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Musings Of A Queer Indian Student Entering College In 2020

It is quite daunting to be applying for colleges, not to mention extra-daunting when it’s amid a pandemic. Boards being delayed, results and entrances postponed and while half your friends may have already landed in a college you’re still looking at all your options.

But there is an extra layer of anxiety when you’re a young queer Indian, who pledged that this year was gonna be YOUR year; that the start of college was the start of a new journey filled with rainbow streamers.

While your straight peers thought of schools based on rankings, fees, hostels, party-life, and notoriety, we have an extra section to tick-mark; whether whichever campus that does welcome us also welcomes our sexuality or gender identity. And so off you go, in the middle of a pandemic, to do your intense research about the colleges you apply for. You score through the official College Prospectus, you might contact a few seniors who know the place or you’ll just google your way through the many things your college offers.

For queer students, the very idea of college is that of liberation, of seeking our identity.

Most of us are probably in the closet right now, growing up in a close-knit society and an authoritarian school system that even dictated your hairstyle, let alone the gender you’re attracted to you.

I’ve been there; growing up in a Catholic School for the past few years has been one of the topsy-turvy years of my life. Sneaking out of Friday Mass to go hang out with this cute guy I had a crush on at the school grounds and all those little ‘scandalous’ moments that your aunties shouldn’t come to know of.

Yet, here I am. Part of Class of 2020.

Feeling both euphoric but also a sense of dejectedness. I cannot speak for my Queer engineer and medical counterparts, whose exam ranks may dictate where you get to go for college; but as an art student, it’s quite a tricky thing to settle on. Peer pressure could have me going to the college that’s right next to the school I attended, in my suburban South Indian Port city. My parents sure feel that an institution 14 minutes away to be a safer guarantee than one that’s 4000 km away, especially when Miss Rona continues to spread havoc.

Regardless, I’ve got plans and dreams and aspirations; and being stuck at the same place with the same homophobic people is kind of a dealbreaker for me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been filing forms all over the country; Hyderabad, Manipal, Chennai, and Delhi. I even thought of attending the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) in hopes of landing a good place but alas, it got postponed for the 4th time…I think. Campuses like Symbiosis, Delhi University, NLUs, and such are all portrayed in the media as liberal bastions in a country that ever so slightly leans to the right where even Valentine Day draws flak for being “Anti-Indian”.

The next time a Bhakt tells me that my raging homosexuality is a western import, I’m going to take him on an educational field trip of the countless temples that have graphic queer sex depicted on their walls. Surprise Surprise.

Thus, how queer-friendly a college campus is, is a great deal for me, as it will be for a whole generation of queer students that are applying for college this year. And the lack of queer-friendly spaces in a place that could mould ourselves is a frightening aspect. Reading through my choices, all the colleges that my aunties and parents touted as “great institutions of excellence” were reeking of patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia.

I speak from a place of privilege, which I must acknowledge. A middle-class English-speaking cis-gender male gay student. I cannot fathom the insecurities that plague those who aren’t afforded the same luxury. In a country where restrooms aren’t even properly built, or where sanitary products for menstruating people aren’t promoted and having binary-gendered bathrooms with a faculty and a peer group that may not agree with your gender identity, college life would be daunting for especially those whose gender doesn’t fit the binary. And yet Gender-neutral or Transgender Bathrooms are a rarity.

But yet at the end of the day, we are faced with a myriad of conundrums. Do we listen to our learned elders and follow their path, or just pick the most convenient option? Would we regret the choice we pick and imagine how life could be so different? Those are left to be seen. What should be the way forward instead, is not placing the burden on us students to fear for our identities, but rather the institutions that are supposed to nurture and protect people who may not fit societal norms.

Most colleges have a Gender and Sexuality Cell that may be involved in many queer-themed initiatives and offer you a place of refuge. There may be clubs and societies of people with the same interests and likes as you. Go through them and learn about their activities.

Why don’t our colleges mention the word queer a single time in their prospectus when the words ‘holistic’ and ‘excellence’ get repeated a bunch of times. To ignore the existence of an entire community is to ignore students that will be raised within the corridors of the building, and when they walk out of the school with their certificates and become an alumnus; it won’t just be that that achieved that ‘because’ of the college and its rigid environment, but rather ‘despite’ it.

Two years have passed since the decriminalization of Section 377, and more than half a decade since the NALSAR judgment, yet not a single college comes to mind when I think of those that offer residential facilities for Transfolk, of those that have made homophobic bullying an explicit part of their anti-ragging policies, of those that offer Queer sensitization classes.

It isn’t just focusing on the queer community that needs to be done but also the general populace, starting with the student community. And besides, taking note of how Queer teachers have been treated in the past, with most of them either being ostracised or migrating abroad due to the treatment they received when they publicly came out, it is just telling that our educational institution needs a lot of work from the ground-up to be more queer-friendly. The words of “holistic endeavours” ring hollow, when the holistic only encompasses the privileged, upper-caste cisgender heterosexuals.

Colleges should wipe that heteronormativity off and craft an image to welcome young queer Indians to be proud of who they are. Whatever college you do eventually land up in though, be sure to seek your people.

Just as a sky may always have a peeking rainbow, finding someone to confide in or whom you can relate with, shouldn’t be too tough, especially in the age of the internet. Be safe though, and choose your friends wisely, but when you do, you’ll maybe finally feel at home. Go out for extracurriculars, hang out, meet new people, learn new things; the world is an exciting place (preferably in a mask!)

College will be a time for you to build a home away from home. Whatever you choose, make the best of your opportunities, put yourself out there, and make a mark in a world that continues to not take down notes. From one raging queer unicorn to another, I hope your college life, despite any and all adversities, may truly unlock a new door that’ll change you forever, for the better.

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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