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Queer Spatiality Facilitates Queer Connections: The Pandemic Took It Away

photo of Rajeev in a pink tee-shirt and light brown pants and holding a sign saying 'Born this way'. They are standing in front of a pride rainbow pasted on a wall. There are colourful post-its on a black patch on the wall.

When I was in my undergraduate course and we had the first-ever Pride march in campus in 2018 (after the reading down of Section 377), the colourful campus space and the revolutionary space meant a lot, until I realised that it was merely a matter of visibility and not much beyond that, as there was no inclusion of queerness as a way of life, no larger discussion around how the law oppresses us systematically, and no representation beyond that of cisgay men. But it was a space for connection as I noticed how other people were responding to the posters and the rainbows. And it was different from rigorous debates within classrooms about whether reservation should exist for queer people and gender identity and sexual orientation be a category that needs constitutional safeguards against discrimination. The pandemic took away the campus space unfortunately.

The space where we get an education and form our ideas about the world, and especially about people who are not like us (read: minorities) holds importance, especially for me as a queer Bahujan person. The presence of queer spaces on campus helped me to affirm my identity. But then came the two years of the pandemic and I was stuck at home. Physical spaces are very important in forming connections with other queer people; this is not possible in an online space. At the same time, some alternative spaces came up through Discord, Twitter etc. where communities could be formed, and digital connections were established which not only were between queer people but also of a queer nature as we tried to rebel against the discourse of productivity or making banana bread or Dalgona coffee, and just do simply nothing.

By arguing for an extension of queering of campus spaces, I wish to highlight how when campus spaces filled with posters and queer slogans receded during the pandemic with increasing militarisation, the community still found ways to celebrate themselves through queer pride or spaces like @queerswipestories, and, forming connections across country borders based on a shared worldview, especially on issues of love, friendship and care. It’s not enough for us to see representation only on media screens, that too mostly of upper caste, able-bodied and upper class people. For some of us, who come from marginalised backgrounds, the space of activism matters a lot for representation, and even that is very competitive.

We also need a queer pedagogy in the way we are taught language and other subjects as it was missed during the pandemic (along with an absence of any queer collective in the brief days I spent in the campus) as there was no active effort from anyone in reinforcing queer notions of gender, language, and existence in their classrooms, even though virtual means. The language that we use by default for education is heteronormative in essence, which erases the experience of queer and trans people within classrooms. In Queer pedagogy: Approaches to inclusive teaching, researcher Joao Nemi Neto states that “Queer pedagogy does not seek the ‘correct’ method or the ‘right’ questions, but rather the possibility to question our practices or notions of equality and acceptance”. If we trace our understanding of sex and gender, we have come a far way from the ‘one-sex’ model to understanding the masculine and feminine metaphors used for the sperm and the ova, but there’s a long way to go especially with language, that aids us in forming connections.

Speaking of language, one of the best guides to use is the gazette released by the Tamil Nadu government on LGBTQIA+ glossary. Whenever I speak of my pronouns as they/them, I also ask people how they would refer to me in their regional language and it’s fun to explore the possibilities that may be there and to make new ones where there are none. Similarly, our connections with others are based on what we are taught about others – whether to give more importance to friends or family, and how and what distance to keep from others. For queer people and even for most students getting into college, all this is a new space to explore.

In An Exploratory Study of Discriminations based on Non-Normative Genders and Sexualities published by The Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies (ACWS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2019, the research team discusses how, “Normativity, in the name of collective socialization, hence gets woven into the process of education.” The report highlights how the daily experiences of queer bodies on campus give us a better insight into understanding how queer people face discrimination. It also emphasises inclusion in the architecture of institutions and whether establishments actually understand, segregate or include gender and queerness.

Education in the Making of the Normative

From the time of school, the ‘normative’ instilled within us reeks of what’s also considered ‘masculine’. Whatever is ‘non-masculine’, is swept out through rejection, ridicule, and undermining of one’s efforts. Our school days largely define how we view success and failure, where being excellent in an exam is seen as a marker, but for queer people this almost always means having to put in extra effort to stand out. For those of us who are marginalised by caste, education is a way for us to access a life of dignity. But when this access itself is limited to a certain class, aesthetics, and space, education loses its purpose. And the pandemic made it worse.

The way we are taught (pedagogy) goes to show how the way our syllabus is structured is also very normative. It’s only now that feminist science studies scholars have further explored this connection between “masculine” traits as being seen as essential to certain sciences and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) being culturally seen as “for and by men”. Connections come in again because it’s not just the students who form relationships with each other. It’s also the relationship with the professor (an unequal power dynamic) and with non-teaching staff, most of whom are also from lower castes. And queer visibility on campus is not about knowing gender theory around what queerness is but it’s more around having a receptive space on the campus where people understand, respect, and ask questions instead of assuming stereotypes and taking to violence in different forms.

In my limited time on the campus, there was no ‘working’ queer collective and this made my experience of campus life one of loneliness. The report by TISS also has a section on queer collectives and states that even though there was some access to “community”, the dominant experience of queer students was of loneliness and alienation. This is true because marginalised folks don’t have access to the language of intersectionality which is employed most times so it’s difficult for us to ascertain and assert our identity. If this is a problem within queer spaces, think of how difficult it would have been in online spaces where one was supposed to know everything, look their best, have a decent home in the background of their Zoom screen, and also talk in perfect English.

Ayushi posted this on The Glass Closet, one of the outputs of the TISS study:

Seeing queer couples on campus
Can sometimes feel like a distraction.
Especially when they hold hands,
Tactfully under the table
While giving class presentations
Or just plain annoying
When they quarrel in whispers
While shuffling through bookshelves in the library
But most of the time it feels Hopeful, Affirming and Convincing
That maybe someday I could have it too.

This short poem throws light on intimacy and desire as well. And this is not mere intimacy or desire towards someone else, but towards one’s own self. I remember my time on campus while people would stare at my nail polish or my earrings. All this while I was working on my master’s thesis titled Queering Care: Mothering And Caring Outside Heteronormative, Patriarchal Framework Among Queer Men. It’s absolutely heart-breaking to work on a theme so close to your heart, but not find any resemblance of that care or warmth in the space that’s supposed to be the “safe space.” My conversations with queer people started again online, when I was no longer in campus. That points to the serious faults or gaps we have in our education which is not queer-affirmative at all. Just having Pride marches or selling Pride badges won’t make any difference unless there are people in power who represent us. At the time of writing this, a non-binary person is the head of the students’ union in TISS, Mumbai, a first for the institution, and that’s how queering will take place, and connections will form which go beyond mere allyship.