Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
Becoming comfortable with your identity as an LGBTQ person isn’t always easy. And in India, where guilt, shame and secrecy surround any mention of sexuality, it can be especially difficult. Today, I say I’m comfortable in my queerness, but to get here, I had to wade through years of low confidence, self-doubt, and anxieties about not ‘fitting in’.
It was in school that I first became aware of the cisgender-heterosexual matrix. It started with the baffling experience of a classmate teasing me about a boy. I began to learn the unspoken rules of my teenage life courtesy of my peers:
1. If you’re a girl you’re supposed to like boys, and even when you deny it – especially when you deny it! – it has to be true.
2. If you’re thirteen and still haven’t started dating a person of the opposite sex, you’re a loser. Your personal development – nay, your reputation – depended on it.
3. You can’t date somebody and not have sex. And if you don’t, at least lie about it so people don’t think you’re ‘uncool.’ (Because uninformed teenagers getting peer-pressured into sex is so much win. Not.)
Allowing myself to be different wasn’t in the playbook, and the trade off for fitting in was denying my queerness. Now, I could wax eloquent about how our differences make us who we are, but that’s about as useful as those inspirational quotes during morning assembly. What I could’ve really used back then (and what a lot of queer kids still require even today) was for my school, my teachers, and my peers to care a little more, to take actual measures to be inclusive of LGBTQ people. How? Well, here’s a few suggestions from Yours Queerly:
Our earliest interactions with literature contain so many gender stereotypes about moms in kitchens and dads building things and little girls with long hair, and boys playing only sports. Even our word problems in math are delivered using the gender binary. But gender isn’t a binary, so it’s time our textbooks reflected that. Seize the opportunity in English grammar classes to teach us about the singular ‘they’ and respecting people’s pronouns. Include novels and essays about non-normative identities as part of our syllabi. Talk about the LGBTQ movement and its prominent figures in History and Political Science classes. Maybe even consider adding a Gender Education course for students in Senior Secondary.
Many of us are sexually active in our early teens. And that’s perfectly healthy. But even though we like to think we’re Masters of Sex, we know diddly-squat. Teach us about our bodies, teach us about consent, teach us about contraception, and about the power politics in sex. Teach us about homosexuality, and trans identities. Teach us about asexuality, and how not having sex is also normal. Give us the knowledge we need to stay safe, and do not shame us with morality, or religion, or just prudishness in general. And please let go of the idea that we will turn the bio lab into a BDSM sex dungeon just because we know what condoms look like now.
While the first two measures are going to exponentially increase awareness and sensitivity among our peer groups, LGBTQ students still carry the weight of being an underrepresented and marginalised social group. I mean, even the law thinks of us as criminals. And how social stigma affects the mental health of queer kids desperately needs attention. I can’t speak for all schools, but mine had a counsellor I wouldn’t dare approach about anything, leave alone questions about my identity. So when you’re hiring for the position, make sure they’re up to speed with queer politics, and openly identify as an ally to the movement. And if you already have a counsellor, make sure they undergo training that equips them to help us out.
‘Fag,’ ‘chhakka,’ ‘bhenchod,’ ‘sissy,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘prude,’ ‘slut,’ ‘gay’ – you may think your child or your students are angels sent from heaven, but school kids live on a staple of these words every day, and some of them take a lot of pride in being able to foul-mouth somebody who looks or behaves ‘differently’ than they do. This is extremely damaging for gender and sexual minority students. I’m not saying clamp down on the words that kids use (this is guaranteed to make them do it more aggressively behind authority’s back). Instead, walk them through the history of these words, what they mean, and what harm they do. Give them the knowledge to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in an inclusive environment, or indirectly contribute towards violence against their own LGBTQ classmates. Help students realise how their actions affect others.
Tagore International, Vasant Vihar is the only school in Delhi that has one of these – called Breaking Barriers – and they are all the better for it. Having a Gender and Sexual Minorities group in every campus across India isn’t just symbolic of a willingness to be inclusive, it also helps implement the four suggestions mentioned above. You will actually have a body that works out the logistics of it all, and can even work on collaborative projects with similar bodies and students in other campuses. Networking, folks! Let’s get networking!
India is a country with the highest number of youth population in the world, so ‘starting with the kids’ is an important strategy in instituting social change on a large scale. In the past, we’ve used this line of thinking for how youth will affect the economy, politics and the environment. It’s high time we approached LGBTQ inclusion the same way.
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse, do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.