The orange ball appeared in the black sky and started to colour the earth with its hue. The chirps of the birds leaving their nests became audible to the discerning ears. Most humans snoozed their alarms to catch a few more minutes of shut-eye before starting their day.
The morning was just beginning for most. But Jayshree had started typing furiously into her laptop long before the sun was up.
She took a sip of tea from the flask on her table and reviewed the email she had written. A tweak at the beginning, some amendments in the middle, and it was done. She put in the sender’s address before giving the draft a critical once-over.
Was the email too long?
It would not help if it went unread because of length.
Her mind went into overdrive, and the fingers obeyed the diktats. Two paragraphs were chopped and merged. A stanza in the middle became a list with bullet points. The ending was made more emotional. She finally hit the sent button, leaned back in her plastic chair and closed her eyes.
This was a continuation of her protracted workplace battle. Three years ago, she would have been scared. Today, she was determined.
She opened her eyes and glanced at the queen-size bed to her left. A bright duvet covered all but the head of the figure lying on it. The curl of the hair flattered the round face, the black mole accentuated the pink of the cheeks, the long eyes dominated the face even when asleep.
Prerna. Jayashree’s friend, lover, partner, and soulmate. What will I do without her?
Jayshree’s eyes moistened even as Prerna stirred in bed. “Jealous of me, aren’t you?” Prerna teased. “Even in this weaker state, I am prettier than you.”
Jayshree’s lips widened. “That you are, darling. I am not even trying to compete here. Time for your medicine.”
Prerna made a face as Jayshree came to her side of the bed, extracted a white medicine box from the side table drawer with confidence that comes with practice, took out a blue pill and handed the same to Prerna. Prerna swallowed it with water under Jayshree’s watchful eyes.
“I have emailed the global CEO of my organisation, ccing the board of directors to protest the non-availability of medical insurance coverage to the same-sex partners of employees. Let’s see if that ends the differential treatment against the LGBTQ workforce.”
Prerna looked at the diminutive figure sitting in front of her. The calm oval face camouflaged a steely determination. She could not imagine the same woman had cried on her shoulders three years ago.
A long time that seemed like yesterday.
Three Years Earlier
The hot and humid morning suddenly turned into a windy afternoon. The monsoon announced its arrival with a fiery thunderstorm. The employees of one of India’s top IT firms found the weather to be a perfect excuse for an early lunch.
The ‘fab-four’ gang, as they were called in the office — Prerna, Jayshree, Preeti and Seema— were the first ones to arrive at the cafeteria. The four had found themselves seated at the same table during their induction process with the company two years earlier. Later, all of them were staffed on the same project. By now, they were inseparable.
They chose the plush seating by the window. Prerna and Jayshree sat facing the window with the other two seated opposite them. Food and banters were exchanged along with the sumptuous lunches.
There was exotic-looking bean soup in one of Preeti’s round, red-coloured tiffin bowls.
“This looks tempting,” Jayshree said. “I am going to finish this off.”
“Not a chance,” Prerna said.
Both of them reached for the container at the same time. Sparks flew as their hands brushed. Jayshree had tried to feel the same spark with the few men she had dated and the prospective suitors her parents paraded before her.
She realised now she was seeking solace in the arms of the wrong gender.
The contents of the bowl came up to the brim and threatened to spill across the table.
“Wow, take it easy,” Preeti yelled.
Neither Jayshree nor Prerna were listening, having eyes only for each other.
Jayshree abruptly excused herself after some time. She had always felt conscious near Prerna and looked for ways to impress her. The office seemed less vibrant to Jayshree when Prerna travelled to other cities for work.
The young woman now realised it was not mere admiration. She had felt the stirrings before, but the mind had swept the feelings deep inside some hidden recess.
Even the brain has its limits with matters pertaining to the heart.
There was no denying the fact now. Jayshree was a woman who liked women.
Jayashree stood sobbing at the window in the desolate coffee corner of the office’s other wing. The stormy weather outside reflected her state of mind.
A hand fell on her shoulder, and Prerna’s concerned face appeared.
“I am shit scared, Prerna,” Jayshree cried, resting her head on Prerna’s shoulders.
Prerna didn’t say a word till Jayshree removed herself from the position. She then held Jayshree’s hand and said, “I love you, Jayshree. We will face everything together.”
The words sounded magical to Jayshree. She felt a kinship with Prerna that comes as much from a shared identity as from love.
The rainbow dwarfing the tall glass buildings outside seemed to bless their union as the two walked out of the room hand in hand.
