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Queer Affirmative Practice at Work

What does ‘queer affirmative’ mean?

Let’s begin by really breaking it down. The word ‘affirmative’ means -supportive, hopeful, or encouraging. When we talk about affirmative action, it is often in the context of either the state or organisations, and refers to practice or policies intended to include specific groups of people, usually regarded as disadvantaged or vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc; and in need of support and protection.

Affirmative action consists of the steps one may take to level the playing field so to speak, and fill in the gaps brought on by historic or systemic oppression and discrimination in an individual’s life, and bring a focus on equity, and equal opportunity to all.

When we specifically speak of queer affirmative practice and policy, we mean to spotlight that affirmative action that radically and progressively acknowledges the specific unique life stressors and lived experiences of member of the queer community, create space for community voices to be heard and needs to be shared, equitable policies to be drafted and implemented for inclusion of queer folx and elevating their position in the society.

Is there a difference between ‘queer friendly’ and ‘queer affirmative’?

The term “Queer friendly” may refer to set of practices that may connote a sense of positive regard, association, support and even empathy for members of the queer community. These practices may even be demonstrated by members of the community or allies of the community.

The point of difference between the terms “Queer Friendly” and “Queer Affirmative” practice would lie in the fact that the queer affirmative practices go beyond the mere acknowledgement of queer existence. It involves actively and consciously going deeper into understanding the true lived realities of diverse members of the community and the challenges brought on by the cis-heteronormative, homophobic society, internalization of homophobia and transphobia and the implications on wellbeing. Such practices create space for community voices and stories, tailoring solutions to suit specific needs as described by members of the community, develops skills and tools to respond with awareness of social, historic and economic subjugation as well as engage in the self-work required to confront internalized bias, while working towards openly standing for queer rights. This practice would place the autonomy and agency with members of the community such that power of choice rests with them.

Why do we need to spotlight queer affirmative practices?

…. To be real, the time for bringing a queer affirmative lens to our DEIB initiatives at work, is long overdue. Studies show that LGBTQIA+ people endure higher mental health concerns than heterosexual people, indicating a need for specific, focussed support.

Adopting this lens means that we are acknowledging that there are many facets and aspects of queer lives and identity that need to be supported at the workplace, in order to create a truly safe and inclusive space that values the wellbeing of all employees and members of the organisational eco-system. We recognize that without queer affirmative intervention that acknowledges the unique trajectory of queer lives, queer and trans folx may remain at the

fringes even at ‘progressive’ workspaces with great inclusion initiatives/ intentions. They may exist within the system feeling that they are never really seen, like they never really belong there or fit in with the norm.

Adopting this lens also means that we as the leadership team or as employers, are acknowledging that we as well as our systems and practice have a direct influence on queer mental health and wellbeing, and their contribution and growth at work. Consequently, it’s prudent to take cognizance that we cannot separate one’s personhood and personal challenges from workplace goals. In accepting that employees and their wellbeing matter, we are accepting the commitment to create supportive spaces, practices and structures that work, in the context of queer and trans lives at work among other diverse identities.

What can Queer affirmative practices look like?

1. Wellbeing policies that include unique queer and trans lived realities:

When developing internal wellbeing related policies, it becomes important to bring special attention to the realities of the queer and trans community including the overt 7 covert discrimination that they may face, and the resulting mental health impact.

Moreover, there may be a need to adapt certain policies to cover situations unique to the queer community, and to do so sensitively and empathetically, and not from a position of doing them a favour. Some of these may include:

o Leave policies that cover transitioning and gender reaffirming procedures

o Leave policies that include support during celebration of queer relationships akin to marriage, adoption, caregiving support, etc.

o Insurance policies that cover partner benefits for queer folx that may not fit the binary ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ status

o Medical Insurance policies that support gender reaffirming processes for employees and/or their family members

2. Building spaces for support:

It is imperative to add to the existing support systems within the organisation, by creating:

o Access to Queer Affirmative therapists through EAP / other supportive programs:

