Queeristan: Opening up the boardroom

Parmesh Shahani | Updated on August 28, 2020 Published on August 27, 2020

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Parmesh Shahani’s new book tracks the small and big measures that help queer up the corporate workspace

The Godrej of today is not your grandfather’s sepia-toned postcard from the past. The Culture Lab forum is held in the slick, all-white, marble-clad central atrium of Godrej One. Sunlight streams in from skylights that are twelve storeys above us. New Haven–based architect Rafael Pelli designed this building to shock and awe everyone who walks in. You could easily shoot another Blade Runner reboot here, with the seemingly endless expanse of stacked glass and suspended bridges soaring over us. The architecture of the building reflects the aspirations of our company — we are super focused on preparing for the future.

Queeristan: LGBT Inclusion in the Indian Workplace/ Parmesh Shahani/ Westland Business/ Non-fiction/ ₹699


I serve as the annual Godrej Leadership Forum’s chief curator. I spend pretty much all year bringing together some of the brightest minds from across the world to speak to senior leaders at the gathering. Nobel Prize winners like Kailash Satyarthi, the chairman of HDFC bank Deepak Parekh, and authors like Amitav Ghosh and Mona Eltahawy have spoken at the forum. I make sure I queer up each forum, by inviting friends like Gauri Sawant on stage. Interestingly, there is no resistance from the leaders. Rather, there is anticipation of who I might bring next.

So how did a company that is more than 120 years old become this open to possibilities?

I am borrowing the term cultural acupuncture from the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a network of around 100,000 fans of JK Rowling’s famous book series. The Alliance maps the fictional content of the Harry Potter world on to real-world concerns, such as human rights in Africa, marriage equality, labour rights and net neutrality, and encourages its members to speak out about these contemporary issues. By tapping into the connections fostered in the Harry Potter fandom, they have been able to mobilise their skills towards a new form of youth activism, which inspires all those who have been impacted by the Harry Potter series to participate in it.

Here is how the group’s founder, Andrew Slack, describes what cultural acupuncture stands for, in an article in HuffPost in 2010:

‘Cultural acupuncture is finding where the psychological energy is in the culture, and moving that energy towards creating a healthier world. ...We activists may not have the same money as Nike and McDonald’s but we have a message that actually means something. ...With cultural acupuncture, we will usher in an era of activism that is fun, imaginative, and sexy, yet truly effective.’

I first heard of this term from my MIT professor Henry Jenkins, now at the University of Southern California, when he visited Mumbai in 2016 on my invitation for a Godrej lecture series. Henry spent the previous decade studying how young activists from around the world were using social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, and the language of popular culture to bring about civic and political change by ‘any media necessary’, which incidentally is the title of a recent book of his. I was reminded of Henry’s research again when Hong Kong erupted in the summer of 2019. Hong Kong’s youth activists appropriated a range of pop culture properties, from Star Wars posters to Bruce Lee’s karate mantra ‘Be water’, to organise and distribute material for their protests.

I would like to repurpose the understanding of the term ‘cultural acupuncture’ to include the smorgasbord of different cultural experiments I have been conducting at Godrej and through Godrej, for which I use whatever resources I can access — corporate funding, physical space, the influence I have, the press attention I can attract, and more — to bring about the attitudinal change I desire.

I conduct two types of cultural acupuncture from my vantage point at Godrej. The first is within Godrej, and this includes queering events such as the Godrej Leadership Forum, speaking about queer issues at HR campaigns to recruit students from MBA colleges, helping change Godrej’s HR policies and hosting queer events on our campus through the Culture Lab. The second is cultural acupuncture outside Godrej, and it comprises ecosystem building, amplification, coalition forming and resource creation. I push Godrej to partner with other companies and organisations like the United Nations, sponsor external LGBTQ cultural events and take part in LGBTQ job fairs and external forums, so that we can collectively form a larger community of change-makers.

While I was working at Mahindra, even though I had just written Gay Bombay, I was satisfied with the special treatment I received from my bosses, and didn’t think it was important to stand up and ask for organisation-wide inclusion.

Something changed when I moved to Godrej. Maybe I grew in confidence and also became aware of my privilege. I asked myself: What is the point of selfishly demanding special rights when the rest of my community members don’t have them? I realised that any benefits I wanted for myself had to be institutionalised at a policy level for all other employees too.

Parmesh Shahani (Excerpted with permission from Queeristan: LGBT Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, published by Westland)

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Published on August 27, 2020
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