Ankita Mehra is a strong woman who not only came out as a lesbian on the Roadies show to create awareness, but is also working actively to make workplaces more inclusive.
‘A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everybody else’ ~ Unknown
And that’s exactly what Ankita Mehra did. After making the brave decision to tell the world (through her Roadies audition) that she was a lesbian, she then decided to use her talent and entrepreneurial skills to spearhead EQUIV, India’s first platform focused on hiring Women, LGBTQIA+, veterans, and persons with disabilities.
In an exclusive interview, Ankita Mehra shares her journey, right from her school days where she was regularly picked on, to her present role as an LGBTQIA+ speaker and changemaker.
In your opinion, what was the most defining moment of your life and why?
There are many moments in my life which I can never forget. But among them, there are two that stand out.
The first moment was when I came out to my father. After Roadies, I realized that I had to tell my dad. I was battling depression for a long time, and suicide was always on my mind, but something deep within kept me going. I sought counselling but their homophobic attitude didn’t help. Fortunately, there was one who encouraged me to open up to my family.
I wrote my dad a 16-page letter (a letter that I started writing several years before). Giving it to him and having him read it in front of me was something that I will never forget. We were in tears and it took him some time, but he accepted me for who I was. It wasn’t easy for him but his love for me trumped everything else. Having him on my side gave me the belief that I could face anything that comes next. When I woke up the next morning, the feeling of finally being able to live my way, in front of my loved ones, cannot be put in words.
The second moment is not a singular event. It comes immediately after I give a talk and the response I get from people.
They can see hope in their future through my experiences and can relate with my journey with the urge to be themselves which they have not been able to accomplish for various reasons, something that is also hampering their professional growth.
Do you think that the judges at Roadies handled your coming out as well as they could have?
I didn’t want to depend on their reactions because I was there for a particular reason, but getting their support, their hugs and the Grand Salute was surreal. Most of the judges are still in touch with me and they did handle the situation admirably.
Rannvijay is very supportive of my Q-rious initiative. Whenever I look back on that audition, I do feel that I was able to say what I wanted to, and that the message reached as many people as it could.
You spoke about your father’s response to you coming out in a letter. But what about your mother? And how supportive were your extended family members and friends?
My early life was a struggle because people around me just didn’t understand what I was going through.
I let my school friend know that I liked girls but her remark ‘I am not like you and I don’t like you’ really demotivated me. Many of my school and college mates bullied me, called me names, made fun of my dressing sense, my walk, or even how I sat in class. There were times when I dreaded going to school because of the way they made me feel about myself. It wasn’t until I was in the 12th that I could gather the courage to tell another friend of mine who turned out to be supportive.
When I came out on Television, people I didn’t know showered me with platitudes. But my extended family could never tolerate what I did. They called me an attention seeker, they wanted me to be cured of my sexuality and they didn’t like me going on TV saying what I did. They did not understand my motivations for wanting to make things better for the LGBTQIA+ community. They put my mom under extreme pressure and it did affect her, but her love for me overcame it all.
Having seen a close transgender friend of mine bullied every day, I knew that I had to do something but they didn’t want to understand. Our generation is still very homophobic and I wanted to use a youth-oriented platform like Roadies to change that.
I do understand that people need to be given time to accept the truth, given that their environment does not actively encourage them to do so. But not having support does make things harder than it should be and there are a lot of people who have to suffer like I did or sometimes even worse.
In your tweet on May 23rd, 2019, you appealed to our current Prime Minister (who was re-elected for another term) to make ‘the next 5 years more Gay-friendly’. Has our government done enough and what more should they do?
One of my politician friends, who is supportive of me and what I do, is not able to fight for our cause openly because of the homophobia surrounding him. This is a perfect example of how bad things are in our country.
Congress was in power for a long time but they did nothing. When it came to elections, they would appoint a few leaders to get our votes but that was it. So I expect the current Prime Minister to at least talk about our problems.
The government can open centers for our community or make essential medications and operations like hormone replacement much cheaper. They need to go beyond allowing us our queer parades and make a difference. They had no role in decriminalizing Section 377 and they left it completely on the Supreme Court. Now they need to step up and include our community in their ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwaas’ agenda.
Has the abolition of Section 377 led to positive change for people of the LGBTQIA+ community, given that many Indians are either unaware or apathetic or in violent opposition to the problems faced by them?
Most of the change is restricted to metros. Indians, by and large, are not able to empathize with our cause and are still largely unaware of the problems being faced by the community. They still look at us as the ‘Other’ and that hurts a lot.
Some corporates (mostly in metros) are opening their doors for us. Sensitization workshops in workplaces have become more common after decriminalization. But more needs to be done.
The census says that there are 4.6 lac transgender persona in the country (Actual figure is much more) but only 2% earn above Rs. 25000 per month. What about the rest? Many of them are forced out of their homes very early in their life and pushed into sex trade (which leads to even more ostracisation). Platforms like the Humsafar Trust and people like Gauri Sawant are doing good work for the community but they can’t do everything. The government needs to step in and take measures like providing education and making their medical treatments cheaper.
