*The Case of a Prestigious Indian Liberal Arts University
It is unfortunate that a ‘bastion’ for liberal education considers it taboo to have a conversation on LGBTQ issues beyond classroom discourses.
(*Note: This article reflects the personal views of the author. The name of the institute and concerned persons associated with the incidents stated have not been disclosed in order to avoid any defamation charges as Gaysi cannot corroborate the incidents. However, it is worth mentioning that the purpose of this article is to raise awareness and encourage protest against discriminatory practices prevalent in so-called ‘progressive’ Indian universities)
A degree in Liberal Arts has sprung up within the Indian universities only in recent years. This stream allows individuals to delve into multiple disciplines including but not limited to the sciences, humanities, literature, culture, psychology, philosophy, communication, business etc. While there are presently over 500 liberal arts institutes in USA – a sizeable number, only a handful of Indian universities offer three or four year undergraduate programs.
I joined one such liberal arts institute for my PGDM in Communication in 2014. Before joining the university, I told my immediate family and close friends that I was interested in men. I used the college as a testing ground in initial months to come out to the world, starting with my batch-mates followed by professors. Most faculty members and students within the Communication, Literary & Cultural Studies, and Sociology departments were accepting to alternative, sometimes radical views. However, the management at that particular university considered it taboo to have a conversation especially on LGBTQ issues beyond classroom discourses, be it during events, conferences or theatre performances.
I personally experienced this during my first year in college. The longtime and well-loved dean of Communication had just resigned and was succeeded by stalwart from a renowned Ahmedabad-based management institute. Initially, I had no major issues with the new dean and regarded him an excellent professor.
He was keen on involving himself in a 3 day seminar on contemporary issues featuring guest speakers held by the postgraduate school of Communication. I was then part of its core committee. A theme was mutually agreed upon: ‘Digital Future is Here’.
I was familiar with Gaysi, an online platform for LGBTQ individuals to share their stories, and thought they would be perfect representatives to speak on how the digital medium was mobilizing minority communities and movements. They readily agreed to participate. When the dean was intimated on this, he initially did not raise an objection. Then one afternoon our entire team was summoned to his office. Turns out he did not know until then what LGBTQ meant!
He raised arbitrary and frivolous concerns, such as pointing out that their website had a small column for erotica stories, which was ‘infringing’ the university’s policy that blocked terms like ‘sex’ and ‘porn’ on its networks. He also mentioned in passing that ‘his superiors might pose further challenges’ which is why rejecting them beforehand would be a suitable preemptive measure. We on our part tried to reason with him and ultimately raised the issue with the co-founder and then Vice Chancellor of the college. She initially supported us but caved in soon after a tête-à-tête with the dean. This is when we decided to give up the fight.
This incident had some frightening manifestations. Whenever I would reinitiate a conversation around LGBTQs or even proposed other left of field ideas, some of my friends would remark resignedly, “Oh let’s not suggest this because it’ll be shot down anyway!”. The same ‘liberal arts’ institution that bombarded us with concepts like ‘hegemony’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘resistance’ etc was teaching us to conform to long prevailing societal norms and to throw in the towel rather than breaking barriers and making a difference.
Things did not change much after this dean left the university (within the same year that too) to return to his home turf. I learnt from one of my juniors that the registrar cum member of the university’s governing body was preventing the student committee from inviting an LGBTQ theatre troupe on campus.
I choose to speak about it today, nearly a year after graduating, because it has deeply affected my self esteem over time. I have become cagey once again about disclosing my sexuality or gender identity. In the process, I have become cold and aloof with most people and more restricted in my contributions when I have a million ideas that spring from my unique experience living as a gender-queer homosexual.
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t bowed down so easily to the management at my University. I should not have lied to the organization Gaysi that we couldn’t accommodate them due to ‘scheduling conflicts’. I wish I had sought further support from other LGBTQ students at the college as well as allies within the university fraternity, be it students or professors, or involved an external LGBTQ organization and held the institute accountable what really was gross injustice.
I wish I had exposed my University, a bastion of liberal education, which I hold in high regard nevertheless, for its hypocrisy when it came to the LGBTQ issues. I didn’t do it back then, and so want to say it now, and say it loud and clear: You cannot be a liberal education and leave us LGBTQs out.
Perhaps take a cue from Ashoka University, which currently has a Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality!