Across the world, there is a conversation going on about ways in which we need to start accepting homosexuality and queer identities. In India, we are still lagging behind in a lot of ways (Read: Section 377), but in several ways we have started to accept the reality.
In urban parts of the country, social media, events and initiatives by activists and media groups have helped in raising awareness about LGBTQ rights and issues. The internet has opened up several avenues for LGBTQ voices to be heard, much like Gaysi itself. There are queer support groups mushrooming in schools and colleges. Compared to a few years ago, young people are more confident about coming out, and even speaking about their experiences living in a homophobic world. More importantly, popular culture, has started portraying queer lives more accurately, moving away from the traditional negative portrayals. Shows like Orange Is The New Black or Modern Family heavily deals with queer themes, and are some of the most popular shows in the recent times. We see celebrities such as Jim Parsons and Ellen Degeneres lead a successful and happy life, after coming out. The recent Vicks ad, which for the first time showed a transgender mother is yet another example of how media is moving towards a positive portrayal of the LGBTQ community. Even Bollywood that has been infamous for its homophobic jokes and stereotyping has made changes in the recent times. Movies such as Kapoor and Sons and Angry Indian Goddesses are examples of the recent movies that have made it a point to narrate LGBT stories with sensitivity and poise.
Earlier this month Lucknow held its first Queer Pride Parade, showing us that queer awareness and pride has spread to smaller cities and towns as well. While section 377 continues to be criminalised, several new laws have come in place that supports the transgender community. With a lot of information being spread around by authors, filmmakers and activists, people are learning to be tolerant towards differences, and are joining the fight towards ending the oppression based on sexuality.
However, earning the support of strangers can only mean so much, when they struggle to gain acceptance within their own family, and school. For many, acceptance of their sexuality and freedom to openly express their gender choices still remain a constant struggle. Violence against queer people continues to be rampant and unfortunately, undocumented, because of the repercussions associated with coming out. Blackmail and bullying, added with the fear of being penalised under Section 377 thrives even in bigger cities were gay prides and heated discussions on social media are playing a huge role in raising awareness. In some rural parts of the country, queerness is dealt with with the help of honour killing. Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a transwoman LGBT activist and public policy scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, who has openly spoken about her abuse at school, says that lesbian women and transmen in rural areas end up at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to basic human rights within the unit of family and village. She even talks about have village medics and babas often prescribe rape to cure lesbians of homosexuality. “Stories of family acceptance that you see on TV and other media are more of an urban phenomenon,” she explains.
Much of the stigma that LGBTQ members face comes from their own families. There have been various instances of people having been put through “corrective therapy” by their families after coming out. Despite the fact that the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder and disease back in 1990, there are many doctors that continue to offer “treatment” in the form of hormone and electroshock therapy, hypnotherapy and aversion therapy. In a society that places family on a pedestal, lack of family support can prove to be extremely harmful, both mentally and physically. Isolation and the pressure to conform to societal standards often leads to depression and suicide.
One of the sure-shot ways to deal with situation is education, which is why it is important for schools and colleges to join the efforts to change the narrative. Students are moving away from traditional ideas of unfettered obedience to the authority and have begun to question rules and regulations that go against basic human rights. In the recent times, there is a marked increase in institutionally approved LGBTQ activism. Orenda, the gender and sexuality club at IIT Gandhinagar, which aims to make LGBTQ students and their struggles visible is one such example. The need for such groups comes from the fact that even educated citizens who support alternative sexualities and gender identities, don’t exhibit the same inclusiveness in their day-to-day behaviour. People still buy into stereotypes and consider oppressive homophobic jokes to be funny. People often forget that backhanded comments and joke at the expense of someone, could always push someone to take dangerous measures. Until recently, ragging and hazing in colleges had pushed several students across the country to take their own lives. Now, ragging is considered to be an offense that could cause you to be expelled in most institutions. However, while explicit ragging might result in punishment, bullying (especially between peers) often go ignored.
A pan-India study conducted by IMRB and ParentCircle in 2015, revealed that every third child is bullied in school. The data was collected taking into account the responses from 2,700 respondents, with parents and children in equal number. Several studies prove that lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents are more likely to be bullies and victimised throughout their school years. Since schools have different policies with regards to bullying, many culprits often get away with their behaviour. Often times such complaints are ignored. Often, the ones who are expelled, easily find admission in another school, nullifying the point of the expulsion.
For children who are bullied or victimised, it is extremely important to find a support system, either from their peers, trusted adults such as family members, or people at school. One step towards combating this starts at home. It is important to remember that most bullies develop intolerance to a particular group, or think their behaviour is justified, because they are exposed to the same at home. It is, therefore, the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children understand that it is not okay to mock or make fun of LGB individuals. Parents need to be careful about what they say around their children, regardless of their own views on homosexuality. Data suggests that the rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth is staggering. According to Kunal Maind, a project manager from Sarathi Trust founded by Chandrani to help the LGBT community, every person from the community would have horror tales of seeing one or two friends of theirs die in front of their eyes after having attempted suicide. One of the best ways to ensure that schools and colleges don’t continue to be the cradle of bullying and violence is to educate, the young students and parents alike. This is where the Day of Silence comes in.
What is The Day of Silence (DoS)?
