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Kolkata school club promotes acceptance of LGBTQ, intersex students

Prism began with 21 members

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Prism is the Calcutta International School's club for LGBTQ and intersex students. (Photo courtesy of Prism)

A handmade poster appeared on a school noticeboard at the Calcutta International School in Kolkata, the capital city of India’s West Bengal state.

“Prism is a gender and a sexuality alliance. It aims to provide a safe space for the members of the LGBTQ+ community and a space for allies to show support and learn,” it reads. “Contact us for doubts, questions or if you just want someone to talk to. We won’t bite or assign quadratic equations — but we’ll help in any way possible.”

It is one of those rare moments in the country when a school starts a movement to provide visibility for the LGBTQ and intersex community and creates awareness among school-age children.

Sara and Vashudah, who have now graduated from the Calcutta International School, before the pandemic started Prism, a support group that supports and provide safe space to LGBTQ and intersex students. 

The group died out because of the pandemic, but it was reborn this year and started to provide a safe space for LGBTQ and intersex students. 

Group aims to spread awareness, sensitivity

Prism started with 21 members and is and reached up to 40 members in 2022. Prism members have held one assembly and talked to the students inside and outside of the classrooms without forcing anyone to come out. 

“GSA was created to provide safe space to LGBTQ+ students and for those students who want to be an ally. The main goal is to give a feeling of community within school space, where they can open up and explore their identity as well,” said Prism President Abonti Mukherjee while talking to the Washington Blade. “We want to do (assemblies,) sensitize and do workshops with students.” 

“This term, we have been able to do one session with eighth graders on allyship and Prism, in general,” added Mukherjee. “We aim to do more because many students are insensitive toward these issues or do not know enough, which makes them hostile toward LGBTQ students. Even for those who are part of community, if they do not have sense of community or supportive teachers or students who can relate to them, it becomes a place where they would not want to come every day, and they do not have accepting home either.”

Mukherjee told the Blade that when the group held an assembly with other students at the school, she realized that many of them are confused and provided politically correct answers about the LGBTQ and intersex community. Mukherjee also said the group gets positive feedback from the students as well. 

While talking about her experience, she said that a few high schoolers visited her and showed their willingness to join the group. But according to Mukherjee, the group does not let many students become members because there is concern about those parents who resist such an initiative. 

The purpose of the group is to provide a safe space for those students who do not have an accepting home. Mukherjee also talked about a misconception about GSA — that the platform is not a club, but a support group and everyone should be able to join it. She invites any LGBTQ and intersex organization or individual who wants to collaborate with Prism to contact them via Prism’s Instagram page. 

Prism has two teachers as advisors.

Abonti said the group in 2023 wants to organize events to spread awareness about same-sex relationships on Valentine’s Day. Archi Shah, Prism’s social media administrator and a member of the group, also talked with the Blade.

Shah said Prism’s main goal is to promote empathy and tolerance, and it’s less about trying to impose a certain ideology. Shah recognizes the group cannot eliminate homophobia overnight in a conservative society, but she believes it is crucial to eliminate the stigma around the LGBTQ and intersex community. 

Shah has been a part of Prism as an ally and a member ever since it started when she was in eighth grade.

“I am in charge of the social media page of Prism. We have posters around the school in which we have provided contact of the members, and an Instagram page, they can contact if they have any information or just wants to talk to someone,” said Shah. “This is a very important thing, because not many schools have such things right now.”

Rohani, another Prism member, while talking to the Blade said that she has been a member of the group for the last four years.

She said the idea of forming Prism was to provide a safe space for LGBTQ and intersex children with membership not limited only to LGBTQ and intersex people, but to create a space where all allies can join to provide a sense of safety and acceptance for LGBTQ and intersex students. She also said she was very young when she joined the group and knew nothing about the LGBTQ and intersex community. When Rohani joined the group, however, she tried to extend her support as an ally and learn about the community. 

Calcutta International School Principal Tina Servaia told the Blade the inspiration behind Prism arose several years ago when the school learned that some students were struggling with their gender identity and sexual orientation.

“We realized that some of their classmates did not accept them and wanted to change that,” said Servaia. “Inclusion and acceptance is a very important part of our school ethos, and we felt that needed to extend to gender issues as well.”

It is sometimes difficult to make other parents understand these changes because Indian society remains largely conservative, but the Calcutta International School has managed to encourage everyone to support them. Servaia said parents understand Prism is an important part of her school’s culture, and they appreciate it provides students an opportunity to explore their identity and a safe space.

On Feb. 24, 2022, a teenage student of Delhi Public School, a premier private school in India, died by suicide when he jumped off his apartment building. 

His mother in the police complaint said he was harassed over his sexuality, but school administrators ignored it. Police later recovered a suicide note in which the teenage boy blamed “the school” and its “higher administration.”

