“I’m trying to build a culture of compassion, understanding, and of service. I’m trying to build a culture of questioning the status quo,” said Shivanee Sen, a young teacher from Tagore International School in Delhi, where she is mentoring the first student-led campaign in India to address LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex) issues.
In six months, Sen has mobilized a group of over 50 students to address issues of gender and sexuality in education and politics. What they have done in a short amount of time is more than what most established GSA’s in the U.S. do in years, she told feministteacher.com.
Gay–straight alliances are student-led clubs, found primarily in North American high schools, colleges and universities that work to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation.
Called Breaking Barriers, Sen’s group was initially to inspire students to care about the hijras, a community of transgender women, intersex individuals, and eunuchs in India who are marginalized both socially and economically.
Sen’s students have taken on work that is usually done by experienced activists, making it the first such group, local media reported.
Last summer, all of her students trained with one of the leading feminist human rights groups in India, CREA, dedicating six weeks worth of weekends to learn about queer issues and activism.
After completing their training, students then led LGBTQI inclusion and awareness workshops for their entire high school faculty of teachers and fellow students.
Prior to the trainings, there were some teachers and students who associated homosexuality with bestiality, disease, and immorality.
The trainings that the students have created for their teachers and peers include an extensive PowerPoint with definitions, graphs, and resources.
Students also protested against the recent restoring of the Indian penal code 377, an archaic law that makes gay sex a criminal offense and punishable by up to life imprisonment. In 2009, Delhi’s high court had overturned the colonial era law but the Supreme Court reversed it in January 2014.
“LGBTQI people suffer more in terms of harassment, assault, and suicide. Of course, I wanted my students to learn about these issues, especially since in India, no one talks about it,” Sen said.
Students shared that they felt most proud of changing the school climate in relation to talking about queer issues, albeit slowly. “Our friends all know that if they are about to say something homophobic, that we will pounce on them,” a student told feministteacher.com.
Even with a changing climate at this particular school, coming out in India is still a challenge for young people. “There are no out students at the school, at least not publicly,” Sen said.
In India, people generally are not comfortable talking about sexuality or reproductive rights or issues like menstruation or sexual desire, even within the family, let alone within the classroom. “These issues are swept under the carpet. As a result, there’s an enormous amount of ignorance and denial,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, director of research at the Harvard School of Public Health.