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Owning my destiny

I am seated in my air-conditioned cab on my way to work. I see a transwoman walking towards the car ahead of me, and subsequently to every car waiting in line at the toll booth. She asks for money while offering blessings in return. As I watch her, I think of how fortunate I’ve been; how different my life has turned out.

Actually, scratch that. I have been relentless. I have unceasingly not accepted the fate that was handed to me. I have been stubborn about directing my life’s story, sometimes at a cost that has been very hard to bear.

An article in Factor Daily called, ‘The Outliers 4: From Pune’s streets to Bengaluru’s IT corridor, a transwoman tells us how’, chronicled my life prior to ThoughtWorks. We spoke about my past - I was born into an orthodox family in the district of Udupi in Karnataka, India. I remember preferring my sister’s clothes over the ‘boy clothes’ my parents had bought for me, much to their obvious embarrassment. My father didn’t want me to join the family business as he saw me as a disgrace, nor did he want me to pursue my education in Udupi. Instead, he had me registered as a foreman at the Kolar Gold Fields. This was a traumatizing experience for me given my feminine characteristics. Finally, twenty years ago, my father left me with no choice but to leave everything behind and move to Bengaluru. Once there, I worked as a receptionist at a hotel at night while I finished high school during the day. It was when I was in Bengaluru that I met some others who had been through gender transition in Pune. That was the first time I heard about the possibility of a sex reassignment. That motivated me to move to Pune where I joined the transgender community, begging and even being a sex worker to survive. I hated that life because I wasn’t ‘rough and tough’ as one needed to be to survive that lifestyle. All I wanted was to live like a normal girl - study and work in an office.

A few years later, I moved back to Bengaluru, once I had transformed into a woman. I signed up for evening classes in computer languages and without a steady job in hand, took up sex work to pay for them. It was three years before a colleague from the classes helped me out with a freelance job in programming. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long either, because the moment he found out that I was from the transgender community, he decided that I was not fit to do the work.

What followed were desperate times - when I was almost kicked out of my house as I couldn't pay rent. I got in touch with television channels, who had run news bytes on the transgender community, for support. This was how I met with people from Sangama, an LGBT rights groups and the NGO, Solidarity Foundation, which provides support to sex workers and sexual minorities by offering fellowships and grants, both of which were involved in conducting sensitization workshops for corporates. Due to my computer skills, Solidarity Foundation put me in a corporate training program. They incidentally also happened to hear of an opening at ThoughtWorks. I went for the interview and the rest is history.

Nayana as featured in FSOG
Nayana as featured in FSOG

A new beginning. Being impactful.

Securing a good professional opportunity has been somewhat tricky because of my non-English speaking background, my dated design skills and lack of prior corporate experience. But I have had significant support from ThoughtWorks. They've helped me with additional training in design and assigned me mentors: one to help me get better at projects and the other to guide me when I need emotional support. I have not let the mismatch between my love for design and my outmoded skills bring me down. While I am in training and working on smaller, simpler design projects to get up to speed, I am working hard to better organize my team’s vendor and financials management.

It’s been just about three years since I joined the company and I am the only transgender person at ThoughtWorks India. I am quite determined to add value to the company that is home to me. While there are many people who are curious to know more about my journey from a small town in Karnataka to where I am today, I know there’s so much more that I can offer - professionally, of course -  but also by taking people along the journey to become more inclusive and accommodating towards the diversity that exists in the world today.  

Being a respected voice for the transgender community has been a fulfilling experience. Once I decided to be honest and bold, people were interested in hearing more. Many dailies including, but not limited to The Times of India and Hindustan Times, have covered my story. I keep a copy of most of what has been written as a reminder of not only of how far I have come, but also how much further there is to go.

The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report, 2016 features findings from a survey conducted of 100 LGBT employees in India, across the three major sectors - Information Technology, Banking and Finance, and FMCG & Manufacturing. Here are some of the findings:

The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report Image 2

The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report Image 1

The challenge. Changing the narrative.

LiveMint talks of how, “2014 is a landmark year for India as the Supreme Court recognized transgenders as a legal third gender and called on the government to ensure their equal treatment, which has made India one of 10 countries to do so. ...But the stigma…in the wider society are a reminder of the hard work that lies ahead.” The article also states that, “The Tamil Nadu government in 2014 said transgenders could join the state’s home guard force. ...the Odisha government became the first to give transgenders social benefits such as pension, housing and food.”