Abolition of Section 377 marked our Independence Day but we do need our ‘Republic Day’ when we are finally recognized as human beings and given to same rights and benefits as our fellow citizens.
In your audition at Roadies, you spoke about the lack of support and judgment you faced during school and college due to your sexual orientation. What are some of the measures that our educational institutions can take to make sure that future generations don’t go through a similar experience?
There should be chapters in our history books on the struggles of the queer community and the movement behind the LGBTQIA+ struggles in our country. There is no mention of marriages or love stories of same-sex people in our books, neither has there been any effort from our educational institutions to show movies based on the queer community, like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. There is also absolutely no sensitization towards the transgender community in our schools and many of them (be it students or teachers) are bullied regularly.
Stereotypes regarding one’s gender and sexual orientation are nothing new in our country. Being a woman and a lesbian, could you share your experiences with us in this regard? And how do you tackle them?
These stereotypes no longer affect me. I know that my work is benefitting a lot of people and that is all I care about. But it wasn’t always like that.
We look at the entire LGBTQIA+ community from a very distorted perspective. The fact that we are insensitive enough to use the term ‘chakka’ – an extremely derogatory word – to refer not just to transgenders but to the whole community highlights two things. One, that we are extremely disrespectful and contemptuous towards transgenders. And two, that we have zero understanding of the nuances of sexual orientation of people within the LGBTQIA+ community, either due to our lack of knowledge on this subject, or a lack of desire to know about it, or both.
People used to refer to me by that derogatory term not just because they didn’t understand the difference between Lesbians and Transgenders but also because they couldn’t tolerate my being a lesbian. Seniors used to threaten me with physical violence, and teachers were extremely rude and condescending towards me just because the way I sat, talked, dressed, or did my hair was different from their idea on how a girl should behave.
It did get very scary but being positive was all that I could do which made me stronger and kept me going.
Testimonials from LGBTQIA+ members are often filled with statements like ‘There is something wrong with me being myself’ or ‘I am not and will never be normal’. Did you ever go through something like this? And what would your message be to anyone going through this?
As a teenager, we try to figure out and learn things as they happen. I was never attracted to guys and I developed feelings for my female school teacher but didn’t know what to do about it. It was my sister who opened my eyes to my sexuality.
People will be good or bad or sometimes both, but you need to realize that it is a part of a journey that we will have to go through. Hardships will bring you down, make things seem darker than they are, but it is up to you to accept those hardships and tell yourself that they will define who you will be in the future.
You have to #beyourself. People will tell you that you are being morally wrong or that being lesbian or gay is not normal. But you need to accept your sexuality even if others don’t.
Himanshu Singh, an LGBTQIA+ activist who came out about being Gay on Facebook in 2016, talks about how he still receives mails or phone calls from people wanting to come out, and their struggles for not being able to do so. Since your audition in Roadies, have you also gone through something similar? And does the scale of it overwhelm you?
I have. My followers on Instagram are always very open about their struggles and I constantly get messages asking for help or guidance. And these stories are not just from the big cities but even small towns where it is even more difficult to reveal their sexual orientation.
There is a girl who has been in touch with me for the past three years talking about the fear of coming out because she is from a conservative family who lives in a small town. I try to motivate her in whatever ways that I can. Even after my talks I try and listen to and support as many people as possible (not just from the LGBTQIA+ community) who come with their problems. I am constantly available on social media and phone for all of them. We cannot leave everything to NGOs but we should also try to take time out of our lives and help these people as much as we can.
In your efforts to sensitize workplaces for accepting LGBTQIA+ employees, have you encountered any concerns from prospective employees?
Our approach as a hiring platform is to make a change in the society, so we make sure that companies are aligned with our vision and want to make their workplaces more LGBTQIA+ friendly. We have to make sure that any client that we already have on board with us is sensitized enough on an emotional level to not just accept, but also welcome candidates from the community. We want to ensure that our clients are not engaging with us just to fulfil their diversity targets or save on taxes by hiring people from the disabled communities.
So it is extremely satisfying to see that the employers we are associated with are in sync with our mission and that we are able to provide both employers and employees connected with EQUIV a fulfilling experience.
Many corporations are emotionally attached to our vision and many more are making a conscious effort to do so which is extremely satisfying. They are researching on new methods to make their hiring more inclusive. They are also making an effort to address the concerns of the LGBTQIA+ community by taking measures like having gender-neutral washrooms in their office, providing insurance for essential surgeries for transgenders or offering insurance cover for same-sex partners.
EQUIV caters to the hiring needs for women, veterans, people with disabilities (PWD) and LGBTQIA+ members. Did you have any specific reason/s for including people from all these walks of life?
It’s quite simple. These groups are not as well represented in our workforce as they should be.
