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Bois Locker Room and the bullying of LGBTQ+ youth

The locker room culture is an outcome of toxic patriarchy that harbours a deep disdain for difference and diversity

'Bois Locker Room' on Instagram has exposed the ugly fact of sexism and prejudice.
'Bois Locker Room' on Instagram has exposed the ugly fact of sexism and prejudice.

The recently unveiled ‘Bois Locker Room’ group on Instagram gave us a disturbing glimpse into the minds of adolescent boys at an elite school in urban India. But along with their sexually explicit messages and violent fantasies towards female classmates, some other revelations have jolted us as well.

First, one of the girls who exposed the ‘bois locker room’ group was outed as using homophobic and sexist language herself in private conversations. And now, it has emerged that another girl had created a fake male alias on Snapchat to chat with a classmate about her own sexual assault—a screenshot of which had gone viral along with those from the ‘bois locker room’ group. She told the police that she had played her classmate to, ostensibly, “test" the “strength of his character".

Furious discussions on the internet are now weighing boys’ locker rooms against girls’ locker rooms—the latter also trended as a hashtag. But both these phenomena are the outcome of toxic patriarchal cultures, which harbour an innate disdain towards difference and diversity. The need to conform to heterosexual and gender stereotypes is deeply ingrained in all locker rooms, as is the impulse to vilify people who don’t adhere to socially prescriptive norms of gender and sexuality.

The hatred towards LGBTQ+ youth is the less obvious elephant in locker rooms across the world. Homophobic cuss words in casual everyday discourse and, in the worst case, physical bullying of LGBTQ+ people create the foundation of such spaces.

In September 2018, when India got rid of a draconian colonial era legislation criminalizing the LGBTQ+ community, hopes ran high. Although a major landmark for the human rights movement in the country, the unconstitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was the first step towards ushering in equality. In everyday social situations, a change in legal status does not automatically ensure dignity or respect for the Other.

Six months after the reading down of Section 377, a survey undertaken in March 2019 by Mint in collaboration with market researcher YouGov showed that less than half of India’s urban youth (between 18-38 years of age) approve of same-sex relationships. Roughly 23% of the male respondents said they were completely accepting of same-sex relationships, while 33% women had the same response.

Conversations about gender and sexual orientation may have finally entered middle-class homes, but it’s hard to remove prejudices in one fell swoop. Homosexual men and the transgender community may no longer be the butt of jokes in progressive Bollywood movies, but WhatsApp family groups adequately compensate for the lack. In chit chat over meals and in friendly banter, verbal boundaries are easily, and often unwittingly, crossed. Crass remarks slip in and derogatory comments are made, only to be laughed off.

In No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, writer and activist Siddharth Dube recalls his harrowing ordeal of growing up in a repressive society in 1970s India, facing homophobic slurs as a student of an elite boarding school, and taunted for being “effeminate". His experiences, though they should remain consigned to an ignominious past, are not entirely unfamiliar to millions of young LGBTQ+ people even today. Reprimands to “man up" or not behave like a “tomboy" are not yet history.

“Four years ago, two 12-year-olds burst into my office and declared that they were bisexual," says Nooraine Fazal, CEO and founder of Inventure Academy, a reputed international school based in Bengaluru. “Liberal as I am, my reaction was still a bit surprised at first."

Even in the best of environments, with supportive counselling and pastoral care available, as at Inventure, coming out as gender-queer is never easy. To a young person, the world can feel easily overwhelming, especially one in which their values and beliefs don’t square with those of their families’.

Allies of the LGBTQ+ community often end up ignoring homophobic jibes as well, believing those to be too mild to open a Pandora’s Box. LGBTQ+ people hold their tongue for fear of being ridiculed and shamed. These micro-aggressions eventually get internalised, by both perpetrators and victims, with varying consequences, and the circuit of toxicity is closed.

Yet, the young are usually far more accepting of diversity than adults, who have already made up their minds about the world. “It’s not a conceptual nightmare for them at all," says Rachana Patni, a Goa-based leadership consultant, who also works with young people. “Inclusiveness is not a difficult concept for the young to accept, compared to the previous generation, which is usually more hesitant to do so."

The idea should be not only to instil tolerance in the young, but also genuine acceptance of otherness. That may be an uphill task to embrace, even for allies, as most of them haven’t had to fight to come out as a non-dominant gender.

The current polarisation in society—along religious, caste, economic and gender lines—is also to blame for a phenomenon like ‘Bois Locker Room’. “We are not teaching the young what’s acceptable and what’s not," as Fazal says.

For that to happen, the custodians of the young must change their own views first.

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