When Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalised sex “against the order of nature”, was read down in 2018, Suzartra Chatterjee decided to take his friends at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Rourkela into confidence about his sexual orientation. It turned out to be a mistake. He was bullied and shamed and wasn’t allowed to sit with them for meals. “It was a very difficult time for me. I had to drop out for a semester,” says Chatterjee, now 23.
When he rejoined the institute in 2019, he chanced upon an article in the campus newspaper about a queer support group, Rainbow Dot; formed a few weeks earlier by a person who was not from the community, it had yet to become active. Chatterjee, currently a final-year MSc student, took on the challenge of activating it. Besides being a safe space, the club, officially recognised by the institute, has been transformative for Chatterjee and others like him. It currently has 40 members, which includes heterosexual allies.
For A, 22, a fourth-year law student at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune, the liberal environment on campus made it easier to come out “without raising eyebrows or attracting negative attention”. The support group for LGBTQ+ students there, Gender Champion, was formed in 2018. Today it has 20 student members and two faculty members as allies. Besides creating awareness about queer rights and gender identities, the group also sensitises students to mental health issues and even screened movies on these. Some of their activities have moved online since the pandemic.
A believes the group has helped queer students like him to openly discuss sexuality, equality and discrimination with peers and professors. “It has also allowed me to have frank conversations with my fellow students about my own life. I can have normal conversations about who I am dating without having to censor details. It has given me the ability to express myself just like any other person in college,” he says.
However, Chatterjee and A are among the lucky few. Although India has decriminalised consensual same-sex relationships and the University Grants Commission has published guidelines against ragging, queer students are still apprehensive of the discrimination they will face if they come out.
The Fear Factor
Their apprehensions are not unfounded, as a recent report, Fostering Pride In Higher Education: The Road To Inclusion—from the consulting firm BCG, Pride Circle Foundation, a non-profit providing professional support for the LGBTQ+ community, and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad—shows.
Their survey of over 1,700 students around the country, aimed at understanding how inclusive universities and campuses are for LGBTQ+ students, indicates that almost two-thirds of queer students who were out felt they faced discrimination or had witnessed a fellow student facing discrimination.
The most pervasive form of this was being subjected to mockery from peers (92%), followed by bullying (59%) and not being taken seriously because of their sexuality or gender identity (36%). Close to 30% said they faced social exclusion due to their gender identity. A worrying finding is that over 80% of queer students across campuses have little or no support. This manifests as “dissatisfaction with their personal and professional lives”.
However, in institutions that did have support groups, 21% of queer students felt comfortable sharing their identity. While this may be a small number, having a support group on campus empowers students to come out openly about their gender identity, the report concludes.
The data provides substantial evidence of the extent of the problem, says Ramkrishna Sinha, co-founder of the Pride Circle Foundation. “About 40-50 colleges, at best, have support groups, which is minuscule compared to the total number of higher education institutes in the country,” he says. In 2018-19, 993 universities, 39,931 colleges and 10,725 stand-alone institutions were listed with the All India Survey on Higher Education’s portal.
Recalling his own experience, Sinha says, “When I was a gay student in engineering college, I know how much self-censoring we had to do and how that hinders growth opportunities.”
Many queer students suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence, and prefer to keep a low profile. Which is what N, 21, a final year student at BITS, Pilani, did when he was in the first year. He would avoid college events, afraid that people would find out he is gay.
In November 2019, he joined Anchor, the institute’s queer support group. N likes the support the group offers, and the way it’s attempting to make the campus safe for the community. “All this helped me with self-acceptance and gave me the confidence and courage to step out and not worry about being associated as someone from the community. I hosted a webinar where a mental health professional spoke to students a few months ago. I wouldn’t have come out and done that earlier,” N says.
The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur’s queer support group, Ambar, had begun holding workshops to build up the confidence of group members, especially for campus recruitment, just before the pandemic. “We realised everyone needed these lessons on self-confidence. So, we did a workshop on workplace diversity, which addressed how to adjust to an office environment where we will meet different kinds of people,” says Shilpa Sajeev, 22, one of three elected governors, or group representatives, of Ambar. Set up in 2015, Ambar is one of the oldest campus support groups in the country.
Seema Bansal, partner and director, social impact, at BCG and co-lead of the report, believes inclusivity, in its true spirit, has been a blind spot for Indian campuses—and this is something that should concern India Inc. as well.
Over the last few years, and especially since covid-19, many companies have been ramping up their diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and budgets. “We felt just having an inclusive culture in our workplace is not enough, we have to also work backwards, and make campuses inclusive as well,” says Bansal.
On some campuses, even talking about sexuality is considered taboo. During the lockdown last year, KB, 21, a student at the PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore, came across some of the support groups at the IITs and IIMs on social media. This inspired him to start the PSG Tech Queer Collective on social media for his college in October, albeit in an anonymous capacity. It has grown to include 20 members, half of them allies. None of them publicly reveal their identities, but they are trying to raise awareness through the collective’s page on Facebook and Instagram.
“You can’t broach the topic without being judged by others. Even if people are supportive, they hesitate to come forward openly and support us. Some students even agree with someone making homophobic comments to safeguard themselves,” says KB.
Also, not all support groups have been started by students from the LGBTQ+ community. At XLRI Jamshedpur, Anusha Sinha, an ally, started the support group Pride@XL in June 2020. “I took inspiration from a relative, who identifies with the community and started a support group in his college in Delhi. I wanted to create a safe space for students like him when they came to this institute,” Sinha says. The support group has 100 members but Sinha doesn’t know how many among these are from the community as members are not asked about their sexual orientation.
Some institute managements have been supportive, others ambivalent. But other than the groups at NIT, Rourkela and Symbiosis Law School, none are officially recognised.
While some groups prefer to remain informal, a few are now pushing for institutional recognition. One of them is QUASI at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, which hopes to be able to list as a student group on the institute’s website. It has 70 undergraduate and postgraduate members, 20 of them allies, says one of the members, who did not wish to be identified.
At IIT, Kharagpur, Ambar has petitioned the Student Gymkhana, the umbrella body for student societies, to allow Ambar’s governors to become Gymkhana members—Ambar’s other members prefer anonymity. Such recognition would enable the governors to get certificates for involvement in a campus group, useful in applying for higher studies.
It’s an uphill battle but small wins keep them all going. The governors often get messages from people, personally and on their social media accounts, explaining how they used Ambar’s content to educate their families.
“When we set up stalls during the Spring festival, we meet people who are opposed to queer rights or apathetic to the issue. One-on-one conversations and participating in activities we conduct have helped change their preconceptions,” says Shilpa Sajeev, a fifth-year student.
It’s a long process to undo the stigma and fear that one has internalized, believes A (20), who is a third-year student, part of Queer Straight Alliance at a college in Delhi University. “But support group is one step to help increase our self esteem and being proud of who we are,” says. The Alliance was set up in 2019 and has 24 members including allies.
Agreeing with A, B.G. Sridhar, a clinical psychologist with the IISc, says that in the absence of inclusive campuses, support groups can bridge the gap. “Having an in-campus counsellor helps but many students hesitate to reach out. And that’s where a support group steps in. It gives a sense of ‘belongingness’, that they are not alone, and where members take care of each other. All this gives them a lot of self-confidence and relief that will help them develop and live their potential.”