Being queer in an IIT: ‘My time on campus left me scars to last a lifetime’

Words like gay and bisexual were bandied about only to perpetuate homophobia, not acceptance
Being queer in an IIT: ‘My time on campus left me scars to last a lifetime’
Being queer in an IIT: ‘My time on campus left me scars to last a lifetime’
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By Arvind*

Over the years, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) have come to symbolize excellence in the minds of middle class Indians. Most graduates from IITs and their parents seize every opportunity to flaunt their association with the institution. There might be valid reasons for this, but at the same time, there are people like me, who take no pride in being an IITian.

My education at IIT left me with none of the fond memories that other alumni wax nostalgic over. And no, it was not because of any inability to cope with the academic demands (that one may quickly judge me of), but because of the struggles that I had to go through to fit into the so-called ‘mainstream’ on campus.

The incidents I write of took place in the early 2000s. Having secured a good Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) rank, I had been accepted to an IIT in a metro city in the B.Tech stream of my choice.

Being from a rural and non-English speaking background, I felt my confidence quickly plummet among peers who hailed from metros and had the privilege of a ‘convent’ education. There were no steps from the management to integrate students from diverse backgrounds into campus life. My initial diffidence did not escalate, thankfully, as I managed to hang out with people from a similar background as mine, while simultaneously learning to speak English and imbibe elements of the “polished” metro culture from others.

But often, we are different from others in less obvious, less visible ways. I knew I was different back then, but didn't have the vocabulary to describe myself in terms of my sexuality. And I didn’t expect that institutes of higher education would make me feel ashamed of myself in ways that were not known to me earlier. It was only after arriving on the campus that I was introduced to words such as gay and bisexual. The ease with which these words were bandied about, was only to perpetuate homophobia, not acceptance.

During the initial days of ragging, freshers from non-English speaking backgrounds used to be asked questions like “Are you a homosexual or bisexual?” with either answer being greeted by derisive laughter. While the copious conversations around masturbation and sexual fantasies and the like might have led one to believe that people here were open-minded, every context discussed was heterosexual. Any opinion that was different from the majority would result in a response “Abe, tu homo hai kya?” (Are you a homo?).

It was no surprise that those male students in their final year who had girlfriends to parade around on campus would be revered like gods. Those like me would be privately branded “homos”. No one would go to their rooms or engage in a conversation with them in private, because they feared being molested.

Unfortunately, such negative branding was not restricted to sexual minorities, but also to people who had availed reservation quotas to get admission. They used to be secretly branded “slash” (derived from the slash of SC/ST). While one can anticipate such insensitivity when the majority of students came from privileged class/caste backgrounds, what was most appalling was that the institute’s administration, at least in those days, felt no need to run sensitisation programs to understand and appreciate diversity.  

My four years on campus only left me with memories of hurt: scars to last a lifetime. The guy who scrawled “Jessy Jessy, man with pussy” on my jacket with a permanent marker. The one who forcibly kissed me in public, and told everyone I deserved it because I was gay. The one who sent sexually explicit images of same-sex activity on the Yahoo email list of wing mates, captioned, “This is how Arvind has sex.”

Anticipating that these people would have changed for the better over the years, I made bold to come out to my classmates, following the 2013 Supreme Court Judgment, by sharing my identity on the alumni mailing list of more than 120 batchmates. Except for one supportive personal message, there was deafening silence for a day.

The next day, one guy replied to the group, “Arvind, you, homo b*****d, you should have said this before. I spent nights in your room without knowing this during college”. Though some classmates of mine quickly slammed him even before I checked that email, it left me wondering how men like these managed to lead hundreds of corporate teams across the globe.

It also made me wonder: how did I survive my four years in campus surrounded by such insensitivity?  I used to attend classes regularly and take good notes. This placed me in demand come exam time, when my peers would gather around me for group study and to access my notes. Was it these moments of feeling worthy and useful that helped me get through my otherwise depressing campus life? And should a queer person have to put in that extra effort or possess otherwise desirable qualities, in order to be treated with respect?

In the course of my journey towards self-acceptance, I have had the opportunity to meet lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people from other premier higher education institutions. I have realized that my experience was not unique, and most other campuses are also riddled with prejudice. I sometimes wish I had the courage to respond to my homophobic bullies the way this student from the Indian Institute of Science did recently.

I have also come to realize it is not (only) the students at these places that need to be blamed, but rather our educational system. The system does not understand the need to inculcate respect towards others who are different. It fails to develop sensitivity, life skills and empathy, and measures individual worth only through CGPAs, white papers, patents and salary offers.

Students of engineering and technology would routinely take courses in the humanities to meet credit requirements; but no one ever talked about or gained any appreciation for diversity, discrimination, empathy towards minorities, or the mental health consequences of being ostracised or feeling like one doesn’t belong. Just recently, a friend of mine from a premier central government institute in Bangalore was asked by the official campus counselor to get rid of his ‘homosexual tendencies’ when he sought help to come out of depression.

I am happy that many queer support groups have come up across various campuses now (more info here) and some have even petitioned against Section 377. I still think we have a long way to go: the presence of such student-driven initiatives is scarcely of a scale to change the system. Measures such as the UGC anti-ragging bill and its 2016 amendment that includes gender and sexuality orientation, are absolutely necessary, but do not address the systemic homophobia that pervades the educational experience.

The National Education Policy being drafted by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development is currently up for comments (draft policy here) until July 31, 2016.  It reiterates India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

I fervently hope such policies would respond to the need for full inclusion of LGBT youth in the educational experience, include sensitization on sexuality, gender (including transgender), and other diversity markers among students, staff and faculty, ensure safe environments, and mandate LGBT-affirming counseling resources for students.

*name changed on request

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