In 2012, Samyuktha Vijayan, then a software engineer in Bengaluru, moved to Europe as she decided to transition from being a man to a woman.
“I always knew I won’t be able to go through it if I was in India,” she says. “I had seen people who had transitioned (in India) face a lot of issues.”
Over the next four years, Vijayan lived in Luxembourg and then in the US working with the e-commerce major Amazon. “In the US, the transition process is relatively easy. There is insurance support there and depending upon the company you may be working for it’s far easier for one to get to speak to a counselor or doctor,” she adds.
In 2017, the urge to do something for the transgender community in India saw her taking a flight back home. At first, Vijayan set up her own startup, Toutestudio, which focused on upskilling transgender people. In April this year, she became the first transgender employee of the food delivery unicorn Swiggy.
At the Bengaluru-based company, the 34-year-old has a two-pronged role: to launch delivery innovation ideas as a principal technical programme manager and to encourage diversity in the company as a member of the diversity and inclusion council.
“In most companies, the LGBT community forms a sizeable population but transgenders are non-existent,” she says. “People coming from a privileged background cannot talk on their behalf. We have to hear from them directly.”
Quartz spoke to Vijayan about her journey, and what she hopes for India’s LGBTQ+ community. Edited excerpts:
What are the specific measures that you plan to take to support the LGBT and transgender community at Swiggy?
The main focus is to make sure Swiggy has an open and inclusive culture where anybody from any background can bring their authentic self to the workplace.
We just did a survey to arrive at what are the things that need to be included as part of our policies and processes to encourage diversity. We are in the process of analysing the survey results. Based on this, we will see what kind of actions need to be taken.
We are also looking at working with recruiters to see how we can hire more LGBT people. The other thing is focusing on visibility and making sure that people understand Swiggy has this charter to promote inclusiveness.
We are also launching Swiggy pride network. We are formulating its tenets and seeing what we can do as part of it.
Have you seen any positive changes in attitudes towards the LGBT community in India on your return to the country?
With the supreme court striking down section 377, people are openly talking about issues related to sexuality. More and more people are ready to convene a proper LGBT support group within a corporate structure. But transgender people have been around for a long time. So, companies need not have waited for the court’s order on section 377 to focus on diversification. But still, it’s better late than never.
In what ways can corporate India create more job opportunities for LGBT and transgender people?
Even as companies go about consciously hiring more people from the LGBT community, there is a big problem that many people are not talking about. A lot of transgender people do not have the right set of qualification, skills, or training to reach out, and accept a corporate job.
Companies need to relax their hiring norms.
What kind of policy support do you expect from the government?
The first thing is to make the processes of documentation, or proof of identity, easier for transgender people. In the current Transgender Bill, it is proposed that there will be a screening committee before which a person will have to appear and prove oneself to be a transgender. Who is anybody to verify this?
In most western countries, all that a transgender person needs to prove one’s identity is a document from psychiatrist which states that this person identifies with a particular gender. I expect the same from the government here.
Secondly, a lot of transgender groups are talking about a reservation for the transgender community. The idea of reservation is to bring in affirmative action for supporting education and employment for transgender people to help them overcome the discrimination they face.
Then, the government also needs to run some kind of awareness campaign to spread the word about who transgender people are and how to deal with them.
What’s been your key takeaway from living and working overseas as a transgender person?
One thing that we need to clearly understand is that independent of the company that I work for, there are certain things from a social perspective that are different in a western country. Some of those different things are what makes it easier for people of the LGBT community to carry out their work.
For example, when I went through my transition from male to female, I was working with Amazon. In western countries, the policies to support these transitions are more supportive. To be honest it was a cakewalk. Like on a Friday, I go to the office as my previous self and on Monday, I go as my new self. People around me, the team and the people outside the social set up were supportive and all of it made it easy for me to navigate through that space.
I don’t think that would have happened if I had gone through my transition in India. For example, insurance there covered almost all my expenses including hormonal replacement therapy, facial hair treatment, and the psychology sessions that I had to attend.
What are some of the policies and processes that India can borrow from western countries to support transgender people back home?
In western companies, there are set guidelines that insurance companies must follow as they support transgender people through their transition. Employers here must work with insurance companies to set up similar guidelines and ensure those that are in place are followed.
Then, there are things that are necessary for people to be comfortable with, as they go through their transition and to live easily with society afterwards. For example, HR policies at most of the companies in western countries have a template that suggests what it means to go through the transition. It spells out how the person would like to be addressed in email conversations and in person. Such guidelines are missing in India and these need to be put together as a template. We sort of need to establish standard operating procedures that need to be followed to support people going through a transition.