They let go of each other’s hands before entering the cafeteria. The room was more crowded than when they had left it.
“There you are,” Seema said as the two approached the table. “We were wondering if we should wait or leave.”
“Is everything alright?” Preeti asked as the two took the vacant seats. “You seem somewhat different.”
“Well, we are slightly different from you,” Prerna said, taking Jayshree’s hands firmly into her own, “and yet similar in most ways.”
Preeti’s face displayed wonder, comprehension, horror, scorn and wariness within a few seconds. Jayshree looked at Seema and saw disgust written all over it.
“How…when…why… I think I will have some water,” Preeti said before emptying her full glass in one go.
“We will get late for work,” Seema remarked hastily. “See you later.”
Gathering their wares from the table, Seema and Preeti hurried out of the room.
From that day, the fab-four gang whittled down to the inseparable duo.
The ensuing month was one of the most challenging ones in their lives.
Coming out to yourself is difficult but, to a large extent, free of judgement. Coming out to your family members and loved ones is like dodging a fire cannon only to find your head hitting a brick wall.
Things were easier for Prerna on the family front. Her parents had passed away in an accident some years ago. The other relatives didn’t care for her, and the feeling was mutual. So she had nothing to inform anyone.
On the other hand, Jayshree had a typical middle-class family comprising a strict father, a loving mother and two younger siblings. She avoided breaking the news to them for some days. Then her mother asked her to meet yet another suitor.
“There is no point in me meeting any guys, Ma,” Jayshree said.
“Why? Have you found someone?”
Jayshree took a deep breath. “Yes, I have. Her name is Prerna, and I love her.”
Her mother’s smile gave way to puzzlement before settling into a frown.
“You mean…” The quinquagenarian whispered.
“Yes, Ma. I am a lesbian.”
The clanging sound of the pooja thali that Jayshree’s mother dropped reverberated in the entire house.
The ensuing heated arguments around visiting a doctor to cure the disease, betraying her parent’s trust, becoming too modern and ruining the family reputation ended with an emotional Jayshree packing her bags and shifting to a women’s PG when her father threatened to marry her off forcefully.
Now that Jayshree had faced her worst fears and emerged bruised but not battered, she was ready to take on the world. The immediate battleground was their workplace.
Prerna and Jayshree didn’t overtly display their affection at work. Their romance came to the fore much like other office romances — over the cups of coffee they shared, the meals they always had together, the act of one waiting for the other to finish work before leaving together.
Since their relationship was not ‘conventional’, the gossip was more. The whispers in the cafeteria, the hushed water cooler conversations, and the buzz in the corridors whenever either passed through them led to an overflowing grapevine.
The girls didn’t pay much attention at first. Until it affected their work.
“Why haven’t you staffed me on the implementation phase of the engagement?” Jayshree demanded from her project manager. She was midway removed from her current project, the only team member to face the axe. “It was a surprise, especially when you and the client were happy with my work.”
The manager looked uncomfortable. “Two of your women colleagues staffed on the project came to me and expressed their discomfort working with you. I don’t want the project to suffer.”
Jayshree was stunned. She was expecting cold shoulders and discrimination, but not from her own sex.
There was more work than people in the organisation where Prerna and Jayshree worked, and employees worked on two projects simultaneously to meet client deadlines. Yet the duo warmed the bench for three months. They ate lunch alone at the cafeteria. People didn’t return their greetings, and those gossiping around the watercooler suddenly had other work to do when either of the two ventured near them.
“We have become pariahs in every sense,” Prerna quipped one day.
“It can’t go on like this. We have to do something about it,” Jayshree said.
“I have started applying for jobs outside.”
“That’s not the solution. We will face the same treatment for our sexual orientation wherever we go. It has taken me so many years to come out of the closet. I don’t want to go back to hiding my identity any longer. We need to demand equal treatment.”
“No one will listen. We are the insignificant minority who don’t matter.”
“If we consider ourselves insignificant, why will others pay heed to us? This attitude needs to change.”
Prerna looked at her partner with pride.
“You may be on the bench for performance reasons,” the HR head said when Jayshree discussed her concerns with her.
“I have been rated an excellent performer in the past three cycles. Is it mere coincidence to get relegated to the bench around the same time I become open about my orientation?” Jayshree asked. “Isn’t the integration of LGBTQ individuals an integral element of diversity and inclusion that our organisation champions?
“Such individuals are too few and disparate. It doesn’t make business sense to focus on them.”
