Trigger warning: quoted slurs and offensive remarks against the LGBTQ+ community
It was a pleasant October morning in 2018 when I had just returned to the college after watching an early morning (and the only affordable) show of ‘Andhadhun’, just so I could attend my IPC (Indian Penal Code) class. Like many of my fellow classmates, IPC was the one subject I had waited to study from day one, and missing even one class would be nothing short of sinful.
My IPC teacher was a popular teacher not just in my college, but across Pune. Someone who resigned from the judicial services to teach law, he was now teaching crucial subjects such as Constitutional Law; IPC; and Civil Procedure Code at my college to different batches. Given that the provision had just been abrogated, I was expecting a robust discussion in his class when I read on the board, “377”. Here’s what happened, though: the teacher mentioned what Section 377 was about, explained that it had been abrogated partially and not completely, and then said,
“Jisko karna hai kare, lekin agar mera beta aa ke mujhse kehta hai ki papa mujhe ladke pasand hain to main nahi jaanta main kya karunga uske saath. Pata nahi kya zarurat thi unconstitutional declare karne ki, kaun sa koi arrest ho hi raha tha?”
(Whoever wants to practice homosexuality, they can; but if my son ever tells me he likes boys, I have no idea what I would do to him. I don’t get why it (377) had to be declared unconstitutional, it’s not as if people were being jailed anyway).
A moment of jarring silence followed, and then, suddenly, there was mayhem. So many students began to talk all at once as if someone shouted ‘fire’ in the crowd. “But isn’t that your son’s choice, sir? Isn’t it his choice to decide who he wants to be with, isn’t it every individual’s own choice”, asked a few students. “Arrests or no arrests, Section 377 was a torture tool”; “Homosexuality is natural, sir”; “What your son does is his business, not yours”.
In those sixty-odd seconds, I was gripped by an inexplicable, rather oxymoronic sense of anger and odd comfort. For the first time, I had heard so many voices speaking in favour of LGBTQ+ rights, speaking truth to power.
Homophobia is everywhere– there are no two ways about it, but its presence in some places is more concerning than at others.
A law school, I argue, is one such place.
Crucial subjects such as Sociology, Political Science, Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law and the Constitution itself-no less, work in tandem to equip prospective lawyers with an understanding of the trials and tribulations of human society and prepare them to bring about constructive social change. Whereas a medical professional works to fix the problems of the biological human body and an engineer of machines and computers, a lawyer works to rectify the wrongs that plague the entire society.
But what happens if the problems are not even identified, in the first place?
Let’s take an analogy to understand this better. A software engineer can identify bugs in a program and knows how to fix them. But imagine if the bug is not identified in the first place, nor is the engineer willing to identify them, what happens then? What happens if the engineer, in their ignorance, ends up multiplying the bugs rather than deleting it? Homophobia at a law school is like the unidentified bug in the system, the bigger worry being not only its existence but its perpetuation.
The anger that emanated with a teacher’s unsolicited commentary on a topic he did not quite understand coupled with the three years’ worth of homophobia I had already battled made me ask- are all Indian law schools the same? If this is in fact the situation everywhere, isn’t something very, very wrong? I decided not to let my anxieties have the better of me, and do some research of my own.
In order to understand the situation on different campuses, I circulated a questionnaire carrying sixteen questions among students of 40 law schools, out of whom, students from at least 21 law schools responded. Those who responded include students from some of the top National Law Universities, some private colleges, and some government colleges.
Here’s what the numbers say.
Students from three-fourth of the participating law schools refused to characterise their law schools as generally homophobic (phew). Students from at least 15% of law schools said their colleges “maybe” homophobic, while those from the remaining 10% characterized their law schools as definitely homophobic.
Students from at least 15% of law schools witnessed members of the staff, management or faculty making homophobic remarks in open or closed spaces. This 15%, I argue, is 15 too many and here’s why- statements and actions of teachers and management, make no mistake, add legitimacy to bigotry. In a personal experience, a teacher once asked my class why LGBT+ people wear so much makeup, and how she felt disgusted by the same (no prizes for guessing why boys are judged for wearing makeup to this day).
Students from 38% of the law schools agreed to have witnessed other students passing homophobic remarks in professional spaces, including classrooms and discussion forums. Those from at least 53% of law schools mentioned that homophobic language is still used regularly in peer groups, including words such as chhakka, meetha, gaandu, and more, while 20% more said such usage continues but is rare. As an effeminate man, I have myself been subjected to a lot of such languages all through my life and I can testify to how horrible it feels being on the receiving end.
Students from a paltry 28% of the participating law schools said they have a dedicated LGBTQ+ cell, while those from a whopping 53% said they did not. The remaining were unaware of such a cell. Remember, LGBTQ+ cells or collectives can go a long way in extending support to members of the community and spreading awareness on campuses about the same.
The attempt of setting up an LGBTQ+ cell in my college, a couple of years ago, went futile for want of enough support.
Same-sex relationships are still hushed at a little over 80% of the participating colleges, the survey revealed. Several students mentioned how they are aware of same-sex relationships in their colleges, but the environment is still volatile.
Responders from 38% of law schools said they were unaware of “Transgender” is an option in internal forms, even today while a definite 28% said there is no such option.
A student from a prestigious NLU in Chhattisgarh mentioned how a parody magazine of the college’s peer-run magazine carried an entire chapter mocking transgender people. A student from the same law school revealed how memes stating lesbians are too ugly to get boys were circulated in their college. One student from a popular NLU in Cuttack revealed how one of their seniors was trolled for his sexual orientation after he was accidentally outed.
In a personal experience, a student from a popular NLU in Rajasthan mentioned to me how being clean-shaven makes him “meetha”, and what a shame it is to look like a trans-person. Audacity hit the roof when he asked me about my sexual orientation because I looked gay. That man works at a tier-1 law firm in Mumbai and I’m still wondering how he survives the month of June).
Just days ago, someone wrote to me on Instagram mentioning how their straight friends often say, “Mujhe chakkon se darr lagta hai, kahi chadh na jaaye (I am scared of chakkas, offensive term used for trans-people as well as other people of the LGBTQ+ community, that they will climb up on me)”.
The onus to change and to bring about change, in my opinion, is heavier on law schools than on any other quarter of the society.
From studying the concepts of equality before the law and equal protection of laws to appreciating the works of John Rawls who gave the theory of Justice; from learning about the right to freedom of speech and expression and appreciating the just, fair and reasonable to spending hours studying human rights; from attending lectures by judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts to mooting on issues of constitutional importance to interning at the best of NGOs and nonprofits, law students do it all in three, or five years.
Famous American legal scholar Roscoe Pound has spoken about the role of law in what he calls ‘social engineering’. He argued that law can be used to structure society and create balance and harmony therein. If homophobic language continues to find space in the otherwise sophisticated, jargon-rich legalese of Indian law students, there is bound to be a colossal manufacturing defect in the society our lawyers are building.
If Transgender is still not an option in so many law schools, the bridge between practice and preachment is very wide. If same-sex relationships are still hushed, we are disappointing our icons like Menaka Guruswamy and Anand Grover.
I wonder, how does homophobia seep through the foundation that such learning would build? For once I would borrow from Jacques Verges, “it is good for the society to have this introspection.”
Indian law schools, by the grace of the good god, are probably not “generally homophobic”, but homophobia exists in most law schools.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.