The St. Joseph and Ashley Tellis Episode is a Reminder of How Workplace Homophobia Operates

When I read about Dr. Ashley Tellis’s termination from his job at St. Joseph’s College Bengaluru against the contract, I could not help remember what happened to him almost seven years ago at IIT Hyderabad. Only this time, Dr. Ashley voiced that the termination from St. Joseph’s was due to homophobia.

When Dr. Ashley was sacked from IIT Hyderabad he refused the gay angle which the media reported as a reason for his sacking. He insisted that he was sacked from IIT Hyderabad because he contested against the malpractice and corruption of the Director. St. Joseph’s has refused that his sexual orientation was the reason for termination. The press release from St. Joseph’s doesn’t say much. Also, this isn’t the first-time Dr. Ashley has been targeted for being gay. He recounts his experience at Indian educational institutions as a teacher in this DNA article.

In a statement on March 10th, the college said; “Prof. Ashley Tellis was appointed on a temporary 6-month contract in November 2016. He had clearly stated his orientation in his application and at the interview – the college deemed this to be his personal choice. Later, while we appreciated his intellectual abilities and his scholarship, we were pained to note that he seemed to pay no heed to the sensitivities of undergraduate students from heterogeneous backgrounds. After receiving several complaints from students and their parents about Prof. Ashley having crossed the line repeatedly in his interaction and comments, the management decided that it would be for the best to terminate his services.”

I asked Dr. Ashley about the claim made by St. Joseph about him revealing his sexual orientation in his application and at the interview. He said that the claim was “nonsense” and all he mentioned in the application was his research interest which has LGBT studies in it and his publications are on queer issues. Dr. Ashley’s sexual orientation is not a secret. But in the short press note, adding an information on which the institute never had any discussion with Dr. Ashley confirms that the college wants to make clear that there is no gay angle to his suspension. And the repeated argument that keeps floating around is that St. Joseph’s administration cannot be homophobic because they hired an out gay man. This argument reduces the understanding of workplace harassment and how homophobia manifests.

It is a well-known fact that the only demography the Indian workplaces are inclusive of is the straight (acting) cis-men. And that is the exact reason even the most ‘evolved’ corporates have a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) department to promote and maintain diversity at the workplace. The mere existence of such D&I initiative proves the lack of diversity at workplaces.

So according to St. Joseph’s press note, they chose to ignore Dr. Ashley’s sexual orientation as his “personal choice”. Ignoring a person’s sexual orientation is not equal to accepting it or providing a safe work environment.

It also makes clear that the institute did not take any special step to make Dr. Ashley feel inclusive at work. If they have, then it is high time for St. Joseph’s administration to reveal any such steps that were taken. But it is a common understanding that any institute that reaffirms gender stereotype and segregate individuals based on their gender can never be queer friendly. Dr. Ashley has pointed out in a series of Facebook post on how St. Joseph’s is regressive and draconian, especially in segregating students based on gender and in silencing voices of dissent.

An organisation is not inclusive or progressive because they hire a visibly queer person. Discrimination and harassment manifests itself in many forms. It doesn’t have to be visible and violent all the time.

India’s first transgender principal Manabi Bandopadhyay resigned from her job after six months citing that the staffs and students were uncooperative towards her. Prof. Hoshang Merchant – a well-known writer and poet – got his rightful promotion as a professor after 21 years, three years before his retirement, at the University of Hyderabad. We cannot deny that the non-cooperativeness towards Prof. Manabi Bhandophadyay and stalling Prof. Hoshang Merchant’s promotion was not laced with transphobia and homophobia. Similarly, substantiating Dr. Ashley’s termination on the complaint by students and parents is not satisfactory. That is equal to budging to populism, which is not on the right side always. Especially when it involves homosexuality. On the other hand, we can also see a debateamong the students on terminating Dr. Ashley. I am forced to believe that the institute failed to give a fair chance to Dr. Ashley on what he has to say about the complains (?) against him.

There are number of example, including Government offices and initiatives, where entities hire queer people and not allot them work, not treat them with dignity and do not pay them their rightful wages and don’t offer them a career growth. A senior executive at an MNC in India, who also happens to be the LGBT face of their organisation for Asia-Pacific region, shared how the subtle homophobia is passed by his co-workers as jokes. During a business dinner, he was asked by a co-worker to join the ‘women’ employees as the table was taken by men. This clearly highlights the misogynistic and homophobic work environment that anyone who is not a straight (acting) cis-men has to tread.

The press release also goes on about how Dr. Ashley did not pay heed to the “heterogeneous” background of the students. As Durga Sengupta points out in her articlein Catch News, it’s not clear what exactly is heterogeneous according to St. Joseph’s administration. Anyone can claim to be LGBT friendly. In fact, today it is a fashion statement to say LGBT friendly. We can only go by their words. But when the actions are against what they say; we as a community must question the intent and truth behind such statements. Else, we will only have hostile environments with no real inclusiveness.

We should also note that at present we do not have any official policy mandated by the government on workplace harassment of LGBT individuals at workplace. It is ambitious to expect such an inclusive policy when the state refuses to discuss LGBT issues. And that is more of a reason why we must seek more information from St. Joseph College about their work environment. Right now, the generic statements and personal attack on Dr. Ashley and his politics only reaffirms that homophobia played a big part in his termination. We must also remember that this is not about only Dr. Ashley Tellis. This is about us and how we are left with no option to defend ourselves from our workplaces during crisis.