“We do provide counselling services and hold regular sensitization sessions on a variety of topics to educate the school community and create awareness,” said Servaia. “Providing a safe space on its own may not prevent harassment but it needs to be part of a more holistic, consolidated approach consisting of creating awareness, a spirit of acceptance, provision of direct and indirect counselling and creation of a safe space support group.”

Even after Indian Supreme Court on Sept. 6, 2018, struck down the colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality, the ruling did not change society’s outlook towards the LGBTQ and intersex community. It faced hostility and seeking mental health in the country remains taboo. Many LGBTQ and intersex Indians cannot talk about their sexuality without being humiliated or bullied.

Ankana Dey, a program associate at Sappho for Equality, an organization in Eastern India that works for the rights and social justice of sexually marginalized women and transgender men, spoke with the Blade. 

She said that creating a safe space within a school is a step towards social acceptance, social visibility and embracing diversity. 

“Although adolescents are vulnerable towards societal pressure, the GSA group, Prism, of Calcutta International school have shown much courage to develop a language of resistance against forced normativity,” said Dey. “It gives us hope to see these students question the imposed structure and challenge the binarized understanding. Nonetheless practicing inclusion by creating a safe collective space within various institutions is a herculean task which the younger generation are ready to take up.”

Although Calcutta International School has created a safe space for LGBTQ and intersex students, the history is not all positive. On Feb. 5, 2018, Avijit Kundu, a mathematics and physics teacher at Calcutta International School, was fired after his autobiography “Amar Shamakami Ejahar” (“My homosexual confession”) came out at the Kolkata International Book Fair. 

The school refuted the allegation of homophobia at the time.

“This said, it is important for us to remember that there has been many instances of internal violence within the very premises of Calcutta International School,” said Dey. “It cannot be forgotten how homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia are still ingrained in the mindset of many individuals who hold power and privilege on and of the grounds of various such schools and colleges. The students comprising the GSA group have made a conscious informed decision about making themselves aware of the repercussions that pertain to (the) visibilization of non-normative identities. They are trying to address many misconceptions and stereotypes regarding self-identity which is a very important aspect during the adolescent period. We can only continue to hope that more local schools allow children to make avenues to create a space and discuss their differences in a dignified manner whilst standing by students who fear coming out to their contemporaries.”

Deepa Vasudevan, a representative of Sahayathrika, an LGBTQ and intersex organization based in Kerala state, said safe space is an important first step. Other first step includes visibilizing the spaces to make sure other people know they exist and doing generalized awareness training for school faculties and students. 

“I have read that suicide rates for LGBTQIA+ youths go down when there are broader social acceptance and acceptance legal measures like marriage equality,” said Vasudevan. “So, we need to create intervention spaces as a first response, and also work on the broad social level of acceptance and equality.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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India

Transgender woman from Kashmir makes her mark

Shoaib Khan has been in corporate India for 11 years

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Shoaib Khan (Photo courtesy of Shoaib Khan)

Kashmir, the crown of India, the world’s largest democracy, has been the center of the flourishing of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions

The transgender community since ancient times has had cultural roots in every state in India, including Kashmir, but a conservative society did not let the community spread its wings properly. Breaking all odds, Shoaib Khan finished her studies and became the first trans person from Kashmir to work in India’s corporate world. 

Khan is a person who believes that people do not come out, but they feel the same from childhood. Her journey was never to come out, but she felt the same from her childhood.

“I was dependent on people, like my family, for lots of things,” said Khan. “When I got the ability to stand by myself, when I was independent, I started behaving the way I wanted to and I started accepting the way I was from my childhood.”

Before the India Supreme Court’s historic ruling that struck down Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in the country, talking about trans people was a taboo topic for many. 

Khan told the Washington Blade it was difficult to come out because trans people face ridicule and bullying. She believed that if one can have determination and confidence, the world starts to adjust and accept.

Khan also believes that family plays an important role, but her family’s reaction was not good when she told them about herself. Khan told the Blade that since the family knows their own from childhood, it was not a surprise for them. She stood her ground, and she is still fighting for her rights in her social circle.

Through the Blade, Khan wants to encourage other families anywhere in the world to support their kids if they are from the LGBTQ and intersex community.

“At least do not deprive them of their basic human rights,” said Khan. “Try to educate them, and if they gets any opportunity then these people will excel in multiple fields.”

As a trans person, Khan’s journey to get an education was not easy. 

She faced humiliation, harassment and mental torture. When Khan was in seventh grade, someone bullied her, and when she went back home, she cried and counted the remaining days of school.

“I counted days that how many days I have to go to school to face this humiliation till 10th standard,” said Khan, while talking about her childhood. “The journey was not easy.”

Khan said society has a major role to play to make the lives of trans people easy. She urged her community to stay strong and connect to excel in life where they are accepted.

