“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”James Baldwin
One of the most challenging decisions for a queer person to make is about disclosing their sexual and/or gender identity. The individual has to make a difficult choice, usually based on a benefit versus cost analysis of staying in or out of the closet. This experience naturally has strong emotional implications on the individual’s personality and behaviour. While staying in the closet has detrimental effects on the psychology and quality of life of a queer individual, coming out of the closet may in some cases pose life-threatening consequences.
Until recently, the conversation on sexuality and gender in the workspace was minuscule. This attitude also extends to academia, wherein queer individuals often report feeling alone, unwelcome and unsupported. Queer intellectuals are often subject to discrimination and forced to snuff their identities in a desperate attempt at a chance for pursuing a career. Despite honourable contributions from the queer community, such as the efforts of Alan Turing in ending World War II, and Sarah Josephine Baker with her developments in child hygiene and preventative medicine, there exists a heteronormative purview amongst scholars. A survey conducted by Queer in Stem revealed that about 60 per cent of LGBQ scientists and engineers were out in their personal lives, but only 16 per cent of them were out at work. A separate part of the survey looked specifically at transgender and gender non-binary scientists and found similar results.
The complication of revealing one’s identity in academia in heteronormative India has been observed particularly in the case of Ramchandra Siras. A linguist and author, Siras was a professor at Aligarh University and head of the Department of Modern Indian Languages. On being illegally filmed in his house, having consensual sex with his partner by a local cable network, the authorities in Aligarh University rather than lodging a complaint against those who had spied and trespassed on university property, suspended him from the campus. Furthermore, the university’s action was backed by a certain student and faculty members who stated that Siras had acted against AMU’s ‘history of culture and tradition’ and that ‘such acts give rise to AIDS’. He had been placed under suspension by AMU vice-chancellor PK Abdul Aziz on charges of homosexuality at his house on the campus. The Allahabad high court later revoked the suspension and ordered his reinstatement after he filed an appeal. However, a few days later the professor was found dead in his residence. Such is the extent of homophobia in the country, that an eminent scholar rather than being respected as a human being and valued for his contributions, is humiliated and tortured into a traumatic existence.
The danger of being oneself in a society that is unaccepting of queer identities also hampers fieldwork. When people of a particular community with intolerant and uninformed views regarding non-binary identities are to be approached for data collection, knowledge about a researcher’s queerness may lead to a manifestation of prejudice, thereby affecting the results of a study. The risks for being out on the field are very location dependent, since laws regarding homosexuality differ globally, with countries like Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia considering it an offence punishable by death. At a more individual level, the stress of having to fight homophobia in the workplace puts an unbearable amount of cognitive load on the academicians, whose main goal is to improve and build knowledge.
Tackling the problem:
- Fighting prejudice. The academic space needs to be enlightened about the prejudice of an imposed heteronormative standard. By creating a general awareness in the society, about gender and sexual identities and destigmatising the discussion of these topics, people can become more accepting and open to understanding queer individuals. Academic spaces need to be reminded that it is their responsibility to help develop society and help keep it informed and that by further perpetuating prejudice, they are failing in their duty as scholars. By recognizing homosexual and transgender identities in the workspace, academic institutions can set a good example, and help normalize the non-binary.
- Fraternizing the scientific community. Creating an inclusive atmosphere where all individuals feel included, irrespective of their identity can help foster self-confidence and help pave the way for healthy collaborative contributions. In such an environment, queer individuals would feel comfortable being themselves, without needing to fight against a prescribed identity. Furthermore, queer individuals should not be expected to earn the respect of their peers by “overcompensating” for their identities. Each person is to be respected as an individual.
- Focusing on what matters. By highlighting the importance of ideas and the real objective of being part of an academic community – which is fostering knowledge, the inappropriateness of being homophobic at the workplace can be emphasized.
- Majumder, R. (2016, June 13) The locked door – The life and death of Dr. Srinivas Ramchandra Siras. Retrieved from: http://www.pen-outwrite.org/the-locked-door-the-life-and-death-of-dr-srinivas-ramchandra-siras-rishi-majumder/
- Nelson, B. (2019, May 14) Proud to be different in STEM. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/proud-be-different-stem
- Ragen, B. (2017, June 28) Being queer in the jungle: The unique challenges of LGBTQ scientists working in the field. Retrieved from: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcblog/2017/06/28/being-queer-in-the-jungle-the-unique-challenges-of-lgbtq-scientists-working-in-the-field/