“No, they are not. They are not coming out of fear, afraid to suffer the same fate as Prerna and I.”
“You and your partner should also have kept your preferences to yourself to avoid this predicament.”
Jayshree was again taken aback by the lack of sensitivity and support from her own gender. Time to match fire with fire.
“The Supreme Court has held Sec 377 of the Indian Constitution unconstitutional. Prerna and I are adults and are not doing anything illegal. However, the treatment being meted out to us is, ” Jayshree said with a firmness she did not feel.
The HR head’s face changed colours. “What are you driving at?”
Jayshree’s legs were shaking even as she put up a brave front. “I will file a case against our organisation in the court, mentioning that you are not obeying the law of the land.”
The HR looked pale as she said, “You do realise that you won’t be left with a job here then, don’t you?”
“I will anyway be laid off citing performance reasons if I stay on the bench for long. So why not go fighting?” Jayshree got up and walked to the door.
“Wait,” the HR head called out. “Let’s discuss what you want.”
Jayshree turned to face her senior colleague. “All I want is this discrimination to end. I deserve to be treated with as much respect and provided as many chances as others,” she said softly.
“I will see that you and Prerna are staffed on projects,” the HR head promised.
A week later, Jayshree and Prerna were working on suitable projects. That is when Jayshree realised that silence wasn’t an option when it came to her rights.
As a child, I used to wonder about the predominant colour of the rainbow. Is it Red, Blue, Green, Orange or Yellow that gives it its shine? Or is it the Indigo that makes it distinct?
Then the rainbow and its mysteries receded to the background while growing up as other concerns invaded my mind. As a teenager, I wondered why my girlfriends were going gaga over their favourite actor when I would rather talk about the actress. As a young girl, I wondered why I couldn’t keep my eyes open while dating the college heartthrob that every other girl coveted. As a woman in my mid-twenties, I wondered why the most suitable suitors paraded by my parents didn’t interest me.
It was only when I met the love of my life that the truth I had spent years denying hit me.
I am sexually inclined towards other women. I am a lesbian.
My first reaction was to ask God, ‘Why Me?’ As if on cue, I saw the rainbow from the window and got the answer. It takes all seven colours to make a rainbow; take away any of its palettes, and it would become something other than the rainbow we know.
Likewise, it takes all sorts to make the world. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, bi-sexuals, trans, lesbians, etc., notwithstanding, we are all humans.
The world around me has changed, but I am still the same person. My sexual preference doesn’t make me a lesser woman or human. My orientation may differ from most, but how do you know the extent of the ‘most’? There may be others like me still in the closet. It is their choice to remain so, as it was my choice to come out.
Like you, I didn’t get to choose my gender or orientation — I was born this way.
Instead of choosing a favourite colour, I have decided to embrace the entire rainbow.
The rainbow is my colour. What is yours?
“You did it, Jayshree,” Prerna said over lunch. “1000+ comments, 10,000+ likes. Others like us are coming out. Your words have made a difference, again.”
Jayshree smiled, recalling their conversation at the same table fifteen days ago.
“We can’t force anyone to talk to us, Jayu.” Prerna had told her.
“But we can influence. We can share our thoughts with colleagues through the company’s intranet and social walls. Even though it might be one-way communication for some time, it is still something.”
“That is an idea, Jayu. Let’s do it. I will also post about my experiences.”
The shared experiences of Jayshree, Prerna and many other employees who had decided to come out resulted in the HR including ‘LGBTQ’ in the organisation’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“Hi Prerna, hi Jayshree.” Jayshree looked in the direction of the voice that had interrupted her reverie. Preeti was standing near their table, with Seema close behind.
“Mind if we join you for lunch?” Preeti asked tentatively.
Prerna and Jayshree exchanged glances before breaking into wide grins.
“Of course. Why do you ask?”
The laughter from the table could be heard across the cafeteria. The fab four was united again.
Six Months Earlier
“Are you sure, Prerna?” Jayshree yelled on the phone. “There must be some mistake.”
“The reports are in my hands, Jayu. Stage two breast cancer it is.”
Jayshree’s world came crashing in the middle of a busy day at the office.
Prerna and Jayshree had started living together even as the former had moved on to a different company. They both had thriving careers, lots of friends and a home they managed together. Jayshree’s mother had started talking to her often, and she was hopeful that her father would come around.
Life was going well, until now. Fate had its own plans.
Jayshree took leave and rushed home to see the usually courageous Prerna in tears.
Prerna hugged Jayshree as soon as she came near.
“I am shit scared, Jayshree,” she sobbed.
