is essential that organizations and workplaces realize the importance of queer inclusion and enact policies accordingly. However, the question remains, why now? Is it because we are pandering to ‘woke’ politics? 

Peeyush Gupta, currently VP, Supply Chain at Tata Steel had this to say in May 2018, after the company launched Wings – an Employee Resource Group for queer people – and also announced LGBTQ-inclusive policies: “Today is probably the right time. We cannot be remorseful of the fact that we have not done it in the past, but we also do not want to repent many months or years later that we did not do it today.” This landmark change in the company’s policies was brought by the efforts of Anubhuti Bannerjee, a transwoman and Manager, IT and Customer Relations.

Companies like Godrej and Tata Steel, in India, have already taken the lead in creating an inclusive workplace and shown that it is possible. All that’s needed is the initiative to do so.

* Names changed for privacy

G for Gender Glossary

If this glossary piqued your interest, and you wish to read more on gender, here are some recommendations from the author.

a. Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace

b. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Finec. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezd. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabee. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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