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“We Aren’t Different, We Are Proud”: The Power Of Queer Collectives On Campus

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I went to one of the leading liberal arts colleges in Mumbai, and India, for that matter. Even though my college was “liberal” in most aspects, it was lacking in some crucial ones. 

As a young, queer person coming into my own, I so longed to meet others who were going through something similar… Alas, I was disappointed! 

My college had different kinds of groups, which engaged in all sorts of extra-curricular activities, be it to do with science, literature or sports. And still, we didn’t have a queer collective (QC) on campus.

Queer people acknowledged each other with a certain “look” we gave each other, when we passed each other in the corridors or the canteen—however, that was the extent of my interaction with other queer students, during my undergraduate years.

The writer during his undergraduate years. Photo credit: Caroline Francis.

One would hear gossip about “supposedly” queer couples. I know for a fact that my college mates discussed my dating history, too. However, I had no one to talk to about all the things I was facing on a day-to-day basis, as a visibly gender non-conforming person on campus.

Why Are Queer Collectives On Campus Important?

“I have some queer friends in college, but it’s all hush-hush. We know of each other and try to be there for each other, but that’s about it,” lamented Jigar Dholakia*, a 21-year-old MBBS student.

Jigar is an outstation student at a college located in a semi-urban area. Although he uses dating apps to meet with queer men from the area, he yearns to form connections beyond romance.

The same yearning took me time and again to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), during my postgraduate years. TISS had an active queer collective and even though I wasn’t a student, I was fortunate enough to have been embraced by some of the members as one of their own.

I realised the importance of QCs yet again when I partook in some of their activities. I still remember the wave of elation that surged through my body when I saw TISS QC bag the first prize in the fashion show event at ‘Quintissence’ (the annual cultural and literary festival of TISS, Mumbai).

QCs act as a resource group for queer students (whether out or not), who are extra vulnerable as they navigate cis-heteronormative, college campuses. Not only this, but QCs also provide a safe space for queer students and allies to come together and let loose.

When Section 377 Was Read Down

Saathi is one of the names that come to mind when one thinks of QCs on campus. Apart from being IIT Bombay’s QC, it is also touted as India’s first and foremost one. Although Saathi has been functioning since 2011, they only managed to get officially recognised in 2020, about a decade later.

Priya Sharma is a doctoral candidate at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. As an ally, she has been working with Saathi since 2015. When asked about the impact of Section 377 being read down on Saathi, she remarked, “It instilled a new sense of confidence within the members!”

The day that it was finally read down (September 6, 2018) was a historic one. Students marched across IIT Bombay’s campus with great fanfare. “Usually, we have to take a lot of permissions to do something on campus, but no one stopped us that day,” said Priya. Cakes were cut as people hugged each other out of joy.

Things rarely change overnight though, as when they tried to repeat the same in 2019, they were restricted from doing so. Saathi’s faculty advisor had to write an emphatic letter supporting them before they were allowed to celebrate the end of Section 377 once more.

The freshers’ welcome session held on August 7, 2019, saw enthusiastic, first-year students interacting with their seniors from across different batches. Photo credit: Nitish Fatarpekar / Saathi, Facebook.

Currently, all the clubs in IIT Bombay, such as the sports club, or the astronomy one, celebrate pride month (June). “I don’t see it as appropriation, but as celebration in solidarity,” opined Priya.

Saathi has been having conversations with different IITs, be it the one in Kharagpur or Madras, to help them set up their own QCs. Students from other colleges such as Narsee Monjee (Mumbai) have reached out to them, too. Saathi has been paying it forward by offering upcoming QCs support in drafting their constitutions, figuring out modalities, approaching the administration etc.

Nothing About Us Without Us

The Hindu College Queer Collective (HCQC) is one such fledgling QC. They are a year old and came into existence during the pandemic. What started as an informal WhatsApp group took the shape of a QC, as time passed.

“We would talk about all sorts of things in the group, from being bullied by co-students and homophobic remarks passed by professors, to the importance of having gender-neutral washrooms,” said Sue Labh. Sue heads the QC and is final-year undergraduate studying zoology at Hindu College.

Sue heads the Hindu College Queer Collective.

The HCQC launched an annual, pride-month newsletter called “Fakhr” this year. Fakhr listed out all the pride events being hosted by different QCs across college campuses in the Delhi-NCR region, in its first edition. The plan is to gradually include other cities and regions in its ambit.

The cover page of Fakhr reads: “Fark nahi, fakhr hai (we are not different, we are proud).”

Apart from the newsletter, the HCQC has also hosted movie screenings, talks etc. to sensitise people on queer lives and all things related. For instance, they invited filmmakers such as Onir, Faraz Arif Ansari and Sridhar Rangayan, to speak about queer themes in popular media, in June 2021.

Traditionally, most Delhi University colleges have a WDC (women’s development cell) on campus. WDCs generally take the lead on issues to do with gender sensitisation. “Because the WDC is a space oriented towards the issues of cis-women, they miss out on nuances to do with queer struggles,” explained Sue.

This was one more reason why Sue and the others felt the need to breathe life into the HCQC. It is a space composed of queer students (and allies), run by queer students, and working for queer students. “With Section 377 being read down, colleges can’t stop queer students from collectivising anymore,” observed Sue.

On the third anniversary of queer love being decriminalised, I can only hope that more and more QCs sprout across college campuses in India. QCs might seem like an urban notion for now, but one knows that rural colleges need them too, more than ever.

Educational spaces need to become queer-affirmative. There is a world of difference between a progressive judgment and societal attitudes on the ground. Let us and QCs work towards bridging that gap!

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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