According to The Indian LGBT Workplace Climate Survey Report, 2016, “Section 377 of Indian Penal Code does not criminalize the LGBT identity and hence, initiatives that promote inclusion of LGBT employees – such as constituting Employee Resource Groups - do not pose any legal risk for the companies. However risk-averse organizations have taken a safer route by not taking any steps in this regard.” That is exactly why I need to be obstinate about my rightful place in society.

Articles like the one in YouthKiAwaaz and the many that came before it, spoke of the journeys of transgender people like me and many others up to when they were absorbed into corporate India. This in itself is a challenge that is being overcome. Encouraging events such as the LGBT Workplace — Expanding the Dialogue in India that bring together employers, employees and activists to address challenges faced by the lesbian gay bisexual intersex transgender or queer (LGBTQI) community in India is imperative.

However, for the few of us who are already part of companies, what’s next? How do our stories unfold?

ThoughtWorks is a safe workplace where I can be myself without fear. But I also see it as just the beginning. This phase of my life has seen me proactively initiate conversations that drive progressive thought. Within the organization itself, I have an informal newsletter-style exchange with all the India offices on the latest news and articles relating to the LGBTQI community.

Interestingly, ThoughtWorks Pune which has been very receptive to these communications, invited me over for an interactive session. At the Pune office, I talked about my life before ThoughtWorks, about India’s mythology that is rich with transgender references, about India’s transgender community that I was a part of, and our unique set of rules and culture. I also talked about my transition, the ritual and how I felt like I had unzipped myself out of the wrong body after the ceremony. I ended with how I go about my day now and my relationship with my family and friends.

I also arrange screenings of films and documentaries like Many People, Many Desires by the Magic Lantern Movies and Manam by Radaan​ in an effort towards better awareness at ThoughtWorks Bengaluru, my home office. Some of the screenings leave my colleagues shocked and silent, while others start engaging, become more curious, discuss what they are able to comprehend and how it leaves them feeling. Many of my colleagues approach me individually to clarify their doubts and I find it surprising that a lot of what they know are assumptions or old wives tales. For example, people don’t know which of the words that have been used to describe transgenders are disrespectful slang and which are politically correct terms - Hijra is a term that can be used, while Chakka is not.  

Of resounding support

Before I stepped into ThoughtWorks, the entire office, from administrative staff to colleagues went through an inclusivity and sensitization workshop. This acceptance, right at the beginning, alongside ThoughtWorks’ decision to post an open letter against Section 377 gives me the confidence to stand up for myself.

I draw from this courage, especially when uninformed external vendors realize that I am transgender and become disrespectful. For instance, a printer that we were working with wouldn’t respond to any of my communications - whether over mail, call or messages, but they promptly responded to anyone else from my team. My colleagues did not tolerate the vendor’s prejudice and decided to stop working with that particular printer. Just like the LGBT Report says, “LGBT employees - whether out or closeted – hope for a workplace culture that is free from discrimination and harassment so that they could be their most productive selves at work, without having to worry about being judged for who they are.” And this holds true for me, which means my team’s support inspires me to keep working harder and be more productive.

Another moment of great pride was addressing an audience of more than 600 people at the ThoughtWorks Away Day in 2014, our largest employee engagement event. As I looked around the room, I realized that I was the only transwoman there, and possibly the first transgender person that most ThoughtWorkers had ever seen. But as nervous as I was, I also felt incredibly invigorated. Two years later, I was again given the opportunity to welcome the Ramon Magsaysay award winning musician, TM Krishna, who has been instrumental in making music inclusive, at a similar gathering.

These opportunities to address larger gatherings at ThoughtWorks gave me the confidence I needed to interact with a diverse set of people on LGBTQI topics. I attended my first Nasscom Diversity and Inclusion Summit in 2016 where I was quite expressive during an active crowd participation after panel discussions. The following year, I was invited to be a panelist at 2017’s Nasscom Diversity and Inclusion Summit. I have also been invited to speak at external events such as the Hinduja Global Services’ International Women’s Day celebrations and at the National Consultation on Livelihoods Enhancement for Transgender and Hijra Community.

Miles to go

I am driven to persist and to step out of my comfort zone. I believe that by sharing my story, I am well placed to create positive change. For instance, when the entire office went through the sensitization workshop before I joined, my colleagues could share their new found awareness with others - at home or within their non-work social circle. And, I am aware that my presence initiates curiosity and healthy, critical conversations around inclusivity - at least far deeper than what would have happened if I wasn’t a part of this ecosystem.

It’s empowering to be in a position from where I can impart awareness and knowledge, all the while just living my ‘normal’ life. And while ‘living my life’ requires a lot of audacity, I am hopeful for a future with more empathy for the rest of my community.