Campus OUTing

A silent revolution to make campuses gay friendly is underway in colleges across India, finds out Sukhdeep Singh

Deepak was still in college when he decided that he could not live a dual life each day. Living in a hostel during his engineering days in a small town, he desired to get his friends talking about sexuality, and so he decided to come out to his friends. But instead of telling them personally, he chose to write about his sexuality and the problems and dilemmas of a young gay man in his blog. Needless to say, it created a lot of brouhaha in his college. “But it led to a lot of discussion among my friends, many times with me, many times without me. The shroud of mystery was broken and since they knew me personally many of their perceptions relating to gay men were broken too,” tells Deepak. While Deepak did face a few homophobic comments initially, most of his friends were supportive. “The time of my coming out couldn’t be better, because a few days later, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality and there was a lot of discussion in all of media on this topic,” says Deepak.

Deepak was all of 20 yrs when he took this step of starting a dialogue in his college campus. But his is not a lone story. In the last few years, especially after the decriminalization of homosexuality on 2nd July 2009, a lot of students are taking it upon themselves to educate their peers about homosexuality and make the campus environment friendly enough for other queer students and are receiving support from their batch mates too.

Past Initiatives

While various new initiatives might have been started in the recent years, there have been attempts by students to start a dialogue among the youth as early as 2003. One such initiative was Anjuman, which was a students’ queer initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) of Delhi and was an attempt to initiate discussion about gender and sexuality at a time when the case pertaining to Sec 377 was still pending in the courts and the capital city was yet to witness a gay pride march.

An attempt was also made in IIT Bombay, which now has a support group called Saathi for LGBTQ students, around a decade ago. An alumnus of the college had created a yahoo group with an aim of connecting gay students of IIT-B and published the group in various online communities. Being an unmoderated group, there were people from all around the country who had joined the group and the group lost its relevance. Another attempt was made in the institute around four years ago when a student contacted the owner of the yahoo group and was made the moderator of the group. However, these attempts were clandestine in nature and there were no open discussions in the campus of the tech-college.

Opening up

But with the decriminalization of homosexuality by the Delhi High Court, young students are now more confident than ever and talking about sexuality openly and utilizing all available media to reach out en masse. “I chose to write about it in my blog because I could reach out to more people at a go instead of telling them one by one, and also if it was there in black and white, it would prove that it wasn’t just another gossip or rumour, since rumours in my college campus were created every hour,” says Deepak.

Students in other institutes have been using the college newsletter to educate their peers and tell them that gay people exist, and exist everywhere and among them. One such instance that occurred earlier this year was in IIT Madras, where a young gay student wrote an anonymous blogpost titled Standard Deviation in the student run online news site The Fifth Estate telling about his struggle for self-acceptance, how suffocating the closet is, how the jokes cracked by fellow batch mates about gay people affect him, and how ‘uneducated’ even the ‘educated’ folks at IIT are. “Yes, gay people exist in IITM, not to mention in every other educational institution, in every walk of life,” he wrote. Inspired by IIT Madras, the editors of IIT Bombay’s newsletter Insight-The Third Eye asked an alumnus (who was openly gay during his years in the institute) to share his experience. Titled Gay @ IITB: Out and Proud and written under the pseudo name H, the post gave a detailed account of his life, from pre-JEE Days, to the fears of coming out, and finally the support received from all friends on telling them about his orientation. It also talked about a support group Saathi having been formed in the college campus.

It is just not the IITs that have opened up on the matter. Ardhek Akash- the annual magazine of Presidency University (earlier Presidency College), Kolkata- has expanded its horizons from discussing women-centric issues to talking about gender and marginalized groups and now describes itself as an anti-gender discrimination magazine. Explaining why Ardhek Akashdecided to look at gender on a broader scale, Bondona Mondal says, “We know that Sec 377 has been read down, but we don’t think that it has led to any major change in the society. Homosexuality is not restricted to any class, but I think after the repeal of 377, the upper class people are still able to lead the life according to their wish, but the lower class or middle class often doesn’t have the means to do that. A celebrity like Rituparno Ghosh doesn’t have to face the oppression of the society as much as a common woman or man not conforming to the gender norms of the society has to.”Student Initiatives

While starting a dialogue about gender and homosexuality to change perceptions and build a friendly environment, students also realize the importance of support groups for LGBT students still coming to terms with their sexuality. While it may be easier for adults to go out for events or parties, students often have a number of restrictions imposed by the family when it comes to venturing out. For some the venue might be unsuitable, while for others the time. Realising the problems being faced by queer students, a group of four people came up with Queer Campus, a Delhi based independent queer student and youth collective, in 2010. “It is not easy for students to access places, so we try to go to different places where people can come,” tells Rahul K. Sharma, a founding member of the group. “Queer Campus is a safe space where queer people can just talk, share their stories and just be themselves. That space could be anywhere. The meetings would take place every alternate week. Since 2011, more and more people have got into it. It is not just limited to college people. It is a collective,” says Gagan Paul, an active member of Queer Campus in Delhi. Consequently, the meetings have been held at Haus Khaz, Lajpat Nagar, Cannaught Place and other places in Delhi; and are attended by people as young as 16 years to as old as 50 years. “It is very compulsory that we have a meeting every alternate week,” emphasizes Gagan.

Saathi- the LGBT support Group of IIT Bombay- also has similar objectives. “The very first thing that Saathi aims to be is a support structure for students who are going through the realization phase or confusion phase, anything related to gender identity or sexuality. It is just a support structure. We by no means are claiming to be a professional counseling group. If we realize someone needs professional help, we immediately advice them to contact a professional counselor,” tells Nivvedan S.

