Ten years ago, I was writing for Varta about an unnamable, invisible city of desire composed of letters that gay and bisexual men wrote to each other in the 1990s. I had tried to capture the thrill, urgency, release, and the bittersweet disappointment that men desiring other men had felt then in the pre-Internet years. In three months, same-sex sexual activity would be recriminalized by the Supreme Court of India.
The previous four years had held a certain promise for queer lives. There was greater visibility and hope for transformation. In 2009, the Delhi High Court in a landmark judgement had decriminalized same-sex sexual relations. It was not enough but it was quite something, a culmination of more than a decade and a half of queer activism to claim sexual citizenship. In December 2013, despite the setback, there was ‘no going back’. In 2018, the Supreme Court legitimized the LGBTQIA+ communities.
The years 2009, 2013, 2018 have become the inevitable setting of queer lives and memories in India. This back and forth between becoming acceptable and being illicit forms the texture of our queer lives.
How does one think of time in the context of queer becoming? The linearity of past, present, future is perhaps as mythic and tenuous as normative desire. Imagining the future for queers seems to me to be a treacherous romantic thing. What I present before you instead are a snapshot of memories and a politics of hope.
Since 2009, I have tried to make gender and sexuality central concerns in the sociology classroom. From discussing the histories of the queer movements to critiquing the sociological canon from a gender-sensitive and queer lens, I have tried to make conversations on sexuality in the classroom less exotic and more significant. The issue is not so much that the sociology syllabi in India do not include sexuality as a concern as it is the peripheral status accorded to it. In a course on stratification, class, caste, and race get precedence. Gender too gets included. Sexuality and its intersections with class, caste, race, and gender can be easily missed. It is also the topic most likely to be dropped if time does not permit syllabus completion.
What can discussions on sexuality in a classroom do? I believe that when we confront sexual difference in the classroom, we learn to understand and respect diversity. Queer perspectives and narratives of pride and suffering open a space not just for acceptance but critical self-understanding. Queer lives are so precarious that even a space bound by a timetable can be liberating. Being acknowledged and validated in a classroom may engender a hope to survive outside it, and sometimes, it is survival that is at stake.
However, safe classrooms remain uncommon, and sexuality is mostly ignored beyond its limited presence in the social sciences and humanities. When I was an MA student in 2007, I had to discover queer theory first on my own, quietly. Sexuality was not a part of the sociology syllabus yet. Today, when a student makes an intervention in my classroom with a phrase like “As a queer / gay / bisexual person…”, I cannot help but admire their courage. Courage is a fragile thing. It sits precariously, even unconsciously, on the struggles of many others, who have moved back and forth between acceptance and illegitimacy. It is also easily extinguished, if not nurtured with care.
In 2020, the National Education Policy announced by the University Grants Commission stated inclusivity in education as an overarching goal. It imagined inclusivity as the bridging of social gaps in terms of ‘access, participation and learning outcomes’ for the socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs). The SEDGs include those marginalized on the grounds of gender identities (women and transgender persons), sociocultural identities (Scheduled Tribes / Scheduled Castes / Other Backward Classes and minorities), geographical identities (students from rural areas, small towns, and aspirational districts), disabilities, and socioeconomic conditions like poverty, low income, migration, trafficking, and child beggary. There is a striking but an expected omission. The SEDGs do not include those marginalized on account of their sexual preference. The word ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual orientation’ does not feature in the NEP document at all. It is a classic instance of the heteronormativity of the State.
While the inclusion of transgender persons is commendable, the routes to their inclusion are not clear either. The costs of queerphobia in educational institutions are borne by queer individuals, mostly students but also visibly queer faculty and staff – from everyday bullying to mental health struggles, to death by suicide – many of these incidents are never reported and the tally of those reported is alarming enough. The NEP 2020 understands and demands that all stakeholders (administrators, teachers, counsellors, and students) be made sensitive to the needs of inclusivity and equity, but like the course on stratification, it goes as far as gender identities but ignores sexuality.
There exists a wide gap between the far-reaching aims of the NEP and the infrastructural and human resources needed to execute and implement the policy. As a teacher, I am frankly exhausted. Exceedingly, teachers are expected to be everything, all at once – erudite orators, ace technicians, smart administrators, sensitive counsellors, subtle marketeers – the only thing amiss is a cape! Making the classroom a safe space for non-normative individuals appears more of a personal goal than a social imperative of an inclusive education.
If the present situation is not hopeless enough, hatred is threatening to become our national pastime. The young boy who has lost his life to bullying in a university hostel is a chilling reminder of how deeply entrenched our prejudices are, and how much tireless work awaits us. I cannot fathom what the future is. The juggernaut of capitalism (and certainly the NEP is about capitalism in profound ways) has got us stuck in an endless present.
Yet, as a teacher and a student of social sciences, I can keep alive the memories of all those who have struggled against or been silenced by prejudice in the classroom. I will keep telling their stories in the hope that someday, sometime in the future, our educational institutions will be known for nurturing and protecting difference. If this appears like a utopia, it is. A politics of failure is also a queer politics of hope.
Main graphic credit: Blackboard image courtesy Cliparts.co via Wikimedia Commons