Shoaib Khan (Photo courtesy of Shoaib Khan)

Khan has completed her bachelor’s in commerce and master’s in business administration with a specialization in human resources. She is currently working with a corporation in India.

While talking with the Blade, Khan said that India’s trans community is facing a lot of discrimination, not only in Kashmir but around the country. Khan believes discrimination is present because of the lack of awareness about the community, but at the same time she believes the community is seeing improvements.

“Before decriminalization of homosexuality, there was no option to choose for gender other than male or female, but now if you go to the Aadhaar link (India’s biometric ID card,) you have the option to choose between male, female and others,” said Khan. “This is a great example in that our country is leading the improvements. Our country is behaving democratically, where people have the right to choose what they are.”

Khan suggested the government should spread awareness about gender identity so that people know it is natural and people do not choose it.

While talking with the Blade, Khan thanked close friends and family who supported her throughout her journey. She said that many people have supported her, but some close ones made her competent enough to fight her way to where she is at.

“I would like to thank them for their unconditional love and support,” said Khan. “They will be happy to see my work published, where I am talking about rights and standing for my community. That is a big achievement.”

‘Journey is not easy’

Khan has worked in the corporate world for 11 years.

She began her career in the airline industry before she entered the corporate sector. Khan said her experience in the airline industry was not as good as she expected because there was no sensitization about gender. She said corporate policies are not bad, but people should be sensitized before introducing someone from the LGBTQ community.

While talking about her previous experience, she said she was subjected to some harassment and humiliation. Although she raised her voice and actions were taken at the time, Khan said her current corporate journey has gone well, and she feels satisfied. 

She said other members of the LGBTQ and intersex community feel proud of what she has accomplished, and they say she is their representative from Kashmir.

“The journey is not easy,” said Khan. “You can look on to the lives of where people from trans community or LGBTQ community have achieved success. Because they did not put themselves in a confined zone where they are subjected to humiliation only. So, they concentrated on education. I would like to give an important message to my community that you need to be educated, you need to have a light in your eyes, and where you can differentiate between right and wrong.”

Shoaib Khan (Photo courtesy of Shoaib Khan)

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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Oral arguments in India Supreme Court marriage equality case end

It remains unclear when justices will issue ruling

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The Indian Supreme Court (Photo by TK Kurikawa via Bigstock)

Oral arguments in the case that could extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in India ended in the country’s Supreme Court on May 11.

The arguments began on April 18.

“We are persons of the same sex, and we have the same rights as like the heterosexual groups of the society this has been held so, and we need not reinvent the wheel and only stumbling block was Section 377, and our actions were subject to criminality, and now it is gone,” said Mukul Rohtagi, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, in support of marriage equality. “If our rights are identical and then we should enjoy full array of rights as under Articles 14, 15 and 21.”

The Indian government argued against extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“This court is dealing with a very complex subject having a profound social impact,” said Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who is the country’s second-highest legal official, during the arguments. “All the questions in this case must be left to the Parliament.”

It remains unclear when the court will issue its ruling.

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Indian government argues against marriage equality

Landmark Supreme Court oral arguments to end on May 10

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The Indian Supreme Court (Photo by TK Kurikawa via Bigstock)

While India’s national capital, New Delhi, was facing a heat wave on April 26, oral arguments in a case that could extend marriage rights to same-sex couples resumed in the country’s Supreme Court.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued on behalf of the Indian government.

“This court is dealing with a very complex subject having a profound social impact,” said Mehta, who is the country’s second-highest legal official. “All the questions in this case must be left to the Parliament.”

Mehta, while arguing before a 5-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, said the court in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India recognized the right to one’s sexual orientation. Mehta further said the real question is who will determine what constitutes marriage and between who.

Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India was the historic Supreme Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality in the country in 2018.

Mehta, while arguing for the government, said there would be several unintended consequences for several laws is the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. He argued Parliament and civil society groups would need to debate the issue.

Mehta said that there is no stigma and legislative policy is clear in the Transgenders Act, where it is widely defined to include all genders. Mehta appealed to the Supreme Court to leave the matter of marriage equality to Parliament and argued the court may not be in a position to address the multiple situations that will arise because of adjudication.

“If they (LGBTQ) have a right how will it be regulated?,” asked Mehta. There are several shades of the spectrum. It is not just gays, lesbians, etc.”

Mehta also spoke about different genders. 

He argued that if LGBTQ people are given recognition, that is unidentified, it may not correspond with Indian laws and it would be impossible to reconcile through a judgment. Mehta also referenced the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in the U.S. that struck down the Roe v. Wade decision, but Chandrachud said the American Supreme Court ruling that determined a woman has no autonomy over her own body was the wrong judgment.

“We credit ourselves that we have gone far ahead than these, especially Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” said Chandrachud. “For socially complex issues, leave it to the legislature, that point is well taken.”

