Back in the 1800s, men resisted women’s suffrage, and not too long after that, white Americans resisted political rights for African Americans. Today, we’re witnessing something similar, as a dominant cisgender-heterosexual culture protests against the burgeoning queer movement all over the world. An argument that has now become popular is that gender and sexual minorities are manipulating social norms to their own advantage, holding everyone at gunpoint with words like “hate-crime” and “discrimination.” What with all their marriage equality, and pride parades, and “crazy ass pronouns,” it’s like the queers are hell bent on ‘world domination.’ Or something.
So when the concept of scholarships for LGBTQ students is floated, you can imagine the kind of criticism that follows.
Last month, the University of Louisville made news with a perfect score on the Campus Pride Index, because of its LGBTQ-oriented programmes and scholarships – including one for students of colour. Several other foundations and non-profits in the USA also award funds to queer students and allies, and it can be anything between $1,000 and $28,000. The rationale behind this is the same as most scholarships awarded to minority or low-income group students. It’s a kind of affirmative action: the state or an organization invests in a student, in the hope that they will use their resources to better their own prospects, and in turn, their community’s too. It is a targeted effort to provide leadership skills, academic resources, and the opportunity to do community service to queer students. And the intended outcome is to move LGBTQ people into various vocations, and wear out the culture of job discrimination that they have always faced.
But these scholarships have also been seen as “special treatment,” “queer appeasement” or just a way to earn “diversity brownie points.” All of this sounds kinda harsh, and you can bet on your mama’s apple pie that it’s coming from some straight devil’s advocate, but is the discomfort with LGBTQ scholarships really all that unfounded?
Like racial and ethnic minorities, women, or persons with disabilities, queer people also face systemic oppression when they are denied their right to privacy, denied admission to certain spaces, and deliberately left out of policies and policy-making. So having certain schemes to include queer people in mainstream society – as India has been doing with its trans population – is a welcome move. But when our identities are compounds of our class, caste, religion, gender, language, occupation and more, it becomes difficult to view “alternate sexualities” as detached from all those things. It’s in that context that scholarships for LGBTQ people based on their LGBTQ identity alone seems misguided, and even pointless in the grander scheme of things.
We are a country where you are more likely to be denied a flat if you’re Muslim than if you’re gay. Because people notice your name first, and your sexual orientation later – or never, if you’re careful. And even though the closet is pretty horrible, it still offers a degree of protection.
This is where the debate tilts towards a “merit-based” system, but of course, this only works with a level-playing field. In stratified societies like ours, merit depends on access to resources, and access depends on class, caste and gender too. Heck, even women are still minorities in several professions! A merit-based system might mean that a gay Brahmin man who can actually pay his way through school is more likely to receive a scholarship than a heterosexual person from a low-income background, and that’s kind of messed up.
Whether or not scholarships should be made available to people based on their sexuality is a difficult question to answer. But what it has done is expose some widely held viewpoints that do seem to be worrying. Even the more progressive pockets of our society will complain and say: “Why do we have to change our behaviour to suit them?” Because assessing and reassessing the role we play in creating an inclusive environment is an inconvenience. Because creating the conditions for equal opportunities is somehow “minority privileges.”
Even if we were to settle on these scholarships as a positive, it isn’t likely they will come to India anytime soon. But in the mean time, putting LGBTQ Resource Centres on campuses is definitely something we can do to move towards queer-inclusive education.