A very remarkable thing about these student initiatives is that they very clearly state themselves to be non-political, away from the politics of sexuality. “Queer Campus is a very personal space and not political. It is a celebratory space where you can just come in, share stories and develop friendships,” says Rahul.

Events and Awareness Campaigns

Apart from being a support group for queer students, these groups also realize that if things need to change in the society, society at large has to be educated on matters relating to alternate sexuality. “Our secondary aim is to build a positive environment and sensitize the student community. People should not be very afraid to come out. They should be more confident. They never talk… the silence is the problem and with Saathi we aim to get them talking,” says Nivvedan. It was with this aim that Saathi addressed freshers during the induction program at IIT Bombay. Apart from an introduction about Saathi, the address also clarified that homosexuality is nothing unnatural. The impact of the address can be gauged when Nivvedan tells, “Some of the freshmen posted in our mailing list saying ‘Thank you so much you have helped me. Just knowing that I am not alone and there are a lot of people around to help me is emotionally very reassuring.’”

Ardhek Akash also tries to engage the students of Presidency through regular talk shows. The group invited Rituparno Ghosh and other actors of the movie Aarekti Premer Golpo, which was an acclaimed Bengali movie about a jatra artist and dealt with same-sex love. The whole cast and crew, along with Chapal Bhaduri- the jatra artist on whom the movie was based- answered questions fielded by students. Next the group invited noted lawyer Aditya Bondyopadhyay, who has been a key figure in the case involving Sec 377, to talk about his experiences and the misuse of Sec 377. The group has also invited a male-to-female trangender to talk about transgender issues.

Queer Campus too has a similar story to narrate. On one hand the group has held film screenings for LGBTs and organized open mic events like Qspeak and provided a platform to many queer students to highlight their talent; on the other hand they have been trying to reach out to the wider student community as well. Very recently, along with Equal India Alliance, YP Foundation, Must Bol and Naz Foundation, Queer Campus organized an Aam Sabha in St. Stephens, Delhi. “It was basically to tell people that gender discrimination should not be present in colleges,” informs Gagan. “We mainly focus on the youth because they are more open towards talking about stuff. All we need is discussion and sharing and talking, because even if we get negative response, we are there to correct that,” he adds.

Support & Opposition

Be it Saathi, Ardhek Akash or Queer Campus, they enjoy a considerable support of straight people too and have a number of straight persons taking part in their meetings and events. Currently, Saathi has 85 members in its mailing list and it includes many straight supporters. “Saathi is not just a LGBTQ group,” points out Nivvedan. “Anyone in the campus is welcome to join Saathi. You need not be LGBTQ. There are a lot of straight supporters on Saathi and some of them are very passionate and are doing a lot.” “We have different people coming to Queer Campus meetings, including straight supporter and we don’t stop anyone. Difference of opinions is there, but we respect that,” tells Gagan.

College authorities have also been largely supportive of these initiatives. A faculty member of IIT-B is a member of Saathi and when the group first approached the Director, he too was supportive. Talking about the support from the college authorities, Nivvedan says, “Our PRO (Public Relations Officer) was also very supportive and she felt that such a good initiative should be made known to public and that at least other institutes should definitely be inspired by IIT-B. She also felt that it was a good thing to go to the media and that is when media came into the picture.” The Principal of Presidency has also been enthusiastic about Ardhek Akash’s activities. “When we decided to call Rituparno Ghosh and the cast of Aarekti Premer Golpo, the Prinicipal himself was very enthusiastic,” says Bondona. “We focus on private issues mainly present in the queer issues. All we do is meet, and I don’t think anyone can oppose that. Colleges have been supportive,” tells Gagan.

But if there has been support, there has been opposition as well, though from a small number of individuals. “It is undeniable. There are people who are definitely opposing, but they are very less in number,” says Nivvedan, “a handful who have been posting hate comments on Facebook, but nothing in real life. That is all that has happened.” Bondona also has a narrates a similar experience: “It would be wrong to say that everyone has the same view point like me or you, or that everyone is ok with it in Presidency.”

Expansion plans

Queer Campus is now moving out of Delhi to other cities as well. Pune has been their first destination and Mumbai and Bangalore are next on their map. Ardhek Akash too is an inter-university magazine and apart from Presidency University, Jadavpur University and Calcutta University are associated with it. However, Saathi intends at remaining a support group for IIT Bombay only.

Breaking the Silence

What most of them do realize is that silence surrounding the matter is the main hurdle. A significant section refrains from taking any sides on the matter and chooses to ignore the whole issue and it is important to get this section to listen to queer issues and views. “A huge portion of the population is not taking any sides, they don’t have any idea and are not well aware. So we intend to get them talking and want to make them realize that it is a big issue. Although it is a minority issue, yet, it is a signifacnt issue,” says Nivvedan.

Even when receiving support from various quarters, they are well-aware of the fact that they may not be able to change the views of every individual. “We may not be able to change the views of everyone, but we are trying to get them to listen to alternate view points,” says Bondona. “Even if we are able to change the mentality of one person by one percent, our job is done,” asserts Gagan.

With India having a large young population, these groups understand that educating the youth, who are more open minded, shall lead to a better and tolerant future and the message they are trying to get across, as Nivevedan says, is: “We aren’t very different from you. We just differ in one thing, then why so much of hatred?”