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Gay Is Not A Dirty Word: What The Amendment Of Section 377 Means For Young India

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?

Image Source: Reuters

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.

Members of IIT Bombay’s LGBTQ collective, Saathi.

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.

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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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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