Workplace horrors: Why formal employment is a distant dream for the transgender community

'The interviewers were more interested in my anatomy and sex life than my skills as a news anchor,' says Chandramukhi Muvvala, a transwoman.
Workplace horrors: Why formal employment is a distant dream for the transgender community
Workplace horrors: Why formal employment is a distant dream for the transgender community
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Hyderabad-based Chandramukhi Muvvala was, for a brief time, a successful news anchor with a regional Telugu channel. In 2014, she had her own commentary and political analysis show. And then, someone from the senior management thought having a transwoman on air did not make the channel look good.

Six months later, Chandramukhi was laid off, although she was never told why in so many words. There was no discrimination from her colleagues though.

Then, she received calls from a few other regional news channels. “They told me they liked my work and wanted to hire me. I had been open about my trans identity, even on my show. They respected my identification as a woman though, and portrayed me as one on air,” says Chandramukhi.

But all her expectations of sensitive treatment were shattered when she went for the interviews. The interviewers seemed more interested in her anatomy and sex life than asking her about her skills as a news anchor. “One of them even told me that I could have a daily show but only after I let him spend a night at my house,” she says.

After the harrowing experience was repeated in a few more interviews, Chandramukhi stopped trying to work in news channels. Now she volunteers with Telangana Hijra Transgender Samiti, where she is accepted without invasive questions.

Finding a source of livelihood continues to remain a challenge for the transgender community, despite increased visibility and campaigns for awareness. Shubha Chacko, Executive Director of Solidarity Foundation which supports sexual minorities and sex workers, says that this has a detrimental impact on the self-confidence of individuals who identify as transgender.

As a part of “Project Vayati”, Solidarity Foundation wants to integrate 22 members of the transgender community into white collar jobs. But the biggest challenge so far has been the lack of real commitment from most companies except two or three, even though they all are big on talk, Shubha says.

“No one wants to appear openly prejudiced. So, they (employers) will say things like they don’t know which toilet to designate to the transgender person. They ask if they will have to bear the medical expenses and if they will be too loud in office. Just goes to show how little they know about this community,” Shubha observes.

Although Solidarity Foundation does plan to sensitize employees prior to the member of the transgender community joining, there is another problem: the transgender persons’ lack of confidence and reluctance to work in corporates. To address this, Shubha says that the candidates are provided with counselling facilities. However, finding sensitive counsellors has also been a quite a task.

“So far we know one or two trans-friendly counsellors. The rest tell them things like “you should change” and “stop being so feminine”. There’s also judgment when it comes to transgender persons who have previously done sex work or beggary. This further shatters their confidence. We have had to stick to the counsellors we know are sensitive,” Shubha informs.

Solidarity Foundation wants to start their placement process by January 2017, after which they intend to hand-hold the candidates for a few months to ensure they retain their jobs.

“Sometimes, members of the transgender community internalize the discrimination so much that they may relate what goes wrong there with their gender identity. For instance, if a group of persons go for tea every day, they will continue to do so. But an individual who identifies as transgender may feel that they are excluding him or her on purpose. Such issues need to be addressed too,” Shubha explains.

However, Karthik Bittu Kondaiah, who identifies as a transgender man, says that hand-holding and training becomes secondary when transgender persons aren’t hired in the first place. And when they do, it is easier for them undergo a sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and retain the job rather than finding employment after transitioning.  

Karthik has worked as a faculty in University of Hyderabad, and now works with Ashoka University. He has never faced discrimination, apart from the looks and stares, because his sex on paper is what he was assigned at birth (female). “I carry a lot of cis-privilege because I haven’t transitioned and my dysphoria isn’t too prominent. But it is next to impossible to get a job if you cannot get your sex changed on your education certificates,” he says.

What Karthik means is that if a transgender person wants to assert his or her gender identity without undergoing SRS, there’s a mismatch between his sex on paper and the gender he or she identifies with and expresses. This results in them being unable to get employment. And though the NALSA judgment of 2014 mandated a transgender person can “self-identify” without undergoing surgery, government offices still demand an SRS certificate to change their sex on paper.

Vyjayanthi Vasanta Mogli, a transwoman and activist wrote for BBC Hindi that when she was employed by a Wall Street giant which had a diversity policy for LGBTIQ community, she wasn’t allowed to use the women’s toilet. “I was forced to use the men’s toilet because I did not have government ID to prove my trans status,” she writes.

“Most of us are unemployed (formally) and if we are able to access employment, it is not as transgender persons but with the names and genders assigned to us at birth. Eventually, when we try to assert our gender, almost all of us lose our jobs. Why should my gender influence my employment when what I bring to the table is separate from it,” she tells TNM.

While people are still used to seeing transgender women, transgender men are less visible. However, Gee Semmalar, a social activist and transman points out that though the lack of visibility can sometimes work in their favour, most often it’s not advantageous. 

“The disadvantage is that because we are brought up as girls, we take more time to get financially independent, so we aren’t as politically mobilized as transwomen. But on the other hand, patriarchy works in our favour. There’s more leeway for masculine expression of gender. Transwomen face disproportionate amount of public violence than men,” he explains.

When asked about whether members of the transgender community actually end up retaining their jobs, Gee says that there may be various reasons why that may not happen. However, he warns against generalisation.

“You think that we should be grateful to have well-paying jobs but members of our community sometimes get booty calls late in the night from colleagues. They also tend to be disproportionately overworked at times. One because the vulnerability of your gender identity does not grant you bargaining power and two, because sexual violence is anyway not spoken about openly,” he argues.

With transmen, it doesn’t help that people generally think that only women face sexual violence, Gee points out. He opines that there has to be an anti-discrimination panel with members of the transgender community on it, in every workplace, so that they can handle such case sensitively. "Without safety and redressal mechanisms, they might think anyway I am being sexually violated here, I may as well make some money out of it,” he says.             

And even if there are people who don’t discriminate against employing transgender persons, not everyone is willing to stand up to scrutiny that comes with it. “Suppose someone wants to hire a trans-person as a cook. At some point, parents will visit and ask questions. They don’t want to answer these questions or be “tainted” by association,” Karthik explains.

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