September 6 marks an important day in the history of the LGBTQ rights movement in India. On this day, in 2018, Section 377 was decriminalised by the Supreme Court of India, and the queer community which had long sought this legislation took to the streets and painted the town rainbow. Although significant, this was merely a battle in the larger struggle for equality. The war continues as queer collectives, LGBTQ support groups, and college students across the country rally for safer, more inclusive educational institutions.
In light of the NALSA Judgment (2014) which recognised transgender individuals as equal citizens, the need for policy change in order to ensure the safety of all students on campus has gained traction. The University Grants Commission, in its Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations (2015), identified transgender students as vulnerable to harassment and discrimination in educational institutions.
In January 2018, Delhi University Students Union instituted a Gender Sensitisation Cell to “create a healthy and safe atmosphere in the university for people of all genders, especially women and transgenders.” These are a few of the many policy changes in the last few years, and yet there persists a dearth of administratively sanctioned mechanisms that would effect change on the ground level.
For instance, while most colleges in Delhi University have an elected Women’s Development Cell, they are not explicitly required to cater to concerns of the LGBTQ youth.
“The major problem that a lot of students feel with the WDC is that there is an interview process to get into the cell. How can something such as the WDC be an exclusive organisation?” says an undergraduate student at Hindu College.
“The ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) is trying its best to function, but the problem is that a lot of students are still unaware of it. Moreover, if a strong figure like a professor harasses, it becomes very difficult for the victim to gather the courage to even approach these bodies.”
In the absence of autonomous organisations exclusively for the protection of LGBTQ students in Hindu College, the WDC and the ICC are the only platforms available to those seeking redressal for discrimination or harassment.
In some colleges, WDCs have taken the initiative to include within them and formalise preexisting Queer Collective groups. The Queer Collective of Indraprastha College for Women was initially a support group that aimed to bring together queer and queer-friendly students and to raise awareness amongst the student body about gender and sexuality.
As of last year, it is an official part of the WDC and is currently in the developmental stage. While the administration has been largely supportive and inclusive in the past, Laxita, the current President of the cell, believes there exists prejudice against the LGBTQ community on different levels.
Informal student groups have gained prominence in Delhi University too. Nazariya, which was originally intended to be an organisation at Kamala Nehru College, broke away as an independent association due to administrative disapproval. Nazariya has extensively worked for raising awareness and sensitising the youth towards the LGBTQ community and their needs.
However, there are currently no such bodies within Kamala Nehru College and no avenues that students may approach in cases of transphobic or homophobic harassment or discrimination. Damini, a student at KNC and an ex-member of Nazariya, says, “Informal groups are essential to create a sense of community and belongingness for students who have been alienated and otherized due to their gender identities or sexual orientations.”
She added, “However, in order to actively address safety concerns of the LGBTQ youth on campus, administrative facilitation of such groups and the acknowledgement of their existence and struggle are crucial.”
Another campus which presently lacks a stringent, administratively sanctioned and recognised body solely for the needs of the LGBTQ students is Jawaharlal Nehru University. While the Equal Opportunity Cell and the ICC exist for the benefit of the students, they primarily deal with cases of sexual harassment.
After the disintegration of Dhanak, a major Queer Collective on JNU campus, Hasratein has now become a significant solidarity and support group which aims to sensitise the masses by organising public talks and workshops.
Shreyosi, an elected councillor and an ex-Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment representative at JNU, commented on the need for an immediate institutional redressal channel that is inclusive and queer-friendly. She went on to remark on the inability of the student body to build pressure on the administration for the same. She says, “This is due to ignorance, insensitivity and often apathy towards queer issues.”
On political visibility of the LGBTQ community in JNU elections, Shreyosi says, “Though some organisations from the Left have been more proactive in carving out electoral space as well, most organisations aren’t much interested in this issue.” In order for any students group for the LGBTQ community to successfully work alongside the administration, Shreyosi believes, sensitisation workshops and familiarisation with newer terminology for the administration and staff themselves must be mandated.
As an independent and unregistered collective in the college, the Queer Collective at National Law University Delhi serves as a vital support structure for LGBTQ students who might be facing bullying or discrimination at home or in college. A fifth-year student and a member of the QC at NLUD believes the problem of bullying of LGBTQ students on campus must be prioritised. “It’s not readily apparent, but there is no mechanism for protecting a student against homophobic or transphobic bullying,” he says.
Although informal, the QC has administrative support for organising events, talks and awareness sessions on campus. However, this support is limited insofar as not being inclusive of explicitly pro-LGBTQ policies on campus. In cases of discrimination or bullying, students can file a ragging complaint, but no alternative avenues that recognise the uniqueness of queer needs exist.
The QC at NLUD hopes to one day establish gender-neutral hostels and washrooms in the college. To that end, lack of organisation in the student body and inefficacy of the administration regarding policy change are major obstacles in their path.
In September 2018, the Queer Collective of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, proudly announced the establishment of gender-neutral hostels on campus – the first ever in India. More recently, Ashoka University declared the opening of their first gender-neutral washrooms due to the efforts of the Feminist Collective and other queer-friendly bodies.
Administrative support, while absolutely necessary to bring about these changes, is therefore secondary to a shared consciousness in any student body – one which recognises and appreciates the history of strife and struggle attached to new rights and freedoms. Although victories for the queer community may have been few and far apart, now more than ever before this consciousness has grown and brought these revolutionary legal changes into effect.