• Saathi IIT Bombay

Stories of Campus - 7

Kumaresh Ramesh - Energy Engineering - 2016-21

My journey as a gay man (boy? teenager?) had begun well before I got into IITB. I was fortunate to have come to terms with my sexuality and accepted myself by the time I was 15 (thanks internet!). Even so, I did not have anyone to talk about it with. Two years of “integrated coaching” left little room for discussing personal issues with friends, and whenever such conversations cropped up; I would deflect attention and recentre the conversation upon the other person. The prospect of losing the few close friendships that had kept me sane under the weight of JEE prep was too terrifying. As the business end approached, I began to read about the LGBTQ+ student community in IITs. Some of it was downright homophobic (but always anonymous), some supportive comments, and a few by *gasp* actual queer IITians. Their courage to speak out and the efforts they had taken to foster acceptance in their campuses gave me hope, something I, as a 17-year-old gay boy, didn’t have much of.

I looked at insti as an opportunity for freedom and a space to be my true self. After all, the presence of Saathi was proof that a campus housing some of the smartest brains would be a liberal and inclusive place. My first day in IIT Bombay, 21 July 2016, was the Convocation Hall orientation. While other anti-discrimination measures were highlighted, there was no mention of LGBTQ+ individuals. The institute must have had its reasons (re: the 2013 SC decision) but, to me, it meant two things –

(i) the needs of the LGBTQ+ community were not recognized by IIT Bombay

(ii) I missed a good opportunity to gauge my typically-conservative-parents’ response (or the lack thereof) to the topic.

The omission, therefore, was disappointing, but I hadn’t known then that worse was to come. The student body orientations over the next few weeks were served with a generous helping of in-your-face crude queerphobic jokes that were met with cheers and laughter from the audience. The insti felt as inclusive as Pauli’s principle on quantum numbers.

The biggest casualty, perhaps, of such an environment in campus was that my interactions with most people in my first semester remained on a superficial level. A sense of self-preservation precluded me from being close friends with anyone whose support for LGBTQ+ people I couldn’t be sure of. I couldn’t care less for the much-vaunted wing culture either – by the end of my first year, I had barely made any effort to socialize with my wingmates, beyond discussing acads. I decided that I’d much rather be the asocial weirdo than deal with the consequences of being an out gay student. Today, I often think about how things might have been had I mustered more “courage” and come out to my wing. Nonetheless, it is really unfair to put the burden on a closeted freshie who, as was true for me, would not be out at home too. I hope the institute has become or becomes more proactive in reaching out to LGBTQ+ students, especially those in their first year through the ISMP mentors.

My recon had obviously led me to Saathi much before coming here. Even so, listening to Aditya Shankar live at the PCSA had me in tears (a mix of happy and sad ones I think). That their slot was at the fag end of the orientation was unsurprising even then, but the upside of it was that the recency effect tricked my brain into being happy that night. Full of this new-found positive energy, I somehow figured out the strange staircase entrance to the H16 mess where the Saathi introductory session was held. I was quite confident that we’d be moving to a bigger space till I reached there to find less than five freshies there, including yours truly. While I would continue to attend their events throughout the year and the next, I could never find the courage to open up to them until the start of my third year, partly because of the lack of my batchmates. The best thing about Saathi, however, is that I never felt the pressure to come out until I was ready.

By the end of my first year, I had made a few really good friends in the department and found a family in Literati. I gained enough confidence to discuss LGBTQ+ issues with my friends and through social media. It certainly helped that 2017 was a watershed year for queer cinema with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name gaining widespread recognition. I remember reading CMBYN from cover to cover in a single sitting on the night before an endsem. I ended up performing poorly but it was totally worth it. (Please don’t do that.) That year, I also splurged a bit on gay novels and, embarrassingly enough, Alt Balaji just for one series. In the first half of the fourth semester, applications were invited for the Cargill scholarship. In the form, they asked us about ‘a social cause close to your heart and how you would contribute to it’. It was a moment of reckoning for me – I saw it as an opportunity to finally put in writing the truth about me. My sexuality was no longer something hidden, and I hadn’t felt lighter than I did when I pressed ‘Submit’ on that 300-word essay.

We were sitting in The Campus Hub (RIP); I was eating an Open Cheese and he had finished his pav bhaji. ‘Twas the IPL season, and my focus was squarely on the match till he picked up the topic of ethics of secrets. His position was that, unless someone explicitly asks you to keep something a secret, you shouldn’t be morally bound to do so. I argued that, in some contexts, the secrecy is implied. I am still not sure why I chose to do so – maybe I was just looking for an excuse – but I came out to him that evening. The debate was forgotten and so was the match and we sat there with him listening to my part-story-part-rant till the mosquito bites really became unbearable. It was terribly anticlimactic, really, but I couldn’t have planned a better coming out if I wanted to (or maybe a six-layered chocolate cake in the shape of a closet, some confetti and Pete Shelley’s Homosapien blasting in the background would have been nice). Love you, bro!

Just after the endsems, I was pleasantly surprised to have been shortlisted for the interview round for the scholarship. I really didn’t go in with any preparation – all I had decided was that I would be honest, no matter what. The discussion I had with the panel, in the latter half, helped me put in perspective what being out would mean to me as well as the ones around. Once I received that acceptance – from both a close friend and complete strangers – I couldn’t wait to get more of it. When I returned to college in the fifth semester, I embarked on a spree of coming out – friends, roommate, parents, Saathi, and even more friends. By the end of the third year, I was practically out to whoever knew me. The experience undoubtedly has been quite positive for me.

Four years ago, if someone had told the freshie plonked on the bed in 15A/818 that an article like this would be written by him on a department blog, he would have laughed you out of the room. The path to acceptance is not a straight highway, but much more like an old town road with bumps and turns. Personally, I feel that the institute too has traversed a journey of acceptance from 2016 to 2020. Saathi has moved from the H16 mess to the New Yoga Room. I have found allies in people who I wouldn’t have thought of in my first year. So hey, if you are unsure about your sexuality or identity or in the closet afraid of how people would respond, just hang in there. It took me two years here, it could take you one or four – and that’s completely fine. Do try to find at least one friend you can pour your heart out to, it’d become so much better. To the others, whenever and wherever possible, be more vocal about your allyship. You never know whose life you’d be impacting with words and gestures that might otherwise seem trivial.

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