Queer Affirmative therapists are trained to take into consideration the unique life stressors of the queer and trans community in their therapeutic work with them. Hence, ensuring that the EAP providers or referral systems earmark therapists / mental health professionals trained in queer affirmative counselling practice is key and folx aren’t subjected to conversion therapy or approaches that diminishes their autonomy in the process

o Crisis Management support: Grappling with one’s own identity within a social system that neither represents the community positively, nor values and supports members of the queer community, it is quite a challenge for persons within the community. Given society’s reactions towards people who are ‘different’, they often find themselves in situations wherein there is a threat of violence and abuse, rejection and social isolation. The mental health risks are high, and many queer folx find themselves in a situation where the only option may feel like death by suicide.

Understanding this is essential in order to be able to support queer folx with resources within the organisational system, should they need to reach out for queer affirmative crisis management services when it comes to gender dysphoria, domestic violence or extreme emotional distress owing to closeted identity & relationships.

o Mentorship / buddy systems:

Accessing supportive mentorship and buddies internally who are allies or part of the community can be very supportive when navigating professional challenges within the organisational system.

o Employee Resource Group (ERG):

Often, a group may be formed to create a safe space for coming together and discussing shared life experiences or navigating the common challenges faced by members of the group. This may be a great support for members of the community. An ERG can also serve as a safe space for group therapy – provided it is facilitated by trained Queer affirmative therapists, with clear goals and consent from the group.

3. Structural and Procedural shifts can also go a long way towards supporting trans and queer folx at work, by providing

o Gender neutral bathrooms

o Ensure any forms that may require employee engagement are inclusive when inquiring into gender, marital status, or living situations

o Inclusive policies could include gender neutral practices and scope offering support to all vulnerable groups. For example, though the POSH Act currently covers only women, few organisations have gone above and beyond statutory requirements to ensure that all vulnerable groups and people can legitimately reach out and file complaints of sexual harassment. In keeping redressal systems the same, the messaging to the team is that inappropriate behaviour is not going to be tolerated, regardless of the gender or orientation of the victim.

4. Focus on Belonging:

It is imperative to expand focus of inclusion initiatives to include ‘belonging’. This focus on sense of belonging with the team can greatly boost wellbeing experiences and all employees within the team would need to take ownership of their behaviour.

Towards building supportive spaces that reflect belonging, training and awareness/ sensitization workshops become necessary, covering topics such as bias, inclusive language and allyship.

Specific programs need to also target those who ‘enforce’ these policies / act as role models within the organisation including leadership teams and HR / people and culture managers.

How can we sustain practice beyond pride🏳️‍🌈month?

In order to go beyond the tokenism that may be associated with some short-lived initiatives, leaders and employers need to commit to changing the narratives at their workspaces, and investing in community building practices and allyship at the workplace.

In our work, we have witnessed trans folx choosing to move on from ‘inclusive’ workspaces due to the cold attitude and some perceived disgust they received on coming out, discussing leave for gender reaffirming procedures, or requiring time away from work to heal. In fact, in one case, there was no policy level provision for leave sanctioned to support gender reaffirming procedures, hence the manager seemed to treat the entire process as a ‘whim’ and cosmetic procedure that was getting in the way of work.

Perspectives of this nature are not new, and often a response to the deep rooted transphobia and lack of understanding about these procedures, as trans lives are not openly talked about. It doesn’t point to ‘bad people’ necessarily, but points to a gap in understanding that positions itself as a need for leadership to engage with and actively fill through awareness and skill building programs. Reach out to us at therapy@mentalhealthatwork.in to collaborate and identify the gaps that may be existing in the context of your workspaces or to discuss and training and awareness needs that may support your DEIB goals! Use this space to connect with our queer affirmative mental health practitioners @samriti and @Rosanna too!

Written by Samriti Makkar Midha and Rosanna Rodrigues

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