(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of homophobia. Reader discretion advised.)
Growing up, Taruni (name changed) did not believe that she could ever be a scientist. Neither did she have a role model nor any support from her family.
A transgender woman, she believed that her gender identity would hinder her to achieve her professional dreams – simply because that's what people around her said.
"I spent all of college pretending to be someone I was not. I pretended to be a man – and I think people just assumed I was gay because I was feminine in my mannerisms. They would ask me 'what am I' as if it is some joke," Taruni told The Quint.
Invisible, ostracising, ill-treated, and hurtful – these are the words often used by the members of the queer community in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) space in India to describe their workplace.
There is barely any official data to back this – simply because there is no basic data on the number of queer persons working in STEM (or almost any sector).
Mental Health & Being Queer in STEM
In a 2021 survey, an aspiring neuroscientist and science writer Sayantan Datta, who identifies as queer-trans, surveyed 47 respondents with various gender and sexual identities across the STEM discipline. The results of the surveys, published in science journals, reveals that 38 percent of respondents said 'yes' when asked if being LGBTQIA+ in STEM has affected their mental health.
Another 38 percent mentioned that being LGBTQIA+ in STEM may have impacted their mental health, although they weren’t sure.
According to the survey, bullying and harassment, fear of ostracisation, silence about gender and sexuality in STEM spaces, were identified as key concerns by the respondents. The lived experiences of scientists and engineers points to this as well.
'People Are Always Giggling Around Me'
Five years ago, Taruni enrolled for a PhD in microbiology. When she completed it in 2020, she came out to a few of her friends. Today, she is a part of multiple research projects, and is teaching part-time at a university. But, her workplace is hardly inclusive.
"They are always laughing around me. When I am in a lab, I hear giggles from co-workers. When I am in a classroom, I hear giggles from students. When I have to participate in meetings, I hear giggles as I leave the room. I want to ask what is funny. But I do not have the mental bandwidth," she said.
Taruni is undergoing transition – after which she hopes to be "ready to face the world, and scream her new name".
"On some days, I want to quit because I question myself, my work, everything. Other days, I pat myself for working in such environments instead of running abroad. What's more baffling is that these are people of science," she added.
'Battling Misogyny, Don't Want to Add Queerphobia'
When Kartika (name changed) graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from India's premier engineering college in 2018, she came out to a few of her close friends as a lesbian woman. She had just been placed at a core company in Pune, and was slowly growing comfortable with people knowing her sexual orientation.
But most of her friends had a single question for her – "Are you sure you really want to come out at work?" She thought she did, until she realised otherwise.
"I thought it was a fresh start, I was working with a mature group of adults? So, why not? But God, people would not even look me in the eye while speaking. This was my first job. It nearly broke me. Everyone was polite and nice to me on the face, but I was always left out of social gatherings and wedding functions. I had to change my job in less than a year."Kartika
Four years since, Kartika has changed two jobs and prefers keeping the 'widest distance possible' between her personal and professional life – for she is "not ready to add everyday queerphobia to everyday misogyny". She does not add anyone from work on her social media, except for messaging them on WhatsApp – for she constantly fears that "someone from work will know".
"I am a queer woman in a core electrical engineering company. They think and overthink before sending me on field assignments. On most days, I have someone or the other raising doubts over my ability to simply do my job. I am not ready to add queerphobia to the misogyny," she told The Quint.Kartika
'I Am Scared I'll Lose My Job'
Akash, 28, who works at a pharmaceutical company in Hyderabad, identifies themself as a gender-fluid person who is gay. But after working in the industry for more than three years, they said that they do not even know one person who is queer in the pharmaceutical industry.
"You know what they write about in woke LinkedIn posts, I do not work in a sector like that. It is a traditional organisation, where everyone comes and does their work and moves on. Everything is very black and white. There is not even a generic email on inclusivity. When you are silent, it means you back discrimination of queer and transgender employees," Akash, who prefers to go by his first name, told The Quint.
"When you are online, you think everyone is living in super-inclusive world. A part of us wants to believe that – but it is far from reality for most of the pharma industry," they added, narrating how the film 'Badhaai Do' initiated the first-ever conversation on the queer community at his workplace.
They added that there was not only casual homophobia thrown around, but also a sly comment by a colleague about someone in their department being gay.
"This person is asking others how it would be if someone was hiding that they were gay in our department. I stood there frozen because I thought I was going to lose my job. I could not afford to lose a job. Till date, I do not know whether my colleagues were cracking a joke, or were pointing to me. I genuinely believe that I cannot be myself, and grow in the industry here when I am spending all my time watching my back," Akash said.
'Third Class Person, From Third Class Family'
When Priyanjul Johari was hired as a Java Developer for the Noida posting of a Netherlands-headquartered MNC in 2018, he was "shocked" to find out that there was no Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policy for queer employees in India. The European counterparts, however, had them in place.
"I was fortunate to have not been discriminated against. But this was not any company, but a giant in the industry. I was shocked to find that some MNCs in India do not have these policies in place. Not only is it discriminatory, it creates a dangerous work environment. I know someone who took screenshots of their colleague's coming out Facebook post and sent it on the office email thread with casual homophobia and toxic masculinity."Priyanjul Johari
When he called out the person, he retaliated by calling Johari – "A third class person, from a third class family, and that is why you are gay."
While Johari now works for a company that sets standards for inclusivity, he says that STEM companies and organisations first have to recognise that their workplace is queer and transgender-exclusive, and then comes the inclusive hiring.
"Most engineering firms think that they can do a seminar or two during Pride Month and get away with it. That's not how it works. Start with conversations, provide support to your LGBTQIA employees, and diversify your hiring. Nothing teaches people like interacting with people from community. But it has to start somewhere."Priyanjul Johari
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