Homophobia in India was never just a legal issue. It has always been a social problem, one that needs to be tackled as such. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, however, played a crucial role in furthering this social problem and shaping public perception about the community, and we need to talk about how its amendment affects young India. The section in our penal code was introduced (in 1861) and reinstated (in 2013) because homosexuality was seen as a sexual and social deviance that necessarily needed to be controlled by the State. Its existence in itself, however, sanctioned further discrimination. In this way, Section 377 became a catalyst in a vicious cycle of oppression. On September 6, 2018, the landmark judgement to amend it was passed, and this cycle was broken.
We often talk about how this means that two consenting adults of the same sex can now legally retain their privacy, dignity, and make love, but what are the implications of this amendment on young Indian students who are going to grow up in a freer India? Why does it matter, and how do we leverage this judgement and help students lead better lives?
In the summer of 2018, a 15-year-old student from Kerala committed suicide because of mental health issues arising from being bullied by peers for being ‘effeminate’. These are two stories that made it to national news, but as far as the history of marginalised communities goes, too many narratives remain untold. Within the next few months, in an attempt to create a platform for these narratives, I reached out to over 200 young students across the country to discuss instances of homophobia that they and their peers have faced at the hands of school authorities such as teachers, principals, and administrative staff.The resulting stories were not quite what you’d imagine–they were far worse. From students who lost their friends to suicide, to those who attempted the same (and were egged on by teachers), to those who were taken off student council positions for ‘looking’ and ‘acting’ queer, to those who had their privacy violated by teachers taking and sharing pictures of them engaged in ‘homosexual acts’ without consent, to those who were name-called, bullied, harassed, and mistreated by teachers–the problem runs far deeper than previously thought. Every ‘blue-blooded’ school, every chain with branches spread out over the country, every prestigious institution that we aspire to send our children to is plagued with an invisible disease–blatant, unrecognised homophobia, which has long been accepted as usual and commonplace. The existing power dynamic here is an important aspect in the institutionalisation of systemic homophobia in our educational institutions. Students fear negative retaliation from schools that may compromise their grades and future prospects, so they find it impossible to talk about their experiences. Several teachers and other authorities, hence, find it easy to engage in homophobia, given a convenient lack of accountability, and these students then suffer at their hands.
Let’s look at a breakdown of how homophobia affects young students. Active homophobia by school authorities can be practiced in several ways, and it can be classified into six types, namely attempting to influencing students’ beliefs and opinions, denying resources and opportunities, threatening to take action, suspension and rustication, verbal abuse, bullying, and violating students’ privacy. In other words, it is the active condemnation of students for overt displays of behavior that doesn’t conform to widely accepted standards of gender and sexuality, passing offensive remarks, and discriminating against students.The problem, however, does not end here. Indian schools seem to be plagued with passive homophobia as well, which is inaction preceded by being witness to homophobic behavior in the school or receiving complaints by students about the same. It was found that teachers skip chapters and topics that address homosexuality, that they refuse to take action against students who bully queer students, and completely neglect the struggles of LGBTQ+ students. As a result, passive homophobia reinforces the idea that “Gay” is a dirty word, and that it is not meant for students.
The Section 377 amendment is hopefully going to tackle this problem and open up the conversation about LGBTQ+ rights, and the socio-political issues surrounding the community and identification within it. As we get our rights, a nation is made aware of the need for acknowledgement, dignity, and legal protection of a marginalised community that makes up a considerable chunk of India’s population. The struggle for LGBTQ+ rights is now bound to the nation’s history, and it is going to become increasingly difficult to avoid a long overdue conversation within the walls of the classrooms. LGBTQ+ related social issues are as real, and as prevalent, as issues of environment, caste, class, and gender–and the time has come for us to be cognizant of the same. The opening up of this conversation will also shed new light on the community. Instead of demonising a group of people, teachers and students will be encouraged to try and understand their predicaments, the hardships of navigating the social atmosphere in a country that invalidates its existence, and the intersections of LGBTQ+ identities with socio-economic statuses like the caste hierarchy, gender roles, and so on. Indian academia will also be compelled to recognize LGBTQ+ lives as worthy of dignity and protection, now that legal cognizance has been granted.
Educational institutions, and experiences within them, are crucial to an individual’s socialisation and to the molding of their thoughts, opinions, ideas, and beliefs. This verdict and its implications for the classroom mean that we may see a future generation of people who are more sensitive to the experiences of the Indian LGBTQ+ community, more aware of how normal it is to be non-heterosexual and non-cisgender, and more accepting of how sexual, romantic, and gender fluidity are nothing but a beautiful part of life that far more people experience than previously acknowledged. LGBTQ+ students, too, will find greater acceptance and healthier self-perceptions as they will have the vocabulary to understand their feelings and emotions, and resources to deal with the process of settling into their identities.
Gay is not a dirty word, and it is imperative that this is understood to ensure acceptance is ingrained into society, We still have work to do in our schools, for our queer students–a lot of it. We need more Gay-Straight Alliances, LGBTQ+ friendly mental health counsellors, the introduction of LGBTQ+ specific social sensitivity syllabi, workshops on gender and sexuality for students and those on dealing with queer issues in a sensitive manner for teachers, and, at the very root of it all, a shift in the existing status quo that has caused the suffering and mistreatment of Indian LGBTQ+ students for decades. What is worth celebrating in this moment, however, is that this month, we took an exciting first step, and it is only onwards and upwards from here. With fingers crossed, I believe that the condition of LGBTQ+ students in urban Indian campuses will only be bettered in the coming years.