Coming out in NITT – an Alumni experience

Harish Karthikeyan graduated from NIT Trichy with a B. Tech in Computer Science and Engineering in 2015. He then went on to pursue his Masters’ in Computer Science at Columbia University, New York, which he completed in December 2016. He is currently a PhD student at the Courant Institute in the field of cryptography. This article is a continuation of our series about LGBTQ+ acceptance in NITT.

Opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee only. Feeds does not bear responsibility for the views of the person being interviewed.

What was your experience of being a non-straight person in NIT Trichy?
I think by the time I entered NIT Trichy, I knew I was drawn to men. The ambiguity was over whether I was drawn to women and I was not sure, but I got the answer pretty soon. Even with the awareness of my attraction to men, it was not an easy experience. Having entered NIT Trichy on the heels of bullying, I tried to fit in and act “straight”. In my desire to fit in, I ended up indulging in crass conversations that voluptuously characterized women. I do feel disgusted by what I did and I suppose I wasn’t woke enough. The desire to fit in actually made me contemplate asking a girl out, who I knew was attracted to me. Fortunately, I ended up walking along the edge of the cliff without jumping over. I do not think my conscience would have let me live in peace if I had done that, considering I knew for a fact that I was gay.
I suppose there were apps and websites to help. The fact that the concentration of men on the apps was so dispersed when compared to Chennai increased the loneliness. The idea of approaching other guys from campus, who were on these apps was even more daunting. Neither of us would have our pictures on and it was inevitably this dance over who would succumb to the temptation and share a picture. If the other person blocked you after you shared your picture, then there is one other person who knows you are gay but you do not know who they are and that is a very scary situation in a campus such as NIT Trichy which served toxic masculinity on a plate. A usual compromise was to meet in person but the delicate dance prevailed because our minds were stuck between temptation and fear, with fear ultimately winning over. Fortunately, my weekly trips to Chennai helped avoid these situations. However, I did hear that situation got so bad that a student on these apps ended up blackmailing his juniors on these apps. Unfortunately, it can only be blamed on the lack of a support group, and the acknowledgement that there existed members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus. The pervasive male privilege that ran amok on campus meant that such incidents could not be reported and it created an environment of paranoia among the members of the community who were already battling several demons.
In some ways, being a member of Balls By Picasso was heartening. It was a club where the hierarchy was flat and it was a club that was very accepting (a member went on to come out publicly in their final year). I would like to add that it could also be a male chauvinistic club. However, I would say most girls on campus did not become a member of the club and to a large extent, they self-restricted their activities on campus because some of the events happened overnight and the hassle over curfew was too daunting. However, I do have to apologize for being a part of encoding the chauvinism deeper into the genes of Balls By Picasso. However, Balls By Picasso for me was a no-judgement zone. I was not out but I knew that it did not matter whether I was gay or not. I would say finding such a group was a heartening part of NIT Trichy. Among the bigotry lay an accepting corner, a safe space.

How did internalised homophobia affect you and how did you learn to accept yourself?

I always say that I came out of my entire battle with accepting my sexuality with my faith unscathed. I think that helped immensely.

The journey towards me first realizing my attraction towards a hero to me coming to know that I was gay was a very gradual process. I think the gradation helped for sure. It was not something I realized overnight. It was also not something which I was forced to acknowledge when I was not ready. I think on both these counts I was lucky. The only lingering internalized homophobia was my discomfort around the members of the trans community and also drag performers. I suppose years of being called ali, ombodhu influenced it to a large part. I am truly fortunate that I managed to grow more comfortable through my final year at NIT Trichy and my initial year in NYC. Now I am a regular at drag shows in NYC and I even performed once. I also have several trans friends whom I met through various organizations. I think that is something I am fortunate to be a part of.

What was it like coming out to your friends and peers on campus?
The first person I ever told was a close friend of mine. The conversation happened in the summer before my final year, over text. I still remember that I did not say the words “I am gay”. But he knew what I was getting at and he understood. So, I suppose I never actually came out to him but I did. It was a challenging experience. It is this process wherein you have hidden your secret in a cocoon for years now. The cocoon is comfortable and the butterfly keeps coming close to breaking through the cocoon only to retreat because it does not know how the world is outside. The butterfly finally breaks through to rays of sunlight and it takes flight and that is how I felt when I finally told someone else, letting them in on a secret that I have held close to my chest for a decade. I then came out to two others and I gradually began coming out to more people. It was a transforming experience especially when they offered their support. I think the coming out of the fellow Balls member was also immensely helpful and now I knew someone to talk and have conversations with.

How did your family react when you came out to them?
I came out to my family in June 2018. It has not been easy. They do not know I am doing this interview. They were more liberal than I gave them credit though. They acknowledged that there can be someone without being attracted to women and even being attracted to men. However, it is baffling for them that I would want to act on that attraction towards another man. It is going to be a long process but I am going to be there for them, every step of the way as I am questioning and challenging years of dogmatic tradition and religious nonsense.

What would be the ideal way to react to someone who comes out to you?
Well, it is easy to say what not to do and here are a few things and I hope you get the drift.

