Posted by: outandequal | August 13, 2014

No Going Back – Indian and Out at Work

Editor’s Note: August 15 is India National Day. Last December, an Indian Supreme Court decision re-criminalized homosexuality. BJP (conservative) Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in May this year, is due to visit President Obama next month. Modi’s business-friendly message runs counter to business diversity and inclusion objectives and as the US and India explore their economic attraction, the future happiness of millions of Indian LGBTs hangs in the balance.

By Poonam Kapoor, Product Manager, Kaiser Permanente

Duty, honor, and sacrifice. That sounds like a slogan someone in the military would chant. Rather, it was the cultural anthem of the many Indian women I grew up with in Houston, Texas. My parents immigrated to the US over 40 years ago. Like many other Indians looking for the American dream, they wanted the job, the house, and the car, but not the culture. They felt more comfortable preserving the Indian culture they grew up with, so they lived and brought us up within that bubble. While we were frozen in time, India and America were changing.

Poonam Kapoor at the NCLR gala

Poonam Kapoor at the NCLR gala

Our middle class bubble was safe, and we felt protected as long as we maintained the cultural values and norms that were expected across the community. The idea of leaving the bubble was highly discouraged; therefore, watchguards were in place if any of us stepped out of line. I, along with my other female Indian friends, was not allowed to date. Spending time with boys was “bad,” unless it was with our brothers or cousins. Forget about the thought of dating or sex before marriage.

Duty. Doing our duty meant studying, helping with chores, the family business, temple work, etc. I pretty much did as I was told. Controversial opinions or saying anything that challenged our elders’ positions were not encouraged.

Honor. I couldn’t do anything to shame my family’s good name so as to maintain our honor. No lying, stealing, intoxicants, no bad grade, and no sex with a woman- that’s for sure. As a rebellious teen, every time I got caught dabbling in a vice I was immediately put back in line. Shame for me grew deeper the older I got. Shame was there for my parents too, as they chose to live double lives. For example; changing their names at work to sound more American, not bringing Indian food to work, and never wearing Indian clothes outside of Indian functions. I adopted these practices too.

Sacrifice. I was destined to marry a good Indian boy whether it be pre-arranged or of my choosing (which of course had to meet the same criteria as pre-arranged; good family, good education, good money, same religion, etc). As I began to realize my feelings for other women in college, I knew I was in big trouble. Despite going to a liberal undergrad, I knew my bubble in Texas, and family in India, would give me the scarlet “H” (for homosexual). As I was entering marriage age I knew time was running out and that I needed to explore my feelings for women and “get them out of my system.” I remember having to get drunk in order to muster enough courage to go into a lesbian bar. After falling for a few women, I knew I was definitely gay. I remember telling my Mom I was depressed, but never explaining why. She told me it was because I wasn’t married to a man. I was at a loss.

After college I worked for a conservative multi-national company in Texas. At work, when my all American co-workers would ask me about dating, I would always change pronouns so they thought I was straight. My boss would chuckle when someone brought up the token gay guy and his partner at work. I didn’t want to be ridiculed. More importantly, I didn’t want to be fired. Back then, a decade ago, (and even today) the state of Texas does not have non-discrimination policies in place in every city. Granted there are a few cities that have them today, but the majority of Texans are still at risk of being fired for being LGBTQ or expressing their gender identity.  My work culture was like my Indian culture. If you weren’t following the group norms then you risked being banished.

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The same company moved me to San Francisco for a job assignment. In California, I was exposed to a world where diversity was more prevalent at work, in people’s lifestyles, in their thinking. It was a bit overwhelming for me to see how comfortable people were taking about politics, religion and occasionally even about sexuality. I still didn’t feel safe sharing my truth and didn’t even think to investigate whether California had non discrimination protections in place. I just assumed it didn’t and that because my company was conservative I should keep closeted in order to keep my job. Although California is well known as a blue state, I ended up switching jobs and working for another conservative company in Salinas, the central valley. What a shocker it was to go from right to left to somewhere in between. I was in my mid twenties and decided to slowly come out. My boss at the time was friendly and seemed progressive. When I came out to her she laughed at me. I felt humiliated by someone I respected and admired. After that I told very few people and only if they were LGBTQ or trustworthy.

In my next and current occupation which is for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, I was initially discouraged by a co-worker from coming out to everyone because of our conservative boss. By befriending other LGBTQ colleagues and after learning that I had legal rights, I felt more comfortable sharing. It was scary and liberating at the same time. People I worked with wanted to know about my life, supported equal rights for LGBTQ people and embraced diversity. I was in a different kind of bubble, but I liked this one. People were so respectful and inclusive when sharing their own lives. Straight and LGBTQ people would say things like “my partner”. They made me feel normal. To bring all parts of myself to work or any environment was a gift and fundamental right I’m not giving up.

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After I burned my cloak of shame to ashes, I’ve been sharing my story to bring visibility to the plight of South Asian LGBTQ people. While the US government has made amazing strides which benefits South Asians here, it’s been disheartening to see India turn the clock back by reinstating Section 377, a 150 year old British Colonial law that criminalizes homosexuality.

The world’s largest democracy has deprived its minority citizens of their dignity and equal rights. The old Colonial law opposes the Indian constitution’s fundamental tenant of inclusiveness for all its’ citizens. The United Nations understands and made this video, which has accumulated over two millions views on YouTube:

In September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting President Obama at the White House. I call on all LGBTQ people and our allies to ask President Obama to stand for equal rights for LGBTQ people in India and encourage the Prime Minister’s government to remove 377 once and for all. To learn more and get involved please visit the campaign website.

We need to stand together and proud for all people, here in California, the US, and in countries like India. LTBTQ people do not need to sacrifice who we love in order to do our duty as outstanding citizens and workers. We can lead honorable lives, ones that are true to ourselves.

Poonam Kapoor

Poonam Kapoor

Poonam believes LGBTQ rights are human rights and is an active volunteer with Trikone, the oldest South Asian LGBT organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can email her here.

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