Written by Bhavika Malik and Ahhana Verma
Homosexuality and variance in gender identity were accepted and even embraced in ancient India. Artworks and tales of Hindu mythology, scriptures, statues, and sculptures recovered from the olden days indicate the presence of a third gender – which many scholars speculate was an antiquated term for the LGBTQ+ community. There was little stigma and erasure in Indian society. But in the 1800s, India’s age of acceptance and sexual diversity came to an end.
Life under the British crown was more prudish. The colonial powers promised a “new age of civility” and a break away from the “savage lifestyle” that the British claimed existed in India. With that in mind, Britishers created a society focused on abstinence apart from procreation and implemented Article 377.
The introduction of Article 377 in the Indian constitution in 1861 criminalised engaging in sexual activities or carnal desires “against the order of nature”; this included engaging in any sexual activities that did not cause procreation. So, homosexuality was illegal. Fortunately, the emergence LGBTQ+ rights movement in India in the early 2000s amended Article 377 on the 6th of September 2018. India thereby decriminalised homosexuality.
In 2019, Protection of Rights for Transgender Persons (Act 40) was introduced. It aimed to improve the quality of life of transgender Indians but received heavy criticism from trans and LGBTQ+ rights activists. It was an archaic model that required trans people to undergo reassignment surgery before issuing a certificate to identify as transgender.
This level of sensitivity or lack thereof by the governing bodies means that promises of a better future lie with the next generation. However, the approach of the Indian education system toward sensitisation of these issues is hindering the nation’s progress.
Moral and social development starts at schools, with education often being reflective of society; it imitates and reproduces ideas fostered in a country. Therefore, inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community must begin in a national space and promptly make its way into the school halls to create a safe environment for LGBTQ+ youth.
The implicit anti-LGBTQ+ bias in India fuels epistemic injustice and erasure.
The knowledge and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community are usually given less credit, hence causing a strategic erasure of the community. Politically motivated arguments often invalidate the LGBTQ+ community as well.
A part of the problem is hermeneutical injustice. Lack of conceptual framework about LGBTQ+ community and gender fluidity mean the public is educated irresponsibly about these concepts. As a result, many people who identify as LGBTQ+ are misunderstood and face violence.
“I had imagined a variety of viewpoints [about change in how people viewed me once I realised my sexual identity]. I felt that some may be absolutely against [it] and willing to separate us from our families so as to convert us. I also imagined that some would be accepting of our existence but would not accept one of their own as LGBTQ+.” – anonymous.
Hermeneutical injustice is more apparent in rural areas, where people do not have adequate internet access; hence they rely on pseudo-scientific substitutes that deem homosexuality immoral and suggest corrective rape as a solution.
The stigma and erasure must be plucked from its roots – the Indian Board of School Education. A study done by Boston Consulting Group praised Delhi education reform for its progressive approach to education in an eight-page long report. However, they remiss discussion about the alarming rates of LGBTQ+ youth suicide and dropouts.
Moreover, the lack of LGBTQ+ writers in the CBSE curriculum propagates heteronormativity in art and literature. In the CBSE literature guide, works by Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf are not included, despite their cultural and social relevance. In the rare instances where Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey is studied, the homoerotic themes of the text are often re-interpreted as “close friendships”.
Apart from the exclusion of queer writers from CBSE literary cannons, schools also neglect discussions regarding LGBTQ+ rights, sexual orientation, and gender fluidity. Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a transwoman and LGBTQ+ activist, talked about her abuse at school.
“At 12, 13 and 14, I had to internalise all this violence for the sheer fear that I may let it out to others and bring peril upon myself and my parents,” she said while recalling her time at school.
Most teachers are not trained to approach bullying and harassment of LGBTQ+ students. As a result, many don’t. By denying support and help to students, teachers and school staff deem the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community negligible and enable bullying. Thus, continuing the cycle.
“There barely has been any [education about LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance]. The students that had come out got both immense love and support but spite at the same time.”
“I once said the word lesbian while talking to my friend; the teacher immediately shushed me and said she will take me to the principal if I say that word again.”
Of a UNESCO survey conducted in India about violence and bullying of the LGBTQ+ community, 60% of respondents faced physical violence and bullying in middle and high school. In 47% of these bullying cases, the perpetrators faced no consequences.
Bullying has severe consequences on LGBTQ+ youth. Over 73% of those bullied experienced reduced social interactions, 70% suffered from anxiety and depression, 63% experienced a decline in academic performance, and 53% skipped classes frequently. And almost a third (33.33%) of the bullying victims dropped out of school due to the harassment.
The high rates of LGBTQ+ students dropout limits social progress. Lack of representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in academic fields and social work in India makes it easier for the country to efface queer identities. Ultimately, this displaces the LGBTQ+ youth from public view in India.
Schools therefore play an instrumental role in eliminating discriminatory attitudes. Without proper support from the Indian education system, LGBTQ+ youth cannot fight the erasure and violence that circumscribes their future. Policies cannot curb the stigma and erasure if the policymakers hold prejudiced views. Familiar challenges await LGBTQ+ youth unless we, as a society, actively seek out and destroy the erasure that lurks in every corner of every classroom.
*quotes have remained anonymous to ensure the safety of those interviewed.