This article is part of a series called Women and Media, which tries to showcase some of the innovative and unusual ways in which women represent themselves and their struggles in the media today, and the women responsible for creating these spaces of discourse and debate. The other articles in the series can be found here.
Every year, across the world, June is celebrated as Pride Month – a month when LGBTQ+ people all over the world celebrate their sexualities and gender identities. It is a month of joy, love, and acceptance, but also a reminder of the courage and sacrifice of LGBTQ+ trailblazers of the past. Over the past decade, many countries have worked to repeal previously discriminatory and harsh laws against homosexuality and non-binary gender identities, decriminalising alternate sexualities and gender identities and allowing gay and lesbian people to marry.
Despite this slowly-growing wave in support of queer people around the world, India remains a notoriously anti-LGBTQ+ nation. In a nation whose mythology and history are filled with examples of queer people and acts, the Indian Penal Code continues to uphold Section 377, an outdated and suppressive survivor of the British Raj, which prohibits “unnatural offences … against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal”. While also condemning and criminalising bestiality and, seemingly, commonplace sexual acts such as fellatio, Section 377 is more commonly seen as being representative of the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in Indian society.
India has had a rather chequered history with Section 377. In 2009, the law was challenged by the Naz Foundation (an NGO that works in the field of HIV/AIDS and sexual health in India) as being a violation of the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution. The Delhi High Court’s verdict resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexual acts among consenting adults across India; however, this verdict was challenged by the Supreme Court and struck down in 2013. More recently, the inclusion of the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right in August 2017 makes it “very hard to defend” Section 377, according to Justice A.P. Shah of the Delhi High Court, allowing more people to believe that the Right to Privacy is a step towards a less discriminatory direction.
In practicality, judgements such as the one on Right to Privacy offer little hope. In June 2018 alone, there have been more than 10 reported incidents (though, if one counts the unreported incidents, the number runs into the hundreds) across the country in which LGBTQ+ people were denied entry to bars or pubs, shouted slurs at, beaten, or lynched because of their sexual or gender identities. Pride Month in India has often been marred with such acts against queer individuals and communities.
These serve as a sobering reminder that for many LGBTQ+ individuals in India, Pride Month is not a time for joyous celebration as it is for others – it is still a time of fear, hiding, and suppression. Public spaces such as workplaces, schools, and universities are still unaccepting of queer identities, and brutal discrimination based on the same is rampant.
Discrimination against queer students in Indian schools has long been a topic of interest for Sukhnidh Kaur, a 19-year old student of Psychology and Economics at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Over the past few months, she has been conducting research on discrimination, harassment, and abuse against LGBTQ+ students in schools across urban India through her social media and posting the results on her Instagram (@pavemented).
The project that Sukhnidh took on was ambitious. When asked about why she decided to carry out her research, Sukhnidh explains, “Not much light has been shed on the issue because these students are afraid of speaking out in fear of negative retaliation from school authorities. This project was an attempt at understanding the situation of LGBTQ+ students in urban Indian schools and the toll that systemic homophobia and the complicity of administrative authorities take on them, as well as giving them a platform to speak about these experiences.”
via Sukhnidh Kaur/Instagram
What were Sukhnidh’s initial assumptions about instances of homophobia and discrimination in Indian schools? “Prior to conducting the research, I knew that a problem existed and that it needed to be acknowledged and understood. However, I could not have gauged the extent and depth of it – the situation is far worse than previously assumed,” she says. Through her research, she has found that queer students across the country are being harassed, denied access to resources, bullied, violated, suspended, and even expelled. She also realised over the course of the study that these incidents are not isolated – the problem is systemic and much deeper-rooted in Indian educational institutions than she had previously assumed.
Sukhnidh’s primary method of gathering data for her study was using social media, especially Instagram, given the significant number of followers she has garnered on the platform. As she mentions, however, “Using social media as a tool for research such as this is still something that is being debated in academic circles, and understandably so.”
Despite this, social media offers anonymity and extensive reach, which she wanted to utilize and were crucial to Sukhnidh’s project. It also helped that her followers on Instagram consist largely of school and university students from across the country, which was her target audience for the survey. Her initiative was carried forward by students from some states, who shared her message and survey link to their followers and people they knew, thus expanding the reach of the study.
Along with students, social media also helped Sukhnidh reach out to school authorities, namely teachers, principals, and administrative staff. “To my surprise, it worked, and I managed to get in touch with a number of these authorities through Instagram and Twitter.” However, her use of social media meant that the survey’s respondents were largely urban – “Since my research is limited to urban schools, a large chunk of my target audience did [have access to social media], but the usage of social media should depend on each individual project and should be done responsibly.”
via Sukhnidh Kaur/Instagram
On June 2, Sukhnidh announced that she would be publishing the results of her research on her Instagram over the course of the next few weeks. The decision to publish the responses in June was an important one, since social media during Pride Month is usually flooded with stories of positive experiences that queer people all over the world have had within their communities. But Pride Month is not just about celebration – Sukhnidh argues that “understanding the lives of all LGBTQ+ individuals and the struggles they face is equally important.”
In India, it is also essential to understand that the experiences of few aren’t equal to those of many. “I find that online LGBTQ+ activism in India is often exclusionary and elitist in its approach and follows in the footsteps of western ideals of said activism. I wanted to spread the message that we have our own unique problems that need to be addressed … While the privileged celebrate, others may be having a tough time. Addressing their concerns is important and is very much a part of what constitutes the spirit of Pride Month.”
The responses to her questions have been incredibly heart-breaking to read. Sukhnidh’s Instagram posts have become arenas of discourse about the way LGBTQ+ students have been (and continue to be) treated in schools, the role of school authorities in ensuring a safe and discrimination-free environment for students to learn and grow in, and what can be done to ensure that schools and other educational institutions become spaces where children learn to accept themselves and others without being subject to harassment and bullying.
via Sukhnnidh Kaur/Instagram
According to Sukhnidh, the need of the hour is LGBTQ+ sensitisation, which should be part of the larger scope of inclusive education in schools. This is necessary at every level – for administrative staff, teachers, and students. She maintains, “It is a school’s responsibility to make its students and teachers more socially conscious. We need LGBTQ+ support groups and gay-straight alliances to help students struggling with their respective orientations. School counsellors necessarily need to be LGBTQ+ friendly. Most importantly, we need large scale policy intervention”.
She believes that this isn’t a distant dream – it is definitely achievable if the right steps are taken.
Sukhnidh began her project as part of a research paper on systemic homophobia in urban Indian schools and the complicity of school authorities in the same. She is currently in the process of writing it with the results of her survey, and hopes to see it published in an academic journal sometime this year.
For Sukhnidh, it was important to begin the project despite college and work constraints because, in her own words, there is no “right time” to undertake a project like this. Many LGBTQ+ students in India continue to face discrimination and harassment from school authorities, and do not have the privilege of living a life in which who they are is accepted by those around them. She asserts, “If there is a dire need for reformative action, something needs to be done about it right away.”
via Sukhnidh Kaur/Instagram
The results of Sukhnidh Kaur’s research can be found on her Instagram.
By Rutvi Zamre
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.