IIT – Madras on Saturday held its first ever event to discuss issues of sexual minorities — a film screening and a two-hour-long debate among activists, parents, students and professors — an event that might set an example for other educational institutes in inclusiveness.

In an online survey conducted by a student group in the institute recently, nearly 60 per cent of the 325 respondents said they supported gay rights. In recent months, there have been many attempts to enhance awareness of LGBT issues on campus. A few months ago, a post written by a student in the campus newsletter ‘The Fifth Estate’, titled ‘Standard Deviation’, brought to light the neglect, struggles and concerns of a student dealing with homosexuality on the IIT- Madras campus.

“Today’s event was a culmination of events following the post. The campus, including teachers and students are learning to listen, trying to figure it out, which is a very good thing,” said Karthik Rajkumar, an electrical engineering student, who was one of the organisers of the event. The event was convened by L. Ramakrishnan, country director (programmes and research) of NGO Saathi and organised by the Guidance and Counselling Unit of IIT –M, Mitr.

Other IITs and reputed institutes in other cities already have an active forum or a student group that organises regular LGBT events. For instance, in 2011, IIT-B set up a support group, Saathi, to help homosexual students accept their sexuality. IISc has probably the country’s oldest LGBT group on its campus, started as early as in 2002. IIT Kanpur and IIT Delhi too have student groups on their campuses.

“All IITs are dominated by male students, and many are homophobes too. It is difficult to come out if you are gay, and almost impossible to say you are proud of it. The only good thing is you will also find people who will understand you, which might not be the case in other institutions,” said a student of IIT- Madras.

The scenario is worse in other colleges. Activists say there are at least half-a-dozen gay clubs that function quietly in engineering, medical and journalism colleges, mostly for students to seek protection and share experiences. Chemistry Club, the youth initiative of Chennai Dost, serves as a platform for LGBT student networks in various educational institutions. But Vikranth, founder, Chennai Dost, said it is not easy convincing colleges to conduct seminars or events on LGBT topics. “Most of them refuse to talk to us. Some say they are prestigious institutes and do not want to promote such activities.”

An engineering college near Tambaram has a club with 23 members but the college management recently told the convener of the group to not hold discussions on college campus. “They said they wanted the rooms to be used for other purposes but when we used the college name in a mail circulated to members, they asked us not to do it. The principal wrote a mail to us saying they will not promote such activities, as they believe in family values,” the student added.

Most college managements, said Vikranth, see homosexuality as a health issue and do not encourage a community-driven approach. “They are okay with NGO volunteers who can talk about AIDS or other health issues related to homosexuality but they will not allow lectures on civil rights or lifestyle. There is also an inherent fear in colleges that parents would be enraged at such activities. “Many think the students might convert their wards. Many professors are not even aware of the difference between transgenders and gay individuals; some still think homosexuality is curable. It is very important to sensitise them too,” he added.

“Homosexual jokes are very common in college and often, there are heated debates among students on these topics. On college days, when the hosts sit down to collect jokes to entertain the audience, those about homosexual students are the most common. Even the ‘confession’ pages on social networking sites are full of are full of nasty comments about the community. All this makes it difficult for us to accept our orientation,” said a student of a college affiliated to Anna University.

There are nearly 80 students in Chemistry club, and Vikranth feels it would be a good community building exercise if colleges reach out for professional help. Many colleges, including Stella Maris, Loyola College, Sathyabhama University, SRM University, Sairam College of Engineering, have informal and formal groups of LGBT students. The sense of being part of a community, says Magdalene Jeyarathnam, founder, Centre for Counselling, is very important, as homosexual students are in a minority.

Professional help is also needed to help students come to terms to their sexual orientation and combat fear, loneliness and confusion, she said.

“If the colleges does not want any outsider interference, it should give a space to homosexual students on its campuses, let them meet and discuss issues so that they feel validated and acknowledged. The hindrance from academic institutions to hosting such meetings, comes from a thinking that homosexual people straightway are obsessed with sex, which is wrong,”

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