Monday, October 9, 2017

A Ferry from the Periphery

Neelam Jain
Neelam Jain founded and runs PeriFerry, a Workspace Inclusion Initiative that supports organizations by helping them recruit, onboard and create inclusive environments for transgender people. Here is her story in her own words. 

The birth of PeriFerry goes way back, actually. I have had my own experiences of exclusion that is typical of high schools, of not being accepted and not having the normal life of a eleventh and twelfth grader would. I’ve had my own share of bitter experiences of exclusion because I didn’t fit the norm and things like that. That was my starting point of turning to things that made me feel a lot better when things were not going alright – which was doing social work. It calmed me down when things were not going right.

In college, I was actively involved in groups that did a lot of social work. I started interacting with people from the LGBT community, mainly the transgender groups. I felt very comfortable with them – I would go out a lot on my own and never hesitated to start a conversation to them. I related to their story and empathized with them, and it was a starting point. I couldn’t really do anything on my own for them, at the time.

I got into an MNC, where I got to present a social impact project to the company. If they were interested, they would fund the project. I prepared a project on the inclusion of the transgender community in the workplaces. The MNC was incredibly LGBT inclusive, but there was no transgender representation as such. I proposed the project with the Solidarity Foundation, who helped me draft the proposal, and budget it – towards training and bringing in transgender people into the company. Something in me wanted to make a difference for that community, so it was my focus. There were thousands presented, of which three were to be selected. The project didn’t make it, but a lot of seniors appreciated it. It got a lot of attention from the higher ups. I took inspiration from that.
I quit my job in six months, and returned to Chennai. I decided that I wanted to start doing something on my own. I didn’t think of establishing an NGO – I am passionate about the cause and am good with business models and understanding funding and liaising with corporate houses. Once I returned, I spent six months of research with NGOs in Chennai, and got involved with the transgender communities here. I stayed with them in their housing and colonies. I understood them better. It’s not like all of them want to get out of sex work or that they hate their lives. But things could be a lot better for them. That is what PeriFerry aims at.

Eight months down the line, with the help of Steevez, who helped me with the field work and pushed me to start this, I started PeriFerry. I named it PeriFerry as a play on the word “periphery” which effectively means edge. I intended for it to convey that the initiative was founded with the aim of being inclusive of those that society has pushed to the edge. It is not with any sense of being a saviour or any such, but just that we want to be like a “ferry” taking them from the edge to the place they want to be. A lot of people want their lives to be better and different from where it is at the moment, and Periferry is for them. In the transgender community, there are those who have no qualms with their lives – the initiative is for those who want to change their lives and go in a direction of their choice.

We don’t go to companies to convince them. There is no hard selling that we can do with a concept like this. At this moment, we work with those that come to us. All of our clients are mostly those who came to us. They have already accepted the idea of inclusion but just needed some handholding to get there. In these workshops that we do with them, many people have no idea about transgender people, the pronouns to use and such else. They find it interesting and become accepting as well. This is a first step – change can’t come overnight, but it is certainly all about initiating the change in the mindset.

In our sensitization programs, we offer up an equal representation of both. Trans men are not often known of or seen in the way that trans women are. The gender performance arc is somehow not as pronounced in trans men. So being that they are hidden, their education standards are much better and they get accepted into jobs and are not involved with sex work. Many of them live with their families who don’t know of their transition – so they don’t always come out. They come from better backgrounds but their acceptance is often met with greater challenge. Trans women are often part of gharanas and communities. We’ve only seen trans women around us – and so making people understand that trans men are also very real and do indeed exist, and making them understand gender, sex and transitioning is a huge challenge. It is tough, but we don’t back down.

The PeriFerry Team

We did a Thiru Vizha recently where we had a mono-act of a trans man’s story enacted by another individual (not the one whose story it is). It was a positive story of being accepted by the family and a portrayal of a positive love life with an aspiration to get married. It was a beautiful story. So the change is happening, just that it is one story and one step at a time. A film critic then led a discussion around the portrayal of transgender people on screen. PeriFerry aims at breaking rigid barriers to inclusion.

In our workshops, we start with basic things around sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression and based on employer mindsets and policies, we deal with sexuality. We then move to transgender people, more from the hijra community point of view, the exclusion they face, the lives they lead, the medical needs their transitions require and the psychology of it all. The main focus of our workshops is to ensure that the employees of a workplace get to know and understand transgender people as well as their struggles or issues better. We customize these workshops and do our best to ensure they go beyond the definition of a normal (read boring) workshop. In order to connect with our audiences better, we employ theatrical elements and bring in artists as well. Workshops will be tweaked or customized according to the target audience as well, be it employees, managers or top-level leaders. We then show them how we can be supportive of the community in a way that is not rooted in sympathy, but rather treat them as basic, equal people who deserve respect for their skills and dreams. We also work on the infrastructural dimension around restructuring language, behaviour, and wherever possible, infrastructure. In some offices, it involves either revamping their infrastructure, or, like in most MNCs, they refashion their PWD toilets into gender neutral toilets. It doesn’t take much – even just changing the name boards and plaques outside the toilets is enough of a change in creating inclusive toilets.

In terms of what we aim for in the future, PeriFerry is in a dynamic continuum now. We have changed our approach and are focusing on doing more conferences, seminars and job fairs. We welcome collaborations and support in the form of funding, too.

There are many positive stories from our journey so far. But the one that remains most precious to me is the first placement. Well before PeriFerry became what it is, I was speaking with Santhosh the owner of Kolapasi, a restaurant in Chennai. I met him in a cafĂ© and told him about my dreams for PeriFerry. He was so taken in by it – not just open with the idea, but also helped me integrate a trans woman into his office so beautifully. She is working in the environment till date without any issues. Later, they also hired another trans woman to join their team. The employer is happy, the employees are all happy – it is such a beautiful story for me to revisit.