For a young and confused queer student in an educational institution as vast and daunting as Delhi University, actual LGBTQ visibility can go a long way in helping deal with one’s identity. But when that comes from a professor or an educator, it can be even more powerful.
Professor Tarun Sharma*, a 28-year-old professor of Literature, has been teaching in various DU colleges for almost six years now, and, being gay himself, has often tried to engage in meaningful conversations about LGBTQ rights, both with his own students and the colleges as a whole. “There is a kind of silence that prevails on LGBTQ issues even in the most liberal colleges,” he says. “They keep on talking about gender, but without ever having any sense of its intersectionalities; of how gender is an immensely broad concept which includes sexuality too.”
And indeed, Delhi University boasts of a number of feminist women’s colleges, but their understanding of feminism remains pretty narrow, and continues to focus only on cisgender, heterosexual women. “The notion that prevails is that these are not majority issues,” says Prof. Sharma, “That LGBTQ issues are niche issues, because there aren’t many gay or lesbian students on campus.” But the reality is far from that. Queer students exist, face difficulties, and are often forced to remain in the closet because of the college’s environment. “There is a lot of discrimination,” says Nisha, a lesbian history student from a woman’s college in DU, “Though nobody will say anything hateful to your face, you will be subtly excluded from academic opportunities and co-curricular college activities, and your voice will remain unheard.”
And that is precisely why we need the spreading of awareness from one of the most important mediums – teachers. Classroom discussions, seminars, talks, movie screenings (and so on) addressing LGBTQ rights can be immensely helpful, and Prof. Sharma’s efforts in trying to do that prove why. In his second year of teaching at a celebrated liberal arts college, Sharma had put together a panel talking about LGBTQ identities and its representations in mass media. It consisted of not just student paper presentations, but also prominent queer activist speakers like Vikramaditya Sahay and Akhil Katyal. And needless to say, it received an overwhelming response from students. “After that panel, a lot of students from various batches came up to me and told me how something like that had been a first on campus, and had changed a lot for them,” he says, “one of them said, ‘you made being gay in college normal, and okay, and non-eventful’, and that’s the best compliment I have ever received. Many students also came out of the closet soon after.”
I was one of those students too, and even though I may not have come out officially, I remember just how much Sharma had helped make queerness a part of our everyday conversations, and had paved the way for my exploration of sexuality. I was taught by him at a time when section 377 had just been brought back, and in each and every class he brought up that issue, I got a lot of courage. The impact was felt by others too, for whom he almost became a beacon of hope. “Prof. Sharma, both through his teaching and his friendship, taught me to value defiance,” says Devika*, a former student of his who also aspires to pursue a career in academia. “His classroom – just like conversations with him – was always kind in a way that I can only hope to bring to my teaching or activism someday. As someone who had only begun to identify as queer then, it meant a lot that he was there.”
However, while Prof. Sharma has succeeded in fostering these conversations with students through classes and seminars, it has not proven an easy task for him – because of the institutional resistance. “Colleges have a way of legitimising their silent homophobia,” he says, “and they are able to do so because of Section 377. The moment a teacher tries to bring up these issues in college they are branded LGBTQ, and that can jeopardise their careers, put them into trouble with the administration and have a whole host of repercussions.”
In Delhi University, the status of ad-hoc professors like him is itself temporary and contractual. They are hired semester-wise and their jobs are always in flux, and hence, being outspoken about issues in such situations can prove dangerous indeed. “I know of colleagues in several DU colleges who are gay but are still in the closet,” says Prof. Sharma, “Even the people who have permanent teaching jobs and don’t have much to lose in that respect, are unable to publicly claim their sexuality due to fear of social censure.”
In Prof. Sharma’s experience, the older, more established teachers are often afraid to disturb the status quo in raising these issues, which is ironic, because they are the ones actually in a position to do so since their jobs are secure. And hence, those like Sharma have a heavy burden to carry. “The irony is that on the one hand, we are helping our students by trying to educate them more and more about queer issues, but on the other hand, it’s not getting any easier for teachers like us. With our colleagues and the administrations we are a part of, there is a lot of resistance.”
Though Sharma thinks that bringing reform at the administrative level is difficult in a government university like DU as long as Section 377 is in place, he is determined to continue to help his students, and thinks that teachers integrating these issues into their daily lessons is a great way of shedding the taboos around the subject. “It’s an uphill task for sure,” he says, “but it’s a battle worth fighting, despite the risks.”
*names changed on request.