Can IITians Talk About Gender and Sexuality? You Bet!

Posted by Orenda Club in Campus Watch, Gender & Sexuality
August 30, 2017

To talk about gender and sexuality in a technical institute is quite hard. You may wonder why. There is a huge misconception that such matters purely belong to the domain of humanities and the social sciences, things ‘artsy’ types deal with.

To an extent, there is some merit in this argument. Sadly, important matters of gender, sexuality and sex are relegated to academic engagements by the humanities and social sciences because this forms their subject matter.

The engagement happens through various ways: a political scientist will approach it differently from a literature student. But the fact remains that engagement happens because it is part of the subject matter. Yet, these topics are universal, aren’t they? Isn’t the idea of gender and sexuality shared by us all? All of us are defined by them, question them often, and sometimes take them for granted. How, then, can such topics become a matter of just academic deliberation?

The problem is that it is more a matter of how much we think of these issues consciously in our daily lives. We may not think of them but we are unconsciously acting them out, performing it daily in our clothes, in our ways of talking, behaving and even in the ways we crack jokes. Everything has the shade of what we have been taught as gender and sexuality. We just don’t think of it enough. The question then is should we?

IITs are spaces where students are turned into thinkers and specialists. But the latter often takes over the former in spaces where we are hell-bent on becoming masters of our fields. This is true even of the humanities, where abstraction takes over and one loses sight of ground realities. What makes spaces like IITs immune to such discussions are the lack of spaces and the inaccessible vocabulary involved in talking seriously about such issues.

If I say the words ‘privilege’, ‘oppression’, they might seem alien to many of us because we haven’t encountered them in our subjects of study, and following a domino effect, we never encountered them in our peer groups or our classrooms. But these words do exist. They are important and all of us go through their implications. But can the lack of vocabulary stop us from engaging in these discussions?

Students who are part of Orenda (Image Credit: Orenda: Gender and Sexuality Club, IIT Gandhinagar/ Facebook)

This is where IIT-Gandhinagar’s Orenda is striving to change things a bit. If gender and sexuality are concepts that are common to all of us, how is it that one human being from mechanical engineering can never convey what they feel to someone from chemical engineering or literature? How come our subjects have become bigger than us? Orenda feels we have made this an obstacle when it can become the link. It could actually be a connective tissue.

In light of this, we did a small exercise called “Found in Translation” for finding words which are used differently in different subjects (and when we say different, we mean very different) but somehow we know them and can use them to understand each other. Rahul Upadhyay, a member of Orenda, wrote this small piece to exemplify this amazing connection we have not even realised exists:

“The word ‘spectrum’ in civil engineering (particularly earthquake engineering) means a graph of earthquake responses (ie displacement, velocity or acceleration) versus frequency. So this spectrum (the graph) contains all the values of responses, from the least to the highest. So for a given value of frequency, the response of the structure can be determined.”

Now a chemistry kid will think of spectrum as “wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (or a portion thereof) that is emitted or absorbed by an object or substance, atom, or molecule” or a physics kid will talk about that white light and the prism. But the word spectrum does not seem to leave us. And guess what? It means so much in the context of gender and sexuality.

In the context of gender and sexuality, spectrum means the inclusion of all types of sexualities. Like in a rainbow, we see all the colours but we can’t demarcate one from the other as the colours are very finely blended with one another.

Similarly, gender and sexuality are not binary – there are a whole lot of different orientations in between extremes. Due to this fluidity of gender, sometimes it becomes difficult to identify a person’s gender. In terms of sexuality, a person may think they are straight, but at some point of time, they may feel attracted towards the same sex.

So, the orientation of a person is never fixed. Also, the gender of a person is defined based on various criteria like biological sex, gender identity, gender expression while sexuality is about who one feels attracted to.

Though the word spectrum is used in different contexts in civil engineering and in gender and sexuality, I believe that the intrinsic and deeper meaning in both the contexts is the same, which is the inclusion of all the variables. Like in civil engineering, spectrum helps to determine the response of a structure. Similarly, the spectrums of gender and sexuality help in identifying the gender and sexuality of a person.

Who said IITians cannot talk about deeper issues which don’t come up in lectures or tutorials? We hope to find more connections like these in the future because we believe that topics like gender and sexuality are everyone’s cup of tea – it is in the physics of everyday life, in the chemistry of our relationships, and way beyond the so-called biology of our bodies.