Why do we need LGBT support groups in educational institutions?
In an anonymous letter published in The 5th Estate, a student from IIT Madras recounting his tale writes:
“Homosexuality in college is purely an outlet of comic relief. You call someone gay, you say you’ll be ‘cool’ with it, because you’re oh-so-progressive, and you tease him with another guy (In fact homosexuality has become indispensable in today’s interaction sessions)…”
On a similar note, another student from IIT – Bombay, under the pseudonym of ‘H’ ruminating on his difficulties during the initial days in the institute writes:
“And so I chose the path of aloofness. Under the pretence of being a muggu, and having no desire for human company, I sought refuge in the Institute library all through my fresher year, scrupulously avoiding nearly all social contact.”
As an IIT Delhi alumnus, Balachandran Ramiah, Mechanical Enginnering, B.Tech., class of 1982, recalls his difficulties of being closeted, and the unavailability of a peer group in the following words:
“It was true, however, that I used to feel extremely isolated and lonely, as I could not relate to the other boys’ interest in girls, their small talk, and I could not share my feelings with anybody. I was also not aware of any other gay student on campus, or in my class (I am sure that they were there, but everybody was in the closet and hiding)…”
(Fortunately, today IIT – M has Mitr, IIT – B has Saathi, and IIT – D has Indradhanu, the LGBT support groups and counselling cells, which ensure that such stories are not repeated, and students, irrespective of their sexual orientation, enjoy their stay on the campus.)
I am sure that these personal narratives can put anybody under emotional stress, and make any sensible person put on his thinking cap. So, what do we see here? Have we deliberately chosen to close our eyes towards educational institutions, when it comes to one of the most important aspect of our lives – our sexuality? Why is it a big deal to talk about sexuality in educational institutions? Now, I can almost hear some people grumbling, “Why at all should we talk about it?”
‘Don’t these narratives answer the question well?’
So, with these narratives from some of the premier institutes of India, (I am sure this is just a tip of the iceberg) can I take the liberty to say that the alternative sexuality community in educational institutions are stigmatised?
What is stigma?
Stigma, as we understand, can be loosely categorised under the following headings – prejudice, stereotype, and discrimination. Our films are replete with examples of homosexual stereotypes, e.g., portrayal of gay men as sissy designers, and lesbians as butch psycho killers. People who are prejudiced endorse negative stereotypes. Similarly, discrimination is negative actions against a certain stereotyped individual or group, which can make a troublesome impact on them, limiting the quality of life and opportunities for those who are open and out, about their alternative sexuality status.
Strategies for changing public stigma on campus:
There is no gainsaying the fact that there is no hard and fast, magic-wand method to make the public stigma disappear, either through a legal framework, or by public policy. Since the problem pertains more to society, the strategies of dealing with public stigma have to be more social in nature. Public stigma can be encountered by three major strategies: protest, education, and contact.
Any discrimination against any individual belonging to the LGBT community should be brought to the attention of the support group/counselling cell. Healthy protests can happen at two different levels; firstly, by economic boycott, and secondly, by putting the perpetrator (can range from an individual to a system) to shame through nonviolent protest.
Case in point is the petition against the reinstatement of Act 377 of the IPC by the Supreme Court from the teachers, students, and staff of the different IITs. A simple candle march or a public meeting with placards in solidarity with the stigmatised individual or group can certainly make a difference.
But, protesting has its own problems. There are possibilities of attitude rebound, whereby, people can often be seen saying, ‘don’t tell me what I should do, and what I should not’. Thus, protests may help in diminishing the negative attitude amongst the people, but fail to instill positive attitudes supported by facts and information. So, it is not just about protests, but also disseminating information amongst the masses as well as educating them on the LGBT issues, as these are equally important.
The biggest task that education, which may not necessarily be formal education performs is that it replaces myths with facts. There are myths galore associated with homosexuality (it is a disease and is not natural), which should be replaced by facts (it is natural, and not a disease, courtesy – American Psychiatric Association, which dropped homosexuality from the list of mental diseases in the DSM).
On a larger scale, it has been seen that people who attend small educating sessions on issues like homosexuality are less likely to endorse stigma and discrimination. In educational institutions, short-term/semester-long courses on gender and sexuality should be offered. This will offer students a scope for discussing and debating the LGBT issues in a formal, academic set up. However, on a smaller scale and informal level, screening of queer themed movies, inviting academicians and activists for talks, distributing flyers, encouraging people to write and publish on queer issues in the institute’s magazine and newsletter, will help in dispelling myths, and in widening the world view of the people on the campus.
However, the magnitude and the duration of the positive effect of education are limited and short-lived. Sometimes, it is also related to the prior knowledge of the person as well as his or her preparedness to receive the disseminated knowledge.
The third and, probably, the most effective way to diminish the stigma of the general public is to facilitate the interaction between the members of the stigmatised group and the general public.
Celebrities coming out (unfortunately, iconic figures with possibly homosexual orientation in India, prefer not to openly declare it either), casts its own positive effect on the people. However, if somebody ‘just like me’ comes out to the public as a homosexual, it casts a larger as well as a deeper impact on both the closeted as well as the heterosexual students. Significant improvement in the attitude of the people can be seen by the actions of somebody in the neighbourhood they can relate to, and the students are less likely to endorse prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes towards the LGBT community.
Contact requires immense courage to come out, which also has its own setbacks in the educational institutes that pertain more to the heteronormative mind-sets and act in a homophobic fashion. One has to be very particular about one’s safety, financial independence, availability of a support system, and support from the family before deciding to come out. (Though not a fool proof coming-out guide, this may still help those in need.)
All of us, irrespective of our gender and sexuality, certainly deserve a healthy, stress free, and non-discriminatory educational environment, where our budding talents can come to fruition naturally. One has all the right to seek access to a safe space, where one can just be oneself without actually having to pretend to be someone else.