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“We have to reimagine multiple ways of being men and women. There are other ways of framing masculinity and femininity”: Parmesh Shahani

Jul 23, 2021

Parmesh Shahani is an author, LGBTQ inclusion advocate and Vice President at Godrej Industries Limited where he heads Diversity & Inclusion and the Godrej India Culture Lab. He is the author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace  (released in August 2020) and also Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India

He serves as part of FICCI’s inaugural D&I task force and as a board member of Khoj International Artists’ Association. In the past, he has been a TED Senior Fellow (2018), Yale World Fellow (2014), a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2014), a Utrecht University-Impakt Fellow (2012), and an academy member of the Global Teacher Prize.

Parmesh is an author, LGBTQ inclusion advocate and Vice President at Godrej Industries Limited. He holds an MS in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Praveen Gupta: You highlight the link between inclusivity and profitability in Queeristan. You also mention that to be inclusive is about being ethical and not about making money? Is that a contradiction?

Parmesh Shahani: It is not a contradiction, it is complementary. In any case it is about ethics to start with. We need to treat everyone, in this case LGBTQ people who are 6-10% of the population, fairly. Even if we were say just 1%, the truth is everyone needs to be treated equally. It is very unfair that some people have been marginalised for so long. It is not an ethical versus financial argument but it is ethical and financial argument.

Even if you are not so ethical it makes business sense whichever way you look at it – makes you money, leads to more innovation and the talent it brings you. So even if you are homophobic, even if you are not ethical, even if you believe everyone should not be treated equally – I would assume you are in business to make more money, be more innovative, you want your company to be relevant. That’s how I have structured the argument – saying that it is really dumb – not only are you indecent, but you are also losing your industry and company so much money. I fail to understand why people would still want to argue about this thing.

PG: A five-step guide for making your workplace LGBTQ inclusive is a great prescription. Is it something that can be left with the HR?

PS: HR does not have the freedom and real mandates for innovation. Inclusion is way beyond HR… HR is just one component of it. It is deeply linked to product, innovation, CSR and communications. I think D&I should be a function that reports directly to the MD. People from HR should be a key part of the inclusion agenda but it shouldn’t be sitting in HR. That is what I recommend.

PG: The struggle for inclusivity of women begins with the arrival of the girl child. How does a predominantly patriarchal society resonate with the LGBTQ community?

PS: The way this inequality plays out within the gay movement – gay men tend to speak up more. Women are marginalised even within the queer movement – even in organisations. It will be a gay man who will be out. There are so few lesbians who are out. Very few lesbians in positions of power. I think women continue to be marginalised, even the LGBTQ movement exists within the larger framework of say patriarchy and misogyny. Unfortunately, our queer movement continues to replicate some of those problems.

There is no simple answer – gender and inequality have continued for so many years across the world. In other parts of the world there are successful experiments happening to narrow the gap. In India given how our society is structured, given the burden on women’s bodies, given the burden on women in society in general to be both homemaker, repository of the family whatever name, tradition. Even within the queer movement itself women internalise this misogyny themselves. I think it’s a long-term project.

We have to reimagine multiple ways of being men as well as women. And in any case gender is now being understood more and more as a spectrum. So I think it’s very important to work on projects with women. Men also need to understand how the current structure hurts them so much more. There are other ways of framing masculinity, there are other ways of framing femininity. They can move towards a kindred society.

But this is not going to be an overnight thing. It’s going to face a lot of resistance because people benefit when women are squashed in so many ways – socially, economically and otherwise. One thing we know about men is they do not like giving up anything – even 1% of their space. So it’s going to be a long struggle. But I think we have to start early – in our families and in our workplaces – which is why I wrote this book.

PG: As a culture, we did not originally have a binary mindset. How do we go back to being more accepting?

PS: It really makes sense to be inclusive and it is very much a part of our culture. Historically and culturally we have been good people. We have been respecting the environment for centuries. So for someone to say if you care for the environment, you are anti-development is not true. We have forever co-existed with nature. If you start abusing nature that you become non-Indian. People need to be reminded about that.

