In April 2018, a teenage student from a reputed girls’ school in Gopalapuram Chennai typed out a long answer to a question on ‘the first crush you’ve had’ on a social media site. Just that in this case, her first crush happened to be a girl classmate. Soon, a couple of other girls from her class had taken a screenshot and started circulating it. The girls were teased, ridiculed, and labelled. Worse, several teachers of the school got to know about the post and allegedly censured and verbally abused the girl, even calling her a prostitute.
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The situation was aggravated when news reached the principal. Not just the student herself, but several others from the same class allege that the principal actually asked her to ‘go kill herself.’ Incidentally, that is exactly what her best friend, the other girl who had been named in the post, did. She had reportedly been severely depressed since the time that the two of them started being bullied and maligned over that one social media post, and in the most tragic turn in this entire chain of events, she committed suicide.
This never hit the headlines. But then, neither did all those instances of homophobia and blatant discrimination against young ‘queer’ students that have been shared with a young researcher from Mumbai, exploring the kind of treatment and responses faced by students with alternative sexual orientation in Indian high schools.
LGBT, LGBTQ+, rainbow community, queer pride parades — even a decade and a half back these were terms that were rarely ever discussed or deliberated upon publicly in the Indian context. Today these may have found greater acceptance in drawing room conversations of the urban elite, and we have more media attention on issues concerning the rights of the LGBT community. But little has changed in terms of social attitude and acceptance in immediate circles of youth who ‘come out’.
Sukhnidh Kaur, a third year student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, studying Psychology and Economics, conducted a survey asking such students to share their experiences in school. And the 180 responses she has received till date paint a stark, grotesque picture of the harassment meted out to many young students who, either consciously or otherwise, display traits of alternative sexuality.
Stirred by various reports — from a 15-year-old in Tiruchirapally driven to suicide by the constant bullying of peers for being ‘feminine’ to that of 10 Kolkata girls forced to ‘confess’ to their homosexuality — Sukhnidh decided to focus the spotlight on schools, which play a huge role in shaping social norms and attitudes of future generations.
“Homophobia in Indian schools and the complicity of school authorities is a largely unaddressed problem. We forget that young school students who are in the process of figuring out and settling into their individual identities and orientations require support. Discrimination and abuse within schools is overlooked because the victims are young, queer people. These students suffer silently, and there is a pressing need to bring this issue to light,” says Sukhnidh.
Her alarming findings only corroborate that need. From Chennai to Lucknow, from Kolkata to Jaipur – the trends are eerily similar. These are students at a very tender age who, as Sukhnidh points out, are only in the process of discovering themselves and their sexuality. In more than one response, it has come to light that they are often pulled up merely on suspicion, triggered by their body language and mannerisms that are seen as non-conforming to traditional gender stereotypes.
A boy from New Delhi writes, “[Teachers] would constantly nag me about my hairstyle, how it made me look very feminine, and that it almost made them wonder if I were ‘the unspeakable’ ”.
A similar experience is shared by a student of a renowned boys’ school in Bengaluru, who says that he has been ‘screamed at’ on multiple occasions by his teachers for effeminate body language and mannerisms. At the other end, a girl student who has not divulged the name of her school, writes, “They think all short haired people are lesbians. My principal acts against every tomboy who has got a short haircut.”
In many cases, even taking up the cause of people from the LGBTQ+ community has invited the disapproval or wrath of authorities. One of the respondents in Sukhnidh’s research is from small town Kharagpur in West Bengal, who had written a short story about a lesbian couple and a poem for transgender people. “I was very close to one of my old teachers, so I texted her about it. She told me that she used to think I was a good girl, but after reading my work, she was shocked to see me writing about such ‘rubbish’,” she reveals.
In yet another case in Jaipur, a student was questioned for making a poster on the LGBTQ+ community. She eventually had to give up the post of prefect in order to take a stand.
Then there are many instances where teachers have been known to publicly declare homosexuality as a disease, brought on by the spread of the Internet and in need of a ‘cure’.
The stories are many and varied, as are the geographies. But the common thread binding them together is the deep prejudice and discriminatory attitudes that continue to prevail in these institutions. And yet, such homophobia is not something that surprises many who have actually been working with the LGBT community.
“Schools are after all represented by individuals who belong to society at large, and I see such homophobic attitudes more as an expression of the lack of awareness about sexuality. Most people are yet to come to terms with the fact that gender and sexuality are no longer governed by the ages-old binary that has been considered to be ‘normal’ and this lack of understanding leads to the discrimination,” says renowned LGBT activist Harish Iyer.
“It’s somewhat like snakes you know…people shrink from them in fear. Not all snakes are poisonous, neither are they out to harm you and yet the perception is such,” he adds.
The need for sex education
While schools may not be the centre of focus in the discourse around rights of LGBTQ+ people, it is not difficult to imagine the kind of treatment that students identifying with the community receive, especially given the historical attitude that Indian schools have displayed in relation to anything to do with ‘sex’. In schools, as in society at large, sexual awareness and education among youth is not just avoided, but often actively discouraged.
In 2007, the government at the Centre, in association with the NACO, NCERT and UN agencies, announced the launch of the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) in all secondary and higher secondary schools. Materials of the AEP included a Teachers’ Workbook, Reference Material, Facilitators’ Handbook and a Flip Chart.
However, thirteen Indian states called for an immediate ban as they felt that the explicit content designed to impart comprehensive sexuality education under the AEP went against Indian culture and morality. Where normal sexual relationships are considered ‘immoral’ and homosexuality a disease, the findings of the above research are hardly surprising or unexpected.
In the wake of several shocking instances of child sexual abuse in schools, many have devised programmes to educate children so that they are able to protect themselves and raise an alarm. Yet, most of these programmes or instruction have not gone beyond exploring the premises of good touch and bad touch and other accepted binaries, rarely trying to impart a comprehensive understanding of issues pertaining to gender and sexuality.
In fact, the abuse of male children itself tends to go largely unrecognised and unreported thanks to social conditioning, as elaborated in this recent report, among many others.
“We need to educate people. Educate the youth, educate authorities, educate whoever we can reach out to, because homophobia is often a product of ignorance. We also need to create formalized support and resource groups for LGBTQ+ Indians. We need sex education, social awareness workshops, redefined curricula. We need healthy media representation. We need to make sure that this generation and the next understand queerness, and how normal it is,” says Sukhnidh.
Iyer independently talks of the same. Speaking of schools in particular, he recommends making it a mandatory inclusion in every teachers’ training programme, for any level. “In fact,” he says, “it is important to include programmes on sexuality and gender at every level. Make it a part of continuing education for everyone — whether in the Humanities or Sciences or Engineering, or merely as part of Life Skills, but ensure that there is repeated hammering of issues and realities across years of study. Only then will society slowly rise above the deep-rooted notions of heteronormativity (the belief that heterosexuality is the normal orientation or the only norm, and that sexual and marital relations are only fitting between people of opposite sex).”
He also proposes that deliberate ‘misgendering’, discrimination and bullying of LGBT students be brought under the existing anti-ragging laws that exist in the country.
Sukhnidh, meanwhile, is currently in the process of compiling all the responses that she has received, to present it as an academic paper in the final year of college. Beyond that, however, she hopes that her findings will serve as a springboard for generation of greater awareness around issues of sexual minorities and inclusion.