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How comfortable are Indian queer students with coming out in schools?

School’s out. In a post-377 India, do LGBTQIA+ school-going teenagers feel more comfortable coming out and exploring their sexual identities?

When Amrita Ghosh came out to her entire school at a slam poetry event on stage last year, it was to thunderous applause.

She may have just turned 18, but Amrita has known that she is not straight for a while now. Around Class VII when girls around her were developing crushes and talking about ‘liking boys’, she would try and force herself to feel the same.

Two years later, she came out as queer to her family and friends. “I am a homoromantic bisexual woman,” she says with measured confidence. “It means I may be physically attracted to both genders, but I want to pursue a relationship with only a woman.” And she has, for the past four years, with full acceptance from her family.

Amrita is a denizen of the ‘rainbow revolution’ India, of a world post the reading down of Section 377 that criminalised homosexuality. As conversations around the fluidity of gender and sexuality amplify in mainstream media and consequently in drawing rooms, school-going children like Amrita are finding greater acceptance in exploring their identities — something previous generations may have done in college or later.

Though she says she still hasn’t “figured herself out” completely, she knew what she wanted the second she started dating a girl. “It was instinctive. It made me feel safer and comfortable, like I did belong there. I tried that with guys but within two days it was like, no I don’t want this,” she says.

A question that she would constantly face while coming out is, “Are you sure you are even old enough to know this?” But “Who is ever too young to explore?” she asks.

“I’m not saying kids can’t explore,” begins Anwesh Sahoo. “I’m just saying that what you know at that age is rudimentary. To truly understand and explore your sexuality and gender, it takes years.”

The 24-year-old came out in college, when he was 20 and won the Mr Gay World India beauty pageant, and has since then been an advocate of LGBTQIA+ rights. The NIFT student says he received messages on Instagram from 13 and 14-year-olds, telling him that they identify with his story.

How comfortable are Indian queer students with coming out in schools?

“It’s great that kids are exploring, but I would advise them to be careful. I know I have put myself in vulnerable situations, which I shouldn’t have.”

While Amrita and her queer friends are openly dating, when Anwesh was in school, there were no queer couples. All through his four years of college, he was the only openly gay man.

“It was a rather delayed adolescence for the gay community then, as compared to our cis-het counterparts. They started being attracted to girls when they were 13-14, but we were still confused. We weren’t attracted to women, and we couldn’t think of being attracted to men.” He too says that bringing down Section 377 was a game-changer.

Amrita acknowledges that as much as she has that to thank for, it had just as much to do with the family she was raised in — her father took her to her first Pride March — and the school she went to.

A healthy atmosphere

When Bengaluru-based Pride Circle announced a 21-day Ally Challenge earlier this month, they got a response from over 70 countries. However, in India, Delhi-based Tagore International School, Vasant Vihar, was the only school to take part in it.

Since 2013, the school has been holding a student-driven campaign with voluntary participation, called Breaking Barriers. About 30 children usually take part each year, from classes IX to XI.

“We felt we first needed to take permission from the parents, so the management sent out emails to parents saying that if they did not like it, we would not involve their child. But no parent said no, to the extent that parents would come and drop their children at the Pride parade that happens every year,” says Vedica Saxena, project director at the school.

There have been only a couple of students who have come and told her that ‘we would like to be a part of it, but our parents are not comfortable’.

It has been challenging with other schools. “Sometimes the teachers were on board and the principal was not or vice versa, sometimes the management was not.”

Support has come from unlikely places: from a school in Uttarakhand who wanted to be the first in the State to implement the programme; from a Government school in Delhi. The convents did not support it at all. Some teachers resisted because they would say they had no time to even finish the syllabus.

Says Anwesh, “Until we can say for sure that every queer kid in every nook and corner school of India is able to come out in a supportive atmosphere, we can’t make the statement that schools are more accommodating today than they were before.”

Gender dysphoria in children
  • Gender dysphoria — the feeling of one’s emotional and psychological identity to be opposite to one’s biological sex — can be present in children as young as five to six years of age, says Dr Shekhar Seshadri, psychiatrist and professor of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in NIMHANS, Bengaluru. “It also depends on the kind of gender roles that they get socialised in,” he adds.
  • “Among children reporting gender dysphoria, it normalises in a portion of them. But in the remaining too, among those who show opposite gender play, not all of them necessarily have a trans identity, they might just identify as homosexual as adults,” he says, pointing to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines.
  • According to WPATH’s Standard of Care book, in most children, gender dysphoria will disappear before, or early in, puberty. However, in some children these feelings will intensify and body aversion will develop or increase as they become adolescents and their secondary sex characteristics develop.
  • “Data from one study suggest that more extreme gender nonconformity in childhood is associated with persistence of gender dysphoria into late adolescence and early adulthood. Yet many adolescents and adults presenting with gender dysphoria do not report a history of childhood gender-nonconforming behaviors. Therefore, it may come as a surprise to others (parents, other family members, friends, and community members) when a youth’s gender dysphoria first becomes evident in adolescence,” it says. The book goes on to explain how mental health experts can aid the family and the adolescent in the transitioning process.
  • Dr Seshadhri says that for those teenagers with a trans identity, it is generally required for them to have at least two years of real time experience of living notion the gender they were born in, but in the gender they feel aligned to. “We extrapolate from that, and see if there are stable patterns. Sometimes parents might bring in a child saying they have already observed gender distress in them for four years at home. We have to take that evidence into account as well,” he says.
  • Agreeing that acceptance and awareness is slowly percolating into the fabric of civil society he says, “There are many youngsters who don’t want to be bound in the binary, as it is limiting in terms of understanding the range of human sexuality.”

I tell my story

As with every couple in school, there is gossip among students, but it is intensified when the couple is queer, says Amrita. “Our teachers, however, generally don’t address queer couples at all,” she says.

Luckily for her, she says, she is generally too absorbed in her own world to pay attention to that. What helped Amrita in her journey was the Internet. “It was through the Internet that I knew that I’m not alone.”

Self expression among teenagers has never been greater than in the TikTok and Snapchat generation. If there was Gay Tumblr for millennials using text and pictures, there is Gay TikTok for Gen-Z, using selfie videos. Here, it doesn’t matter if your hometown is not LGBT friendly. As umpteen YouTube compilations of these TikToks have shown, teenagers are using humour and creativity to give a voice to their lived experiences.

Moreover, websites such as Pink List, an archive of LGBTQIA+ supportive politicians, help give their understanding an Indian context, says Anwesh. “When we were growing up, we saw ourselves like how teens in the US did. I’m glad that the younger generation is getting to understand contextual queerness,” he says.

For Amrita, an ideal world would be where being straight isn’t the default identity. “We should start as blank slates and figure ourselves out as we go on,” she says.

With inputs from Sunalini Mathew

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 4:53:55 PM |

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