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A Step-By-Step Guide On Starting A Queer Collective In Your School Or College

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CREAEditor's Note: With #QueerWithoutFear, Youth Ki Awaaz and CREA have joined hands to advocate for safer and more inclusive campuses for LGBTQ+ students and break the silence around the discrimination faced by students who identify as queer. If your college or school has an LGBTQ+ support group, a campus queer collective, or an initiative that’s pushing for a safer campus, share your story!

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.

Step 1: Coming Together

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.”

Initiative by QAGAAR, IIT Roorkee’s LGBT+ support group

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.

Step 2: Making Your Presence Felt

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.”

Anchor, BITS Pilani’s queer collective takes up many initiatives to raise awareness about gender and sexuality on campus

Step 3: Reaching Out To All Students

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.”

TISS Queer Collective has set up many posters around campus to make it more inclusive of LGBT+ students

All of this helps dispel fear and misconception, and also leads to…

Step 4: Building Allies

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.

Dhanak, JNU’s queer collective, hosts many initiatives to support the queer community

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.”

Step 5: Creating Space To Discuss Problems

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.

*name changed.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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