Jayshree comforted her partner. “I am with you, Prerna. We will see this together.”
Life had come full circle.
They spent the rest of the day researching treatments, talking to friends, discussing options, and making love.
“Breast cancer is curable, Prerna. You have to believe in your ability to beat it.”
“But the expenses, Jayu? The treatment is going to cost a lot of money.”
“We have our savings, Prerna. Plus, there are the medical coverages in our respective offices.”
“My employer will cover me until I go to work. What if I reach a condition where I cannot go to work? I will have to leave my job in that case.”
“We will cross the bridge when it comes, Prerna. Calm down.”
Later in the night, when Prerna was asleep in Jayshree’s arms, the latter contemplated all possibilities. Despite the reassurance she had given her partner, the cost of one-time surgery, the subsequent chemotherapy treatments, and the full-time nurse required for Prerna would amount to a considerable sum.
She needed to prepare in advance.
The following day in the office, Jayshree thoroughly reviewed the Group Medical Coverage policy provided by her employer. Then she spoke to the TPA representative of her organisation. Her doubts proved correct.
“The medical policy covers the employee’s husband and children. There is no provision for your ..err.. same-sex partner as per the company’s policy,” the representative said.
“Why this discrimination against LGBTQ individuals?” Jayshree asked.
“You would have to talk to your HR,” he replied.
Jayshree barged into the HR head’s cabin.
“Apologies to enter like this,” she said, “but this is urgent. My partner has been diagnosed with cancer, and while looking at the treatment options, I discovered that our organisation does not provide medical coverage to employees’ same-sex partners. Why this discrimination?”
“Same-sex partners are not families, Jayshree.”
“Says who? Prerna and I sleep on the same bed, share our income and household expenses, and look forward to the dreams and aspirations of a shared future. What are we if not a family?”
“You are an exception.”
“Are all the 135 million strong LGBTQ population in India an exception? Why all the brouhaha about PRIDE and inclusion of LGBTQ employees at work when the perks and facilities are only meant for heterosexual employees?” Jayshree asked.
“This is our company policy, Jayshree.”
“Policies are made by people, for the people, and can be changed. Either change them on your own or be forced to change them. The choice is yours.”
Jayshree walked out of the cabin. Three years ago, she had fought a battle for her identity. Now it was time to fight another battle for her rights. She was determined to ensure that her community got the same treatment as her ‘straight’ brethren.
The doorbell rang. Prerna raised her eyebrows as no one entered the living room. Jayshree may have forgotten to leave the door open for the full-time nurse to enter the house before going for a bath.
Prerna got up from the bed and took the support of the wall to walk to the next-door room. Though the surgery was successful, it would be some time before she regained her full strength.
She opened the unlatched door to see a courier company’s delivery boy at the doorstep.
“Jayshree Tandon?” he inquired.
“She is having a bath,” Prerna replied. “You can give the envelope to me.”
Prerna put the official-looking envelope on Jayshree’s dresser just as the latter came out.
“Why did you get out of the bed, Prerna?”
“To collect this.” Prerna pointed to the envelope.
Jayshree saw the sender’s name and opened the envelope. Tears streamed out of her eyes.
“Are you alright, Jayu?”
Jayshree nodded. “This is the response to the email I sent two weeks ago. I have received a reimbursement cheque from the medical insurance company for your treatment. Plus a letter of apology from my company’s global headquarters, stating that they have extended the coverage to partners of LGBTQ employees in India.”
“You did it again, Jayu.”
Jayshree continued sobbing as she hugged Prerna. She had chosen to fight for her rights instead of staying silent. The satisfaction that others from her community will not face the same hardships as she made the struggles of the last six months seem worth it.
The pen is mightier than the sword, she realised. Not for the first time.
- The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare put the LGBTQ population in India at 2.5 million in 2012, but activists have estimated the population of LGBTQ people in India to be at least 10 per cent of the entire population, which comes to a sizeable135 million
- The awareness about LGBTQ rights has increased in corporate India in the last three years, with many MNCs considering this population in their diversity hiring mandates. Yet diversity does not necessarily lead to inclusion, and discrimination continues to be an issue at an individual level. Denial of medical coverage to same-sex partners emerged as a potent issue during the Covid times, resulting in a handful of prominent MNCs extending this coverage to their LGBTQ employees. While this is some progress, most Indian companies have still not given this right to their LGBTQ employees. India Inc still has to cover a lot of ground toward equal and non-judgemental integration of LGBTQ employees in its workforce.
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