Most of the reaction from the progressive media suggests that Apple CEO Tim Cook’s dignified “coming out” in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek has received approval well beyond the confines of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. In a sense, however, he was standing on the shoulders of the giants of corporate America, which has been an active and vocal advocate of equal rights and benefits for the LGBT community. Compare this with the deafening silence from corporate India after the Supreme Court overturned a Delhi High Court decision and ruled that repealing Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which goes under the archaic title of “unnatural offences”, was best left to Parliament.
Ironically, the Indian Supreme Court’s decision occurred in the same year – 2013 – that its US counterpart, in a historic ruling, overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that prevented same sex couples from receiving federal spousal benefits. The object lesson for Indian corporations, which otherwise like to pride themselves on adopting global best practices, is corporate America’s proactive activism. When the US Supreme Court was preparing its debate ahead of its historic overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, some of America’s signature global corporations, such as Facebook, Google and Starbucks, took the initiative to urge the apex court to do so. When the law was struck down, many American corporations issued statements of support and no less than Goldman Sachs – that symbol of starchy propriety – hung a rainbow flag outside its headquarters. In the same year, over 100 businesses in the US also joined a coalition to urge Congress to pass the long-standing Employment Non-discrimination Act, which would prohibit companies from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (first introduced in 1994, it was passed in the Senate in 2013 but is awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives). Tim Cook wrote an oped in The Wall Street Journal at the time arguing that the law should be passed. That apart, many corporations led by introducing spousal benefits for same-sex couples long before the laws were changed.
In India, by contrast, no CEO has cared to come out strongly in defence of repealing Section 377. Should this matter in a country where there are many other problems – a stalled project pipeline and a challenging environment for doing business among them – with which Indian corporations are struggling? The answer would be an emphatic yes. Although Section 377 remains, urban Indian society is changing at a rapid pace: more and more men and women are bravely coming out, suggesting that the issue is not a minor one. These courageous souls mostly come from the more educated sections of society – the cohort that is sophisticated enough to articulate its views but also the one from which corporations draw their talent. It is inconceivable that there are no gay people in India Inc. Alienating such people in the workplace by simply ignoring the issue or being derisive about it are good ways of ensuring that such talent goes elsewhere in a perverse, pointless brain drain. Indian corporations are inherently conservative. Unlike in the West, most unwittingly dictate their employees’ moral codes by denying rights to common law partners, forget about gay partners. As they plug into global supply chains and invest abroad, they would do well to adopt some of the more progressive practices of global corporations. Who knows, with a prime minister who is avowedly pro-business, this would be India Inc’s best opportunity yet to show itself to be ahead of the curve in terms of social reform.