Can A Tattoo Get You Fired?

After a prospective police candidate was banned for a tattoo, Germany debates workplace appearance rules as the number of young employees with tattoos is exploding.

Free (and jobless) as a bird?
Free (and jobless) as a bird?
Johanna Bruckner and Lisa Rüffer

BERLINS'il te plaît ... apprivoise-moi! ("Please, tame me!") reads the large tattoo on the woman’s forearm. It’s a French quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. And the woman from Darmstadt, in her late 20s, recently learned that a local court considered her tattoo too prominent for her to be hired as a police officer.

The Darmstadt judge thus rejected the woman’s official complaint to being told she could not be admitted to the admission process for Germany’s federal police academy. The would-be candidate had accused the authority of abusing her rights of free expression and her right of access to a public authority. The judge stated that the police academy’s reaction had been understandable.

The decision opens up a number of questions, such as: What tattoos risk being a career killer, and what can an employer properly forbid?

It's no longer a minor question or a niche demographic. A survey last month revealed that of those in the 25 to 34-year old age group, 22% had tattoos, and in general the trend is on the increase. The study, conducted by Germany’s Society for Consumer Research for dermatologists at the University of Bochum also found that the practice cuts across all social and income demographics. The tattoo has become mainstream.

"There are a lot more people than you think with tattoos that are simply not visible when they’re dressed," says Thomas März of the "Tempel München" tattoo studio. And he warns: "You want to think very carefully about anything that is visible."

In the German working world, employers really do have the right to their say about an employee’s appearance, says Christian Götz, a labor law expert with the large Verdi trade union. "The employer is lord of the work space and can determine what public image of the company or institution they want." Rules are particularly strict for public service employees and functionaries.

"Some tattoos on police officers really can create a certain impression that can’t be reconciled with their role," Götz says.

And what about beards?

In the case of the plaintiff from Darmstadt the court argued that her visible tattoo could be seen as "a sign of the need for enhanced experiences." In this case, the body adornment of the plaintiff expressed "excessive individuality" that could "stretch the tolerance levels of others."

But applicants for jobs representing authority are not the only ones concerned by the aesthetic selection criteria of their potential employer. Any job that calls for the employee to interact with members of the public will limit the employee’s constitutional "personality" rights, says Verdi expert Götz. This applies for example to bank employees, flight personnel, or service personnel in more up-market restaurants: all are obliged to follow a house dress code where the employer decides what outward effects are going to be tolerated. "In a hip clothes boutique it could be that tattoos were seen as a plus," Götz says.

But there are limits. For example, an employer cannot decree that all male employees have to be clean-shaven. "If a beard was not expressly forbidden in the work contract then the employee can have one," says Götz. Christof Kleinmann, a lawyer specialized in labor law, adds: "The employer can only make demands that have an objective justification."

Every receptionist can thus decide if she’s going to dye her hair blonde or brown. "But the company doesn’t have to accept a zebra look," according to Kleinmann. The same goes for earrings for men. "If there is no good reason for forbidding something the employer has to accept it whether he or she likes it personally or not." And that goes for the state as well. "A small tattoo on a shoulder that is covered by clothing during work hours is okay," says Kleinmann.

Thomas März, the owner of the Munich tattoo studio, is familiar with the issue. "Especially young people under 20 want very visible tattoos. They’re careless that way. If a customer is talking about a tattoo on a lower arm, hands, neck or face then we take the initiative and advise them, presenting them with alternatives."

Tattoos are forever "even if there are now studios that sell tattoos and their removal after ten years as a package deal."

The young lady from Darmstadt is toying with the idea of having her tattoo removed by laser. Meanwhile her lawyer is going to appeal in a higher court.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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