  • DO NOT ask them how they knew.
  • DO NOT ask them the question of how they knew if they had never tried heterosexual stuff.
  • DO NOT ask them who else is queer among the mutual acquaintances.
  • DO NOT be surprised just because of their prior attempts to conform to heteronormativity.

The best way is to offer your support. Tell them that you are there for them if they ever need help. Do not reduce their sexuality to a trope such as “gay best friend”. If they come out as genderqueer, ask them for their preferred pronouns. Definitely apologize for any kinds of queerphobic actions you might have been a part of – knowingly or unknowingly. The power of sorry is immense and might be a small, but needed, bandaid for the deep gash that the society has left on our souls. Just remember that here is someone who is letting you in on a secret that they have carried for years. Respect the secret and respect their emotions.

What could be done to make the campus more LGBTQ+ friendly?
A first attempt would be to create an LGBTQ+ support group.
Perhaps more importantly, there are psychological services provided on campus. However, we need to make sure that they are LGBTQ+ friendly. Honestly, some of the psychiatrists/ psychologists in India are quacks who still peddle the outdated belief that homosexuality is a mental illness. My parents went to one who told them the exact thing. NEWS ALERT: The Indian Psychiatric Association declared it to be not a mental illness. If you find someone peddling that nonsense, record it and have their license revoked. We need to ensure that people who are stressed about their sexual/gender identity have access to resources. Implement strictest confidentiality requirements from the professionals. If word leaks to their parents, they need to be fired, sued and the institute needs to take the necessary steps to have their license revoked.
Ensure that there is a cell that deals with complaints about sexuality discrimination or instances of verbal abuse in the form of a homophobic remark. Professors need to be held accountable. Also, ensure that the professors do not take retributive action against the students.
Conduct sensitivity training programs. It is quite surprising that students and professors do not go through a workplace sexual harassment seminar. We need to couple that with LGBTQ+ awareness program. Include more speakers from the community during Pragyan, Festember and NITTFEST. Institute a rule that one speaker should be someone fighting for Women’s Rights or LGBTQ+ rights in each of these events. We need to address the toxic masculinity that is rampant on campus.

Do you think that perceptions in your community changed for the better post the decriminalization of Section 377? Do you think people are more accepting now that homosexuality is no longer illegal?

I do not think that Section 377 was the prohibitive factor in people’s mindset when it came to acceptance of members of the community.

It was a systemic delegitimization that was initiated by the British and now nationalists consider that to be something that is a part of their culture. However, I do not buy or believe the premise that India was accepting of members of the community before colonial rule. That is patent bovine excrement. There was acknowledgement never any acceptance. So, I would say the ruling of the Supreme Court has only helped us discuss these issues in mainstream discourse and I would say that is a major step. We need popular discourse – news media, movies, TV shows to discuss the issues and not reduce the community to blatant stereotypes. I think that is where the Supreme Court’s verdict has helped. The culture warriors are still up in the arms against the verdict. However, culture is an evolving entity that cannot be shackled to archaic notions of heteronormativity. Culture involved Sati once and we decried it as barbaric. So is queerphobia. Let us not take sell our humanity to buy a place in “heaven”.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that the LGBTQ+ faces in India?
The earlier Supreme Court verdict (Kaushal v Naz Foundation) actually read that the minority community constitutes a “minuscule fraction of the country’s population”. However, that is not true. Hence, the biggest challenge is visibility and changing the narrative from the perspective of increasing the visibility of the community. We need to show that “We are Queer and We are Here”. The new Supreme Court verdict helped because we were not arguing a legal technicality but instead legitimate personal travails. We put faces to the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. I think the momentum should sustain. In addition, we need representation in popular culture to change. The stereotyping should end and movies and TV shows should focus on the issues of the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, there is blatant biphobia in India. We need to take steps to overcome it. There’s also a lot of internalized queerphobia – against “femme” gays and a lot of body shaming. These are not issues that pertain to India but it can be very toxic in India where there are not a lot of resources available to deal with the trauma that is an inevitable outcome of such actions. In addition, it would help if more people are outspoken about their identity. I do realize that they do not want to be reduced to their sexual or gender identity but I think I can be a Gay Activist while being a fabulous cryptographer. Why choose one when one can be all?

Do you think there exists a hierarchy within the LGBTQ community?
I would say yes. The taint of caste and religion on the members of the community is quite strong. I also know that some of the spaces tend to be quite divisive. The tyranny of numbers tends to make most issues revolve around gay members of the community. The earlier verdicts supportive of the trans members tend to view their issues as separate from the LGBTQ+ community. I actually had a professor who said something to the effect that if we wanted the right to be LGB, they needed the right to be against LGB. More shocking than the bigotry is the curious omission of the T from the acronym. Unfortunately, it is quite stupid to be divided amongst ourselves. The community needs to embrace intersectionality. The community needs to get rid of the ideas of caste and religion. The community needs to not be united by the letters in the acronym and not divided by the letters. We are all labouring under the patriarchy. We are all trying to change an oppressive system. We need to be united. We need to ensure that spaces we create are safe for all. We need to embrace one to embrace all.

Click here to read more of Harish’s work.

Readers requiring resources, support and guidance regarding their sexual/gender identity can send Harish an email at harishk93@live.com.

Read our analysis of the survey on campus on LGBTQ+ attitudes here.

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