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INDIA: Campuses Lead Gay Rights Struggle

Ranjita Biswas

KOLKATA, India, Sep 5 2011 (IPS) - It was with some trepidation that Nivvedan, a student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – Bombay, helped launch ‘Saathi’ (Companion), catering to the needs of people with different sexual orientations on campus.

Yet, when Saathi held its first meeting in July it attracted not only students but also alumni and even some members of the faculty. “There’s a lot of confusion around sexuality in our society. We have encountered it in our campus too,” Nivvedan told IPS.

Nivvedan expects Saathi to grow as “students who need support gain better confidence in the sessions. Right now most of them would rather discuss things in an informal way with other fellow students.”

“I believe the issue of sexual orientation, homosexuality etc. should be discussed and awareness created right from student life,” said Nivvedan, acutely conscious of the fact that the initiative is the first one of its kind on an Indian campus.

Ketan Tanna, activist with ‘Gay-Bombay’, an informal group of “like-minded gay people,” says: “None of the colleges in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has active lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism or any guidance cell, so this is a first.”

The initiative by IIT-Bombay suggests that gay rights are slowly gaining acceptance into India’s conservative society and that its decriminalisation by an order of the Delhi High Court order in 2009 is beginning to have an effect.

In 2009, British colonial law dating back more than 150 years ago that held same-sex relationships as ‘unnatural’, was overturned by the Delhi High Court, responding to a clamour for change from gay rights activists and members of civil society.

“A level of dialogue around sexuality began after the Delhi High Court ruling,” Magdalene Jeyarathnam, founder-director of the Centre For Counselling in southern Chennai city, told IPS. “There has been a surge in the number of young people who have come out over the past couple of years.”

“I see this movement gaining power, strength and momentum with each passing day,” she added. Pawan Dhall, director of the Kolkata-based NGO ‘Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India’ which pioneered a sensitisation movement on gay rights in the late 1990s, said the country’s top campuses are in fact leading gay rights activism.

In Kolkata, a group called ‘Students against Campus Homophobia’ is active in the city’s Jadavpur University (JU), well known for its liberal ambience as well as academic excellence. JU already offers ‘Queer Studies’ as an optional subject at the post-graduate level in its English department.

JU alumnus Parjanya Sen who took the Queer Studies optional paper told IPS: “From the broader perspective we learnt to reexamine the underlying text of sexuality whether in Indian writing or English.” Sen said the ‘Queer Studies’ course helps him with his current work teaching in a co-educational college. “When I explain nuances, say in Oscar Wilde’s work, or n some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I encounter a lot of curiosity about the subject and a desire to learn about the sexuality issue and I’m pretty comfortable with it.

“My own sexual orientation is not a secret either,” he added.

Sen admits, however, that outside the class he would not be as comfortable because the existence (of homophobia) in academic institutions is a fact. “But the younger generation is much more accepting of the ‘other’, I find.”

Kolkata also hosted the first Gay parade in India in 2003. The ‘Rainbow Walk’ is now an annual feature and other metros like New Delhi and Mumbai have followed.

Gay rights activism and awareness followed the AIDS awareness campaigns that were launched in the country in the 1990s and quickly caught the imagination of the country’s vibrant media.

“We have been fighting for a rights-based approach and inclusiveness from the 1990s. Today, it is heartening to see some change coming our way,” says Malobika, founder-member of ‘Sappho’, a forum for lesbians in Kolkata. She had to flee the town with her partner in the 90s under family pressure.

“Today, legal help and better sensitisation of the administration have helped us to go even to villages and spread the message of tolerance and understanding towards lesbian couples,” Malobika said.

Tanna observes a gradual change in attitude among parents. “In Mumbai, there is now a group of parents and relatives of LGBT youngsters who meet and interact with parents who have just found out about their child’s sexuality,” he says. “This is a sure sign of change.”

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