Opening doors to those living in shadows

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on December 19, 2018 Published on December 19, 2018

Keshav Suri   -  Photographer: HEMANT CHAWLA

Coming into their own Transindividuals Lavanya

Jumbo effort Elphie, the inclusivity mascot that greets visitors at The Lalit lobby

Coming into their own Mohul Sharma

The Lalit sets an example on how a workplace can make room for everyone

Walk into The Lalit’s lobby in Delhi and you are greeted by a rainbow-coloured elephant. Meet Elphie, the mascot of inclusivity at the hotel chain that has been going all out to hire the full spectrum of diversity at the group’s various properties. From the differently-abled to those with varying sexual orientation, you will meet a diverse workforce at The Lalit.

At a time when every other hotel in the city is putting up the usual festive Christmas trees in their lobbies, the Lalit stands out with its distinctive elephant. Not only is this colourful jumbo a statement of inclusivity but also one about non-denominational holidays, says Keshav Suri, executive director of the The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, an ardent champion of gay rights and one of the petitioners in the Section 377 case.

Inspired by Humza

Suri points out that The Lalit has always been an equal opportunities employer. But it was shy Humza, who transitioned as a woman while working at the hotel, who inspired the recent aggressive drive of hiring from the LGBTQ community at the group. “We saw Humza turning from a shy, introvert boy to a confident Maahi handling the gate at Kitty Su and giving 100 per cent at work,” describes Suri, spurring the group to look for more from the community.

Currently, there are seven transindividuals at The Lalit in Delhi but Suri says they have overall worked with over a 100 LGBTQ people, including drag artistes on contract basis. Other Lalit properties too are hiring transgenders, helped by start-up PeriFerry, a social inclusion placement service, and successfully bringing them out of the shadows and into front-facing roles at the hotel.

At a time when the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, passed this Monday in Lok Sabha, is being red flagged by activists who are upset over the way begging is criminalised even as it offers no reservations in employment or education, it’s interesting to see how The Lalit has mainstreamed many from the community.

Meet Mohul Sharma, the slender, smiling 20-year old Food & Beverage associate at the hotel, who has just had a surgery and transitioned into a boy after living two decades as Megha.

Sharma’s story is heartrending. His parents separated when he was just 10 and he lived with his dad and just-born younger brother, even as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, and feeling of being trapped in a girl’s body.

It took years of convincing to get his dad to take him to a psychiatrist for counselling but when he mooted the idea of a sex-change operation, it was met with stiff opposition. Tragedy struck when Mohul’s father died a year ago, leaving him to look after his 10-year-old brother. The 10th class pass Mohul tried hard to find a job but his lack of educational qualifications and strange voice — he was in the midst of hormone therapy — made him face rejections galore, until someone suggested he approach The Lalit, where he was accepted and trained.

Keshav Suri personally funded his operation, and his shift timing of 8 am to 5 pm is such that he can take care of his brother. Sharma is now trying to finish his own education through open schooling, and nurtures big dreams for his brother now that there is job security, something his community members rarely have. It’s hard to believe the articulate Sharma could not finish schooling. But the gender confusion resulted in schools turning him away.

When you hear the story of his colleague, 26-year old guest relations associate Lavanya, who is in the process of transitioning from Manish, and undergoing hormone treatment currently, the difficulties faced by transindividuals come home sharply. Lavanya works on the 5 pm to 2 am shift and says it has led to huge issues with her landlord. Finding a flat itself was very difficult as very few are willing to rent to her ilk.

As a child, when just a four-year-old boy, young Manish was abused by a relative, and grew to fear men. Lavanya describes how she began dressing up as a girl but was beaten by her parents. As soon as she completed 12th standard and a course in make-up and hairstyling, her parents turned her out of home. Lavanya managed to find a job in a saloon but the ₹5,000 salary was hardly adequate, especially considering the hormone treatment bills as well.

“A lot of people end up compromising in order to pay bills,” she says, describing her struggles to make ends meet. Through Maahi, Lavanya finally managed to get a job at The Lalit, where she says she has a sense of belonging. “I don’t feel like going home from here because I feel I am with my family here.”

Many hurdles in their way

“There are usually only two avenues of livelihood open for transgenders — begging or prostitution,” says Suri, explaining why they are waiving educational qualifications to hire from the community and give them a chance at a dignified life. “You might ask me questions about meritocracy in hiring versus representational hiring but at the moment there is barely any representation for this community, so let us at least address this now.”

Suri points out that of the 35 trans people they hired, they have managed to retain only 10, because the community faces so many hurdles. Housing tends to be a big issue. Paperwork is another — many of those transitioning have to run from pillar to post to get their identity papers. Medical bills are another challenge. “We are still learning and trying to find solutions,” he says.

A lot of training and sensitisation workshops have gone into the hotel group to integrate the LGBTQ community harmoniously into the workplace. “I myself have gone around asking employees whether the community is only meant to live in the shadows, leading a double life,” he says. At the same time, he asserts that he is not superimposing his own ideology, but the change is coming from bottom up, rather than top down, as employees themselves are embracing the attitude of inclusivity.

Indeed, sound out Kiara Iyer at the Kitty Su nightclub and she talks about her dream of becoming an influential activist in changing the stereotype.

Through his Keshav Suri Foundation, launched recently at FICCI, the hotelier is also fighting for medical insurance and other coverage for same-sex couples and transgenders. The Foundation is also working with other corporates to “embrace, empower and mainstream” the LGBTQ community at the workplace. “The work that Godrej has done has inspired me to create my own manifesto,” he says, adding he would love to come out with surveys and studies on the issue.

In the words of one of Suri’s own pet projects, yes, it gets better, India.

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Published on December 19, 2018
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