Mehta argued India’s Special Marriage Act is for regulating interfaith and inter-caste marriages, but the law was always intended for heterosexual couples and not for same sex couples. 

Justice Shripathi Ravindra Bhat immediately intervened and asked Mehta whether there was a marriage equality law anywhere in the world. He further said that perhaps there was no foundation for such a marriage to be recognized by law in 1956.

Mehta replied there was neither permissive nor prohibitive operation of law in India until 1956. Mehta on the hearing’s sixth day gave a bizarre example to support his argument. 

He asked the court to imagine a situation of incest. Chandrachud argued the example is far-fetched and sexual orientation, and autonomy cannot be exercised in all aspects of marriage.

“It cannot be argued that sexual orientation is so strong that incest be allowed,” said Chandrachud.

Mehta also argued that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples would impact other laws that specifically address heterosexual marriages. He said that issues would arise across the country, and further highlighted it would be difficult to determine who the wife would be in a lesbian marriage and how she would receive rights — spousal support if she has no financial means to support herself and alimony in the case of divorce.

Justice Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha agreed and said it would be an impossible thing to do.

Chandrachud, while hearing Mehta’s argument, noted three points that Mehta was trying to highlight: Adjudication would require substantial rewriting of Indian law, judicial interference in public policy and interference in personal law. The court cannot avoid the interplay between the Special Marriage Act and personal law. 

Personal laws in India regulate marriage, divorce and child adoption for different religions. Hindus under personal laws have the Hindus Marriage Act of 1955, Muslims have the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, and Christians have the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872.

The Supreme Court also noted that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples falls under Parliament’s domain, but the court’s goal is to ensure ways to grant legal rights, social and other benefits to same sex couples without the label of marriage.

Mehta during Wednesday’s hearing shocked the country when he said the government is ready to address marriage rights for same-sex couples by forming a committee that a Cabinet secretary will head.

“(The) issue was some genuine human concerns, and discussion was if something can be done administratively,” said Mehta.

Chandrachud quickly suggested that Attorney General R. Venkataraman and Mehta should meet with the plaintiffs’ lawyers to frame the issue.

“The conceptual domain requires legislative changes, and it is completely beyond our domain,” said Chandrachud. “So we have to see how we frame the conceptual doctrine. Somethings can be done administratively, something can be changed by subordinate legislation, and the third is recognition for the same sex marriage. So we are saying we will decide this issue as a concept, but the govt taking one step forward will be to recognize the cohabitation of same sex couples, which will be a big step.”

Venkataramani began his arguments before the Supreme Court once Mehta concluded.

Venkataramani said that Special Marriage Act is only a law about the institution of marriage and does not create the institution of marriage itself, and that is why it is not discriminatory legislation. Lawyer Rakesh Dwivedi argued on behalf of one of the litigants who opposes marriage equality, and questioned whether there is a fundamental right to marriage in India.

“Is there fundamental right to recognition of marriage?,” asked Dwivedi, while arguing against marriage equality. “Is there a fundamental right to equality in the marriage of heterosexuals? can this be made permissible by the variety of amendments?”

Bhat asked Dwivedi whether the word spouse diminishes the meaning of husband and wife.

“We say I take you as a husband and take you as a wife,” said Dwivedi. “How can we say I take you as my spouse.”

Dwivedi also argued that the case requires social accommodation, and Parliament is in the position to decide how to take the step, when to take it and what lays ahead. He argued that India’s social fabric would break apart if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality.

Homosexuality is ‘offensive’ to Indian values

A group of former judges, former Indian Police Services officers, and former bureaucrats wrote an open letter to Indian President Droupadi Murmu. They asked her to intervene in order to “save” Indian cultural traditions, religious tenets and social values.

“If we revise the law to make same-sex union rational, acceptable, or moral, it will open the doors to same-sex culture. Our society and culture do not accept same-sex behavioral institution because it is offensive to our values, besides being irrational and unnatural,” the letter reads. “It is widely appreciated that same-sex relationship cannot create long-term or stable institutions; and if they are allowed to adopt children, they cannot maintain stable and long-lasting relationships with their families, parents, relatives and partners. The health and future of such children will be severely compromised.”

The Supreme Court Bar Association in an April 28 resolution said it was highly inappropriate of the Bar Council of India to oppose the marriage equality hearing, because the Supreme Court has the right to decide whether it should adjudicate the issue or leave it to Parliament.

The Washington Blade on April 24 reported that the Bar Council of India, a statutory body that regulates legal practices and education in the country, held a joint meeting with all of the country’s state Bar Councils and passed a resolution concerning marriage equality. The Bar Council of India has requested the Supreme Court leave the issue of marriage equality for legislative consideration.

The Supreme Court will resume hearing on May 10 for final arguments from Mehta and additional considerations from the plaintiffs.

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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