The British project was particularly evil in the sense that they not just imposed their values, they helped educate a certain kind of Indian elite in their system. Post-independence those homophobic values remained with the elite that governed us. That is why it took so many decades to get rid of them. I remind in my book that inclusiveness and LGBTQ is very much part of our ancient culture.

Yet a lot of debates in the public space are very binary. Either you like development or you don’t. Either you are this or this. The truth is we have always been plural and multiple for centuries. It’s good that we remind people of this.

Parmesh’s memoir-cum-manifesto, Queeristan is an expansive reference book of history, literature, cinema, movements, institutions and icons of the LGBTQ community. It drives home the singular point that in diversity and inclusion lies the promise of an equitable and profitable future, for companies, their employees, and society at large.

PG: How do you see supportive action boosting the inclusivity quotient?

PS: There is a direct co-relation and I write about this in my book. Urban thinker Richard Florida has mapped correlation between cities that are more inclusive and how they become more receptive to ideas and hence they attract a wide range of people. Hence, they become more innovative over the years. You see this geographically, state-wise and country-wise. Take for instance the East coast and West coast of the US. Because they are more culturally plural and tolerant, they attract better racial diversity, LGBTQ diversity. Because of that talent goes there. Because of that companies like Google open their offices there, thereby the economy improves.

There is a clear link between how you are as a city in terms of your values and the talent you attract. You see that in India all across. You see micro-hubs like Calcutta. It is no wonder that Calcutta had the first pride march in the country. Or like Jamshedpur, which is near Calcutta, where India’s first transgender person was respected at Tata Steel.

We are not seeing India as a whole. There are progressive states and non-progressive states. Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra to its credit, Kerala, Tamil Nadu are in another orbit – in terms of reaching out to LGBTQ people. Bihar, UP and so on are not on the radar. UP is trans progressive but not LGB progressive. That’s because trans people have more resonance in Indian culture. You will see this play out over the years. If TN becomes so much more inclusive – a lot of queer talent may move from Bangalore to Chennai. Like it has played out in other parts of the world.

PG: We are still struggling with women quotas on corporate boards. What about wider forms of diversity?

PS: I am a strong advocate for quotas. That’s the way to go. All around the world positive discrimination reaps a lot of benefits. People who are in power don’t want to give it up. They keep on coming with creative ways of excluding people. One system they use in India is the whole idea of merit. You present a gay candidate to them and a straight person. They will say the straight person had more merit. What is merit? Who is deciding?

You are a straight upper-class person who has gone through a certain experience in life and you are deciding that is the template of merit then that is your problem. If you as a man are saying that if I am seeing candidates and this man has 8 years of experience and this woman has 6 years of experience because she took 2 years off for childbirth – so the man has more merit than the woman. That is your problem. Because you are a straight man you cannot understand that having a child and multi-tasking with those experiences is more meritorious from an innovation perspective. Your male candidate with only 8 years of experience would not have that. When you are framing merit in such flawed terms – you will never hire queer people. So the only way to do this is through positive affirmative action. People do not change unless they are forced to, unfortunately.

PG: What policies must companies implement to draw Millennials and Gen Z?

PS: Generational diversity is important. People who are in positions of power need to realise that it is in their interest to build the bridge with younger people. But bridges don’t come free. An organisation has to invest in it. There are professionals out there to help with workshops, emerging research. Likewise, you will have to invest in reaching out to LGBTQ people. By just saying “Oh, I am not homophobic and people should now come and join my company” – it will never happen. Most companies wanting to run a good D&I programme must allocate at least 2-5 crores annually. That is what it costs for hiring a small team of professionals and doing the policy change. If you are willing to spend 50-100 crores on a TV campaign – why can’t you spend a fraction of that in making your company more inclusive?

PG: What next after Queeristan?

PS: I want to spend a large part of my life in writing on other kinds of advocacy. There will be other projects all around LGBTQ India. I am very interested in looking at the broad question of what does it mean to be LGBTQ in India?

PG: Many thanks for sharing your insightful perspectives. Here’s wishing you the very best in all your future endeavours.

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One Comment
  1. An outstanding interview in furthering the case fir greater diversity an inclusion in our organisations, institutions and society!

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