Companies are ready to hire more women but lack of women-centric hiring platforms hinders their progress, while lack of PWD (persons with disability) friendly infrastructure in many companies leads to lower or negligible hiring from that community. To remedy this scenario we have been doing sensitization workshops with various companies for the past 5 years.
Being from the LGBTQIA+ community myself, I have witnessed the discrimination faced regularly and working in such abysmal conditions lit the spark that led to the Q-rious initiative.
My father is in the Air-force which allowed me to see the problems that veterans had to face while getting a job after coming out of the military. The government provides minimal help. The post-retirement benefits are not enough. And having a notice period of 2 years makes it even worse. Having a hiring platform for them post their retirement can at least help them live with the dignity they deserve.
Could you tell us a bit about your work with ‘Women Changemakers’? What sort of learning opportunities do you provide? Are you planning to expand beyond the metros?
Women Changemakers is an initiative that focuses on reducing the massive gender gap that we currently have in our workplaces by working with companies to hire more women.
In terms of learning opportunities, we conduct a 3 hour conference before the career fair where many corporate leaders and motivational speakers like Ashish Vidhyarthi (Actor), Shradha Sharma (CEO, Yourstory), Hitesh R (Paralympics Medal Winner, Author of bestselling book ‘Better than Normal’) share their personal and professional experiences with the 700+ women audience.
A number of leading corporate brands have been associated with us and more companies are looking to avail of our hiring platform.
We have managed to draw a significant number of candidates for all of our events and some of the candidates are willing to attend multiple events not just because of the employment opportunities but because they also like the message that we stand for. Whenever we conduct an event in a city, we try and attract candidates from the surrounding cities in the region as well. For example, if we conduct an event in Pune, people are coming from places like Mumbai and Nashik. We have done 10 Women Changemakers events this year in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune and by next year we are planning to take the event to micro levels beyond metros into Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. We do have limitations in terms of number of members in our team to do more frequent events. we are looking to overcome that by recruiting more people by next year to accomplish our goal of hiring a greater number of candidates and making our future events even more successful.
Many LGBTQIA+ members have to give up their identities and marry outside their sexual orientation due to societal pressure. Where do you stand on this issue and do you believe you can do something to support them through your personal/professional work?
My stand is pretty clear on this issue. If a person is pressured in any way to marry outside their sexual orientation, it leads to problems not only for that person but for their spouse, future children as well as their families because in effect their person is not being honest with their spouse which can lead to many complications in their relationship.
What I try to do as a motivational speaker during each of my events to address our generation who are already or will be the parents for the future generations, is asking them to be transparent with their kids and accept them for who they are which can help those kids to be more open with us.
One of the problems that we have with our parents and their generation is over the lack of understanding and acceptance of our right to live a lifestyle that is more in line with our sexual orientation. Support from your immediate family is more vital than support from anywhere else. Even if you have homophobic employers, colleagues or even friends around you, support from your family can help you get through all that and still maintain your sanity.
Could you shed some light on the Q-rious program? What was the inspiration behind launching an initiative like this? How has the response been till now and what are the plans for this event?
Q-rious is providing the LGBTQIA+ community with a platform where companies are hiring members exclusively from amongst them to be more inclusive, and reflect the true diversity of our society. My being a part of this platform was not a planned outcome but it was a result of the discrimination that I had faced in my previous workplace, both in our face and subtle, which led me to where I am now.
The LGBTQIA+ community has always been very positive towards any initiative focussed on improving their situation and many NGOs who have done tremendous work within the community are active participants in this event.
Many companies who had been associated with Women Changemakers are also taking part here and we are also roping in more companies for this event. They believe in the message that we are trying to convey. The abolition of Section 377 has certainly helped our cause but the corporates have also been proactive in associating with our event.
At present we are holding the event in metros but we want to go beyond in the coming years. Challenges like bringing of some of the candidates from remote cities are being taken care from our end and we do plan to take Q-rious to as many places as we can or at last get as many candidates from such places as possible to be able to make a real change in their lives.
This interview with Ankita Mehra was an eye opener for me. You think that you are aware of what’s going on with a group of people, and you genuinely believe that you feel their pain and understand their sense of injustice. But then you actually talk to one of them and realise that you don’t have any idea of what’s really going on in their lives.
To have such a huge chunk of our population have the kind of life experience that Ankita Mehra has had is a crime. One reason that society does not notice it is because through our actions and beliefs we have kept the LGBTQIA+ community segregated from our lives.
Many of us might not have had a friend from the community in our entire lives or even interacted with them. We might have also heard and sometimes condoned the insensitive propaganda about them, not realizing the damage we might have done in the process. It’s time we start empathizing with them and treat them as our equals. They don’t need our pity, appeasement or favour. All they wish for is our acceptance. Not that they are begging for it, because they have come this far on their own. And we can try and stop them but it won’t work. It never has and it never will.
Images credit: Ankita Mehra, Roadies show
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