KOLKATA, India—As punishments go, it was cruel and unusual.
Earlier this year, Kamala Girls’ School in Kolkata, West Bengal, forced 10 of its students to sign a “confession letter” in which they “admitted” to being lesbians. The acting headmistress, Sikha Sarkar, said other students had complained that the girls had been seen holding hands and putting their arms around one another.
“Considering the sensitive nature of the issue, I asked them to admit it in writing,” she said. It was an attempt to put the girls back “on the right course.” The girls’ parents stormed her office and had it out with her. (They also submitted the signed letters to the police.)
It might have remained a minor, albeit distasteful, story had West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee not decided to lodge his foot firmly in his mouth by siding with the school. While announcing an inquiry into the matter, he also claimed that homosexuality was “against the ethos of our state.”
“We will not inculcate the idea of lesbianism in schools,” he said. “It is against Bengal culture.” By the time the girls were back in class—“The matter is solved,” the acting headmistress claimed—the story had gone national.
It is unclear if the girls in question are homosexual or otherwise. It’s also entirely irrelevant. The fact that the school saw lesbianism both as something to be punished and something it would be humiliating to admit to—not to mention the fact that it considered humiliation an acceptable form of disciplinary action in the first place—is what is most striking here. The fact that the girls’ parents appeared to take issue, not with the school’s homophobia, but with what they perceived as a slur, comes a close second.
Not that Kolkata’s LGBTQ community was particularly surprised.
“We’re about a century behind on these issues,” says Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, an openly gay multidisciplinary artist as we sit in a café in Hindustan Park. (He isn’t related to the education minister.) The neighborhood, he says, is one of those “pockets of the city where no one cares who you fuck.”
“There are plenty of pockets that are extremely homophobic,” he says, “but this thankfully isn’t one of them.”
He says the Kamala Girls’ School incident sends a damaging message to young LGBTQ people in Kolkata and beyond.
“I don’t know if the girls are gay,” he says, “but let’s assume for a moment that they are. What does punishing them like this say? What does it say to other young gay people? Did anyone try talking to them? Counseling them? Helping them? Of course not. They punished them instead.
“What the education minister had to say was very revealing and relevant for this reason,” he continues. “He clearly doesn’t understand his position. He’s supposed to be making sure that children get an education and that they get it in a safe and nurturing environment. Instead he’s telling them and others that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them.”
Bangalore-based Sayantika Majumder, a queer activist and spoken-word poet who hails from Kolkata, agrees.
“This kind of targeted homophobia can lead young people, who are still coming to terms with their bodies and sexuality, to repress themselves,” she says. “It can also deter straight allies. It reinforces heteronormativity and says that ‘being gay is not OK,’ which leads in turn to greater discrimination.”
She says the story made national headlines because the prejudices it exposed were so widely held.
“This may be a regional story, but it’s also one that could have happened anywhere,” she says. “It’s not an isolated incident. It’s a reflection of Indian society as a whole and its attitude towards homosexuality. Most of the country is a long way from accepting such relationships.”
To this extent, the incident would appear to highlight the divide between the progress the country has made on LGBTQ rights—at least at the national level—and discrimination as it occurs on the ground.
In August last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that privacy and freedom of sexual orientation were fundamental rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution, paving the way for a review of Section 377 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature.” Introduced by the British in the 1860s, the section was decriminalized with regards to consenting adults by the High Court of Delhi in 2009, but then it was reinstated when the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court four years later.
The leader of the Indian National Congress opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, recently told an audience in Bangalore that he was ready to do away with the section. (Torn between its vision of India as a modern liberal democracy and the staunch Hindu conservatives who brought it to power, Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has hedged its bets by remaining comparatively mum.) And in January, it was announced that a review of the section would take place before the end of the year.
But Majumder says such “progress” leaves a lot to be desired. “Legislative progress—if you can really call it that—isn’t much better than progress at the social level,” she says. “We’re still a long way from equal rights. From being able to marry or legally co-parent. If my girlfriend wound up in the hospital for some reason, I wouldn’t be allowed in the ICU because I’m not technically family.”