In 1996, at the University of Virginia, undergraduate student Maria Pulzetti organised an event for the BGLAD (Bisexual Gay Lesbian Awareness Days) week that involved straight allies. Her aim was to create something that would be visible on campus, unlike a panel discussion that would only catch the attention of those who were already fairly aware of the situation. The 18-year-old created the Day Of Silence, where the participators would observe silence so that they could “demonstrate how discrimination can silence the voices of so many other youths.” The idea was simple— turn silence, which is often seen as a result oppression, into an empowering action. That year saw 150 students participate by refusing to speak during the day.
Encouraged by this success, Pulzetti decided to work towards making the Day of Silence a national event. She paired up with her classmate, Jessie Gilliam, and brought the concept to colleges and universities across the country and by the next year, students on nearly 100 campuses participated. In 1998, Pulzetti, Gilliam, and their newly established team of regional coordinators officially launched the Day of Silence Project and expanded their outreach to high schools. In 2001, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) became the official organizational sponsor, and by then hundreds of K-12 schools and colleges across the US were observing the Day of Silence annually.
The Day of Silence continues to be organised annually, as a youth-led day of protest, reflection, remembrance, and solidarity for LGBTQ people and straight allies. Students involved in the organization of National Day of Silence point out that “the broad participation of straight allies elevates the Day of Silence from a bunch of gay kids complaining about discrimination to a formidable student-led movement for civil rights.”Those who participate take a vow of silence, which is symbolic of how harassment, discrimination, and prejudice silences the LGBTQ community. They carry a card detailing the purpose of the event to offer as an explanation when approached with questions. The card explains that students’ “deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by name-calling, bullying and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices.”
While the event is meant to fight against the bullying and harassment that LGBTQ students experience, even heterosexual students and allies take part in it. It is not always only LGBT students who are bullied and abused. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hung himself because of peers who harassed him, calling him gay even though he was straight. “As was the case with Carl, you do not have to identify as gay to be attacked with anti-LGBT language,” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a press release. “From their earliest years on the school playground, students learn to use anti-LGBT language as the ultimate weapon to degrade their peers.”
The event organisers provide schools with resources to guide them towards stopping harassment within their own walls, such as adopting an anti-bullying policy, a curriculum that addresses LGBT issues and tolerance and training teachers and staff to better deal with bullying when they see it.
Why is there a need for Day of Silence, and how is it helpful?
A national school climate survey conducted by GLSEN in 2013 found that four out of five LGBT students reported verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school and a third reported missing at least one day of school in the past month out of fear for their personal safety. Day of Silence gives hundreds of thousands of students in over 10,000 schools across the country an opportunity to stand together and “speak out” against the endemic name-calling, bullying and harassment faced by LGBT students and their allies. Most students who choose to participate in DOS make advance arrangements with their teachers to make up any schoolwork or participation points they miss out on during DOS.
This event helps provides students with a safe space to talk about issues of identity, while educating the rest about issues that the LGBT faces. Ultimately, what they are fighting for is simply a safer and more inclusive learning environments. The GLSEN website also clearly explains that this event is not an excuse for students to refuse from participating in class. They recommend “getting support from the school administration” before participating, also saying that “students should not assume that administrators will not support their efforts–even if they have not supported LGBT issues in the past–because it’s always important to ask and provide information to win support.”
Less silence, more speech?
While the laws on homosexuality are regressive, the Health Ministry recently made a move that has been hailed across the country. For years, the sex education in the country was lagging behind, and the new resource material that is going to be circulated to states as part of the adolescent peer-education plan talks about same-sex attraction, contraception and even gender-based violence. It explains in detail about the concept of consent and respect. “Yes, adolescents frequently fall in love. They can feel attraction for a friend or any individual of the same or opposite sex. It is normal to have special feelings for someone. It is important for adolescents to understand that such relationships are based on mutual consent, trust, transparency and respect. It is alright to talk about such feelings to the person for whom you have them but always in a respectful manner… Boys should understand that when a girl says ‘no’ it means no,” reads the text.
The Health Secretary C K Mishra, during the unveiling of this new program spoke about the need for such a move. “Despite the expansion of media, there are many unanswered questions in the minds of young people in villages. Saathiya will address these questions. We are also talking about behavioural change and a change in thinking,” Mishra said. The resource material prepared in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund also dispels gender stereotypes in the section on mental health. “A boy can cry to give vent to his feelings. He can also be soft-spoken or shy. Being rude and insensitive is not a sign of masculinity. It is alright for boys to like things like cooking and designing that are normally associated with girls; adopting the role of the other gender does not mean that he is not male. The same applies for girls who talk too much or like to dress like boys or play games like boys. It is wrong to label such people as ‘sissy’ or ‘tomboy’.”
It also deals with issues such as smoking, addiction, and provides information on STDs, contraception, and for the first time in the history of Indian education talks about masturbation in a positive light by listing it as one of the topmost options for practising “safe sex”. It also has information on abortion and the need for parental or consent of guardian for girls younger than 18 years who want to undergo abortion.
As a country that has been lagging behind in terms of providing children with adequate information about sex, sexuality and sexual health, this is a great step. But, the same brings forth the question if we are ready for a movement such as Day of Silence. While the event would have some impact in urban areas, where there is already circulation of relevant information, it would do nothing in rural areas. At the moment, it is more important for us, as a nation, to spread more information, rather than stay silent.
That being said, we are living at a time of great hope. While the regressive laws still exist, we also have politicians such as Shashi Tharoor who are on the forefront of this fight. The religious bodies and conservative groups that constantly spout the same old ‘against Indian culture’ (for the lack of a better word) bullshit, is already losing the battle outside the courts. It is only a matter of time before the law changes in our favour as well. Until then, let’s keep fighting.