LGBT and Sexual Harassment

[…] what constitutes authoritative speech about a gay subject: who is authorized to speak, to whom, and with what truth-effects. […] the remarkable ease with which socially authorized individuals can communicate certain “truths” about a gay subject: if the message is already waiting at the receiver’s end, it doesn’t even need to be sent; it just needs to be activated.

David Halperin, Saint=Foucault, an account of his being accused of harassment as a gay professor in the United States

Early 80s: I was mercilessly harassed in school for being a skinny, effeminate boy. In an all boy’s school, I was tormented every day. I was locked in a room and told I was going to be raped more than once, abused, insulted, made fun of every day. The Principal accused me of cross-dressing with some other boys. I protested that I had not. I was not believed. There was no sexual harassment (SH) policy.

Late 80s: I was harassed every morning as I entered college by a woman and her male friends. I was tormented by a group of boys, hooted, booed, forced to leave the auditorium. My friends asked me to leave. There was no SH policy.

1991: I began my teaching career in Bombay in my own college and was reprimanded for teaching a lesbian poem by Adrienne Rich. Outraged at this censorship, I quit. There was no SH policy.

1999-2000: Back from my PhD, I faced a year of relentless harassment at a premier college under Delhi University (DU. I lived in Residence on campus as well. Penises and testicles were drawn on my door in the form of cannon-ball machines, underwear stuck on my door, cut-outs of penises from pornographic magazines were slipped under my door with new year messages saying ”Perfect gift for a gay man” and all this was done with some institutional encouragement from certain teachers. I submitted all this documentary evidence to the Principal and despite some noise about an enquiry, pretty much nothing was done. I went to the VC as part of a group called Forum Against Sexual Harassment. I was told by the Pro-VC (a woman) to wait till society changed. There was no SH policy in place.

2001-2003: I faced regular homophobic harassment at another college under DU. Letters that came for me in the staff room (accessible only to staff members) were scrawled all over with abuse – ‘gay,’ ‘cocksucker’ and so on – for two years. I would walk into the English Department and find ‘Ashley is gay’ and ‘Cocksucker Ashley Tellis’ written on the black board. All this while, we were working at formulating Delhi University’s SH policy.

2003: I had a false complaint of sexual harassment filed against me at this college. I have recounted it here . It was the perfect opportunity to put the just introduced policy in action but that, of course, was not the point of the fake complaint.

2009: The media announced that I was sacked from IIT Hyderabad because I was a gay activist. It was absolute nonsense but such is the nature of trials by media, so-called progressive media, seeking to help me. The real story was about standing up to an authoritarian and corrupt administration. The comeuppance was being sacked within the probation period, a common practice. But the media had made up its mind and the real story was not juicy or sensational.

2017: I was sacked from St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore. Once again, my gayness was not the main issue at all, though it was part of the story. My politics, my pedagogy, my very being was dangerous to a fascist and conservative administration.

This institutional history is accompanied by histories of abuse at the hands of individuals and groups. This begins with my homophobic father or the family members who found my school’s version of my having cross-dressed perfectly believable and ends with a student at St. Joseph’s who made slimy allegations on Facebook after I was sacked that amounted to sexual harassment charges in the hope of brown-nosing his way into a job at the college once he finished his MA. In between, are friends, colleagues, teachers, students whose insecurities and vulnerabilities manifested themselves as viciousness against the easiest, softest target.

When I came to Delhi from my PhD abroad, to teach, I was well aware of what I was doing by being ‘out’ as a gay lecturer. I was coming back to be a gay activist. I would be out and resist, knowing full well that I could be destroyed easily enough by the contradictory logics of homophobic and patriarchal abuse. I thought it a risk worth the larger fight: rights for gays and lesbians in India. I was/am well aware of my cultural capital (an Oxbridge PhD), my ability to leave when I wanted to, and my belief that I would survive. This privilege is not affordable to many gay and lesbian lecturers in India and that is precisely why I was willing to take the risk. It was because I could. It was about setting a precedent.

I was part of the struggle to get the comprehensive and representative SH policy at Delhi University going. It was a long, hard process and before, through and after it, to see the injustices around SH was painful dispiriting and depressing. My own experience in the first college there was used as evidence of the need for a gender-neutral SH policy. That violence felt worth something for the first time.

All of this has now come undone. DU’s policy was inclusive in its gender neutrality. The Saksham Report, prepared by the UGC’s Gender Task Force, insisted on that as well (see this), even if somewhat inadequately. It is time LGBT activists produced their own report on the state of LGBT awareness and harassment stories to complement the existing material. While the UGC’s new Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) notification that ostensibly came out of the Saksham Report has a line mentioning men and transgenders under the ambit of harassment, the title, like the SH Act, stipulates only women. This has been challenged. It also undercuts all the democratic procedures set up by policies like the DU and JNU ones for over a decade now (for an account, see here).

David Halperin’s, words return to haunt us. He writes: “The point of coming out, I had thought, was precisely to deprive as other people of their privileged knowingness about me and my sexuality; coming out had seemed to me to furnish a means of seizing the initiative from them, a means of claiming back from them a certain interpretative authority over the meaning of my words and actions. As I discovered to my cost, however, it turns out that if you are known to be lesbian or gay your very openness, far from pre-empting malicious gossip about your sexuality, simply exposes you to the possibility that, no matter what you actually do, people can say absolutely whatever they like about you in the well-grounded confidence that it will be credited.”

Halperin ends with a cheeky parenthetical line: “And since there is very little you can do about it, you might as well not try to ingratiate yourself by means of “good behavior.”

However, as LGBT subjects, we have no option but good behaviour. That good behaviour means not just ethical and transparent dealings in institutional settings but also lodging a complaint, following procedural legal structures put in place to deal with SH and fighting the good fight when one, or anyone, is harassed As my own history and the history of recognising sexual harassment and violence against LGBT folk in Universities shows, this does not necessarily get you far. But there is no other way.

Vigilante justice is not the answer. Slander, calumny and unfounded accusations are not the answers either. The internet is not an alternative Symbolic which guarantees instant justice. We have to fight this fight on the same terrain as the exorbitations of discourse around our names, the lies, the distortions, the homophobic abuse. We will have to fight for our voices to be heard amidst the cacophony of the internet feminists, of friends and well-wishers, of enemies, of strangers alike.

Commenting on a paper I had written for a conference in the US on gay shame in 2005, where I had recounted my experiences with sexual harassment till then, a colleague had pointed out (contrasting my paper with another presentation) that while I had appealed to the law, to rationality, to justice, the other had not.

I see no alternative to that appeal. It is not the only recourse but it is a formal means of stating the injustice and its unacceptability in unequivocal terms and seeking redressal. It is a process in which I cannot afford to lose faith. The law, as Gayatri Spivak tells us, is that which we cannot not want.

But it is far from the whole struggle. Indeed, as Spivak informs us, it is only the beginning. This article and the hundreds of times I have recounted these experiences with students, in SH workshops, with friends, in journalistic writing, in academic writing, in social gatherings – all this is part of the struggle.

Dealing with the shame one feels, the shame that settles under the skin and becomes a second skin, a layer so hardened, it makes even recounting one’s experiences an astounding reminder to oneself that this is what happened to one, that one endured, that one is still alive and fighting is also part of the struggle.

But these conversations and reminders, this shame and this anger do not take the shape of public, unfounded accusations. Public, unfounded accusations are what we, as LGBT people, suffer every day of our lives. Unlike the internet vigilantes, we should see the irony and the contradiction in repeating those dangerous and lawless tactics pretending it is justice we seek through them.

Justice is a long and thorny road. But there is no turning back.

Ashley Tellis