Last year, India’s Law Commission asked a group of prominent citizens to research and draft a uniform civil code that wound grant “equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, guardianship, inheritance and succession” to people “irrespective of their gender, sex and sexuality, religious or cultural traditions or beliefs.” But within two months of the draft being delivered, Law Commission Chairman Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan had nixed the idea.
For many members of India’s LGBTQ community, repealing Section 377 is merely the first step on a much longer road.
“Even if the government repeals this archaic law,” Gaysi magazine’s Pooja Nair tells me by email, “it will still be difficult on a lot of levels to gain some satisfactory level of equality in education systems, workplaces and public spaces. Urban centers are transforming quickly, and there is a lot of inclusiveness in the workplace at companies like [Mumbai-based conglomerate] Godrej.
“But education and access to information is often restricted to people in these center when it needs to be more vernacular,” she says. “We can only hope that changes at policy level will eventually trickle down to influence the everyday lives of queer individuals all over the country.”
Majumder says the urban-rural divide is such that this “trickle-down effect” is likely to prove glacial.
“Living in a city like Bangalore, it is easier to be out and proud,” she says. “But in most of India it is incomprehensible to imagine a 14-year-old girl coming out as a lesbian. There are no support groups in second-tier cities like there are in Bangalore or Mumbai. The feeling of isolation in such areas is huge.”
A sense of isolation is especially common among those who identify as transgender or gender nonbinary. As Chatterjee tells me: “The transgender community has it worse than any of us. They’re not struggling to achieve bathroom rights. They’re trying not to die in the streets.”
A few days after I meet with Chatterjee, I take the local EMU train down to the Kolkata neighbourhood of Jadavpur, where the Amra Odbhuth Café can be found on an unassuming residential street. While the café is open to all members of the LGBTQ community, co-founder Raina Ray tells me that it was specifically designed to be a safe space for the city’s transgender population. “Many people don’t have anywhere else to go,” she says.
Joined by café regular Sandeepta Das, a transgender dancer who’s also studying to be an animator, Ray says that the forced confessions at the girls’ school were not entirely dissimilar to what the transgender community puts up with every day. “It’s obvious that the school and the education minister are homophobic,” she says. “But it’s also true that lesbianism isn’t something you can necessarily see. When he says he’s not going to allow lesbianism in the schools, how can he know that he’s caught all the lesbians? Well, now we know. The confessions made the homosexuality the girls were accused of visible,” she says. “They made it something that could be pointed at and used in some idiotic crusade.” It’s something she understands instinctively. “We wear our confessions on our bodies,” she says.
This is not to say that homophobia is “better” or “easier to handle” than transphobia.
“No one should have their sexuality or gender identity announced or publicized against their will,” Das says. “No one has the right to make that decision for you. But it is easier to hide one than it is to hide the other. People can only discriminate against what they’re able to see.” Das has been disowned by her family and does not expect to find employment at the conclusion of her studies. Her boyfriend currently provides her with financial support. “So much for being an independent woman,” she says.
Majumder believes that greater representation of the LGBTQ community—in all its facets—in mainstream media and popular culture would do much to counter the country’s tendency toward ingrained ignorance and prejudice. It would also serve as a kind of outreach to those who believe that they’re alone.
Opinion leaders who support the cause should also be more vocal, she says. “Hollywood has Ellen and Portia. It has Rihanna. Australia has Ruby Rose. We just don’t have people with that sort of profile standing up to represent and defend the community. It would help to normalize LGBTQ issues a lot if we did.”
Normalization, Chatterjee says, is all the community really wants. “Being gay is no more central to my life than being straight is to yours,” he says. “But this is the India we live in. It’s still so strange and unknown here. One of the reasons the story about the schoolgirls exploded is because many people in the community don’t even know that lesbians exist. It was the first time they’d even heard the word.
“What India needs to realize is that homosexuality is real and that it’s completely normal,” he says. As for Section 377, he ignores it now and will continue to ignore it whether it’s repealed or not. “It’s impossible to break a law against nature by acting in one’s nature,” he says. “I’ll sign whatever you put in front of me. I can hardly confess to what isn’t a crime.”