Do we like our health ministers homophobic and our queer surveys alarmist, asks Poorva Rajaram
A NEW SURVEY, the first of its kind, was conducted to find out the experiences of LGBT students in India. It statistically proves what we all know: colleges are inhospitable places. The survey, which included campuses across the country like the IITs, JNU and University of Pune, had 272 respondents, both Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) and straight. It explored issues of mental health, harassment and coming out that affect LGBT youth. One of its findings was that “nearly 90 percent respondents reported hearing anti-gay slurs in their colleges”. The survey also found LGBT youth are still overwhelmingly closeted.
However, the trickiness inherent in interpreting such a survey was evident when an alarmist article appeared in a newspaper, hastily concluding that queer students are twice as likely to feel suicidal (even as the survey suggests 37 percent of the LGBT students have felt suicidal compared to 30 percent of the straight ones). The other tempering factor was the small sample size of the survey, and the even smaller sample of the straight students (around 59). Additionally, in answer to the blunt question, “Have you ever been depressed?”, 65 percent of the straight students said yes, close to the figure of 84 percent LGBT students who said yes. The news flash appears to be: students can be depressed, that too, in large numbers.
For the new LGBT think-tank called MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment) responsible for the survey, the results present an intriguing challenge. They want to arm themselves with statistical data when confronting college authorities but don’t want to (and statistically can’t) paint a gratuitous picture of a depressed LGBT youth to the public. “We undertook the survey to give numerical backing to our long-held belief that homophobia exists on campuses,” says Udayan Dhar, convenor of MINGLE.
MINGLE, an advocacy group of academics, lawyers and health professionals, wants to cement gains made by existing queer groups in campuses, offices, law and health sectors. The group will bring a number-crunching sheen to Indian LGBT activism, to help them lobby with bureaucratic organisations swayed by statistical proof. Luckily, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s comments on homosexuality being a disease have demonstrated the need for conversations about LGBT policy issues.
In 2009, a study in Bengaluru ran into trouble. It was titled “Psychological Distress in Queer Identified Women in Bengaluru”. Instead of exploring complex issues affecting queer women, the study aimed to distress hunt, which turned into a distressing hunt when it found relatively happy and well-adjusted queer women.
An alarmist article in a newspaper concluded queer students are twice as likely to feel suicidal
Untangling the pressures on LGBT college students and presenting them as digestible statistics is not easy either. Rahul Sharma, 25, a recent graduate and adviser to the survey clarifies, “Northeastern girls and Dalit students usually face the most harassment on campuses.” Sharma, who runs a group called Queer Campus, has the unenviable task of using the survey without sensationalising its results. He feels it will be useful because “it is impossible to start a discussion on this with some college administrations”. He hopes to eventually approach medical, management and engineering colleges.
It seems fair to ask, is an unsensational survey of use to anyone?
Poorva Rajaram is a Correspondent with Tehelka.