Coming out on campus as a lesbian or bisexual can be a relief, but fraught with difficulties, as this article tells us.
When the Supreme Court of your country declares you to be part of a ‘miniscule’ minority who gets affected by an ancient law it doesn’t bode well for you.
For starters you live a fugitive’s life; one where a significant part of your identity is forced to stay underground. Those who can afford to, end up coming out to their friends, families and colleagues. The rest lie waiting for a better time; a time where private and public spaces will become less antagonistic towards them and they don’t have to be constantly watchful of their words and actions, for fear that they will reveal too much.
“I think my Facebook profile is a dead giveaway of my sexual orientation,” said Amina*, chuckling at how our social media avatars often betray the offline versions of ourselves. “I mean at some point you do end up ‘coming out’ through the posts you share and the photos you upload,” she further added.
Amina, a post-graduate student in Delhi identifies as bisexual and even though she has been fairly open about her sexuality with her friends and classmates, she has her share of apprehensions. “These are the best of times and the worst of times for anyone to openly declare their sexual or gender orientation,” she said.
“The Times They Are A- Changin” crooned Bob Dylan in 1964.
Today, circa 2016, the fight against the draconian section 377 has become as public as the gorgeous rainbow flags at the annual Pride marches across several Indian cities. The struggle for securing the rights of sexual ‘minorities’ has been a long and arduous one; but it has given many the resilience to face their worst detractors and the strength to reach out to their loyal supporters. Homosexuality is being captured through words, photographs, films in an attempt to reach out to the masses and create a space for dialogue.
Even Bollywood seems to have moved on from ‘Ma da laadla bigad gaya’ to Fawad Khan’s comparatively realistic portrayal of a gay man in this year’s Kapoor & Sons.
But so much for the good times.
Last month, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida became the site for the deadliest attack against members of the LGBT community in US history. The shooter pledging support to ISIS notwithstanding, it was painfully easy to deduce that the Orlando shooting was a blatant hate crime; a purposeful act of violence launched against those who didn’t conform to sexual norms.
Violence can be overt or covert. It can be physical, mental or emotional or all of them put together. It comes to us from strangers and even worse when it comes from family and friends.
“I did my graduation from an engineering college down South and far away from home,” said Mabel. “There I dated a couple of women, who like me, came from middle-class Indian households. And thanks to sexuality and more so ‘alternate’ sexuality being a taboo subject, most of them couldn’t come to terms with their own sexual orientation,” she added.
What followed was a period of tremendous turmoil and social boycott on campus. “Feeling regretful of being physically intimate with a queer person (me), they engaged in homophobic tale-telling in the hostel, blaming me for the ‘incidents’,” she said. She bore the boycott for a year before coming out to her friend on campus. “She took the news well and paid no heed to the hysteria surrounding us at that time. That helped me feel less guilty and I stopped being apologetic about myself,” she said.
“We had this professor in my first semester who said that the Indian Constitution had criminalised homosexuality, just like it had criminalised robbery and murder. It harms the society,” recalled Amina. “I sat there fuming before I launched in to an angry tirade calling him out on his vast ‘teaching’ experience which was frankly just prejudiced and homophobic,” she said. “What’s ironic is that he still doesn’t know that I’m gay and attributed my anger to being ‘passionate’ about the cause,” she scoffed.
Being gay in today’s society can be most often a battle between the person and multiple demons like the ‘fear of rejection’, ‘blatant discrimination on campus or at work, ‘social isolation and boycott’ and even ‘violence’; all being fought simultaneously. Therefore it is tricky business coming out to people in a public space like a university. “The teachers in my college in Delhi University had the sense to keep their distance and didn’t comment on my sexual orientation. But the larger administration was very sarkari and would see things purely as black and white,” recalled Taruna.
The events at Hyderabad University and JNU last year were testament to the power of solidarity no matter what side your ideological beliefs fell on. Without solidarity and sensitivity the voices from the margins get drowned in the din of majoritarianism. Therefore one seeks out pockets of support within a largely hostile environment.
“During my Masters in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia, I realized that the staff members were a lot more open-minded and were not judgmental towards me,” said Taruna. Though she doesn’t know of any other person who was openly gay on campus either. Mabel had a similar experience which changed only when she went abroad. “It’s only when I went to California to study did I find people who would ‘come out’ in their introduction on Day 1 itself,” she said.
‘Coming out’ is a deeply personal experience and not something that can be forced as a rite of passage. Many a times people are in the ‘closet’ as stepping out of it means turning their whole lives upside down, and not in a good way. “I appreciate the intent and the assertion behind ‘coming out loud’, but that depends on the surrounding environment and just how conducive or prudent it is to make such declarations,” said Amina.
Our universities are part of this unstable ecosystem and reflect the intolerance meted outside their walls. Expecting anything different is being woefully naïve.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of the participant
Image source: shutterstock.