In 2016, many queer students at Mumbai’s TATA Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) began complaining of harassment on campus. Their issues were then taken up by the newly formed TISS Queer Collective (TISS QC).
A TISS QC member anonymously tells YKA, “We attempted to initiate dialogue with the student body, the committee against sexual harassment, the Gender Amity Committee, and the administration.” And it was this effort which brought much-needed visibility to the group, and the issues of LGBTQ students.
TISS QC is among only a handful of campus queer collectives (QC) in India, groups which provide a safe space for those alienated by heteronormative society. But in a country where queerness is stigmatised and outlawed, it’s no walk in the park to create and sustain a QC.
A lot of groups hoping to form QCs to challenge cis-heteronormative norms may face backlash. This is why, it’s important for QCs to first assess how supportive their school or university is likely to be of the activities, before taking the step. This is one of the first things to keep in mind before forming the group. But post taking this decision, what does one do? YKA spoke to QC members from various colleges to find out.
In 2015, LGBTQ students of IIT Roorkee informally started QAGAAR (Queer And Gender Advancement Alliance Roorkee). According to Allen*, a former member, red-tape and reluctant authorities stifled the effort. But in the end, he says, “Those of us who were invested in this were leaving, and everything fell off.”
Queerosity suffered a similar fate in Lady Shri Ram. Clearly, the logical first step is often the hardest, but there are also other issues that make it so.
YKA spoke to Samyukta Ramnath, a member of Anchor, which was formed in BITS Pilani about eight years ago. “As a queer student, I had no way of reaching out to my peers without coming out myself. I had to rely on discreet ways of reaching out – creating an anonymous email ID, putting up posters early in the morning, and such.”
But the need for ‘community’ is a huge driving force. And as with Anchor, it’s what led Jawaharlal Nehru University students to form Dhanak in 2013.
“A lot of us were going through bad experiences,” says founding member Ankush Gupta. “We started with wanting to just have a space to ‘be’, and connect with people.” And till date, Dhanak hosts informal weekend get-togethers, away from prying eyes.
Without risking the safety of those still in the closet, queer visibility is crucial. To achieve this in BITS Pilani, Ramnath says that Anchor raises awareness through posters, emails, and even surveys.
In JNU students took the bold step of “queering” the campus with rainbow colours. “It makes the campus look more queer-friendly,” says Dhanak member Sahil Joon. “And it provides a feeling of security to a queer person like me.”
Of course, there was a time before rainbows. Akshay Choudhary, another member of Dhanak, recalls the group’s first public meeting: “It was an emotional roller coaster ride as older students like Ankush Gupta shared their experiences and struggles.”
Students need a better understanding of LGBTQ lives and experiences. Which is why Dhanak holds poetry recitals, film screenings, poster-making activities, and Queer Open Mic. They even conducted admission assistance so new JNU students were aware of the group.
Similarly, as of this year, TISS QC has been organising public events. Says the anonymous QC member, “In January, we had a panel on the experiences of Trans people, and our most recent event was a discussion on asexuality.”
All of this helps dispel fear and misconception, and also leads to…
Cisgender-heterosexual people may never look beyond their privilege, but it’s important that they do. Just ask Siddharth Sinha, a student at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University (JU).
“If you have friends who are queer, you have to understand that their experiences may not be similar to yours,” he says. “There is a certain amount of discrimination that you will not face as a ‘standard’, heteronormative person.”
JU currently does not have a QC, but Sinha believes having one will create a more gender sensitive campus. Creating support is incredibly important, and can come from unlikely places too.
“We were surprised to hear that our then Chief Warden did not have any problems with the posters Anchor was putting up,” says Ramnath. “And our campus newsletter ran a story on queer issues.”
Over in JNU, Choudhary says shopkeepers on campus also pitched in with funds for the Rainbow Walk in 2015.
There was, however, another side to this, which fellow Dhanak member Subhajit Sikder shares: “Once someone from ABVP came up to us and said they support us because we are ‘Hindu Gays’. They had their own agenda.” And, according to Ankush Gupta, the Left parties too presented a challenge: “They claimed to be our natural allies, but were constantly treating us like ‘others’. It was a token approach, as if there were no queer people within their party.”
Counselling services, and gender and sexuality sensitisation – these are two things every QC wants in place, but that’s easier said than done.
“We occasionally get mails from distressed individuals,” says Ramnath. “We give them material, put them in touch with trustworthy counsellors, or just lend an ear to their troubles.”
Dhanak once held a small sensitisation programme, but has since been talking to the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment for help in reaching the roughly 8,000 students on campus.
There are also larger socio-political concerns that QCs can address. Though QAGAAR never took off, Allen* says it ought to have “critically examined caste and class within queer communities.”
Despite various setbacks, each of these groups has fought hard to claim space. And while TISS, JNU, BITS Pilani and a few others have worked hard to make their campuses more inclusive, it’s time schools and colleges across the country followed suit, with enthusiastic participation from students, staff and administration.
“Do not give in to power, constantly contest it,” says Sikder. It’s an idea that lies at the very heart of queer politics. And the very presence of QCs on campus is a way of doing that.
As Ramnath reminds us: “It is very important not to let the group fade away once some of the members graduate.” And this might well be the most important step of all.