Homophobic bullying is something that every Gay man, out or not, has to deal with at some point or the other. Sadly, while there has been some attempt at change, precious little has happened on the ground to deal with the real issue of homophobic bullying at the workplace.
The following incident happened to one of my close friends and is an illustration of how bullying in the office plays out. I hope reading this will help the powers that be come up with solutions to deal sensitively with what is a real problem.
*Names of people and places may be changed for anonymity.
This happened a while back when I was still working in the corporate world. I was switching jobs around the time I started to come out and I had chosen by then to mention my identity on my resume in a roundabout way by mentioning that I had worked with LGBT groups while in the US. My thoughts, then and now, were that if the company is not open to LGBT employees, then its not a company I would want to work for. I was pleasantly surprised first to receive an interview call and finally to get the offer letter. At the interview stage, I was asked one question on the LGBT topic, but it was with a positive tone. It was a small Sindhi owned services company with a team strength of just over 1200. The overall experience was pretty positive. The senior VP-HR did mention casually during induction that references to my sexuality should be avoided with colleagues. I had no problem with that. I had no intention of doing that anyway.
Things went well for a while. The work was good, my team was excellent and the overall work-culture was too! I was even put on an internal panel to investigate complaints of sexual harassment – a supreme irony considering what followed!
Shoaib – a young, aggressive manager joined our sales team from a leading MNC. He was a peer, and we reported to the same boss. Our paths didn’t really cross professionally and while we weren’t friends, we had a formal, but amiable relationship. One day we were both called into the boss’s office and asked to proceed to Bangalore to make a sales pitch for a new account. I remember being reluctant and requesting that someone else be sent instead. But boss managed to get his way.
It was in the airport lounge while waiting for our flight that Shoaib first bought up my sexuality, adding that he had heard about it from someone – presumably his friend who was a junior manager in HR. I didn’t deny it but changed the subject. Later in the evening while relaxing over a beer at our hotel on Residency Road, and right in the middle of a discussion on the client requirements, he asks a pointed question on whether I was a “Raja or a Rani” (Top or Bottom). Resenting the tone, I blocked off the conversation and changed the topic as tactfully as I could.
The flirting started when we met for breakfast the next day. By lunch it had progressed to increasingly uncomfortable physical contact. That night, while I was watching TV in my room, he lands up at my door punch drunk, and asks if he can shift into my room for the night as his room had a “weird” smell! I turned him down saying it would be inappropriate and shut the door on him. The next day was filled with an uncomfortable silence as we went about finishing the last of our work before leaving back for Mumbai.
The harassment began the very next day of our return. Snide comments, sexual innuendo became a regular feature. When I started consciously avoiding him, he would seek me out to send a few more doozies my way. The aim was clearly to humiliate me in front of my peers – classic Gay Shaming. Once at a Review meeting, while I was making a presentation, he made suggestive gestures with a pen simulating oral sex. The group, which included my boss and other seniors burst into laughter. Far from discouraging such behavior, they seemed to be providing positive reinforcement to the bully. I took him aside later and had a one-on-one asking him clearly to cut it out. The intervention seemed to work, because the bullying stopped for a while.
But a week later, he was back in the game. His pregnant wife had just gone to her parents home for the delivery, which may have had something to do with the return of the bully.This time he was even more aggressive! And physical! Added to the repertoire of innuendo and snide commentary was ass squeezing, nipple pinching (he called it Pungi) and so on. He would it do openly without fear in front of fellow manager level employees, though he avoided doing it in front of seniors or juniors. I decided it was time for another intervention. I first talked informally to the Sr VP-HR who I thought of as a personal friend. She suggested filing a formal complaint, but asked me twice if I was sure I wanted to do it. I did!