As an undergraduate student I had to hide my true self from faculty and peers. But now, I see a growing visibility and acceptance that can help take the weight off non-binary and trans students like me
On 19 December 2021, I went to IISc’s first Pride March.
Over a hundred students, faculty and staff, wearing all the bright colours of the rainbow, started marching along Gulmohar Marg, holding up banners that proclaimed “Love is Love” or demanded “Stop splitting humans into Blue and Pink”. Even the IISc security guards who flanked the parade were dressed in their neon-yellow waistcoats, unwittingly adding to the spectrum of hues. The parade turned onto the road that passes in front of the Director’s bungalow, as the voices of queer folk and allies shouted slogans in unison, demanding changes such as gender-neutral housing and washrooms, and an anti-discrimination policy. Like Pride marches everywhere, IISc’s Pride March was both a protest and a celebration, culminating at the platform opposite the Main Building, with students performing music, dance, and poetry.
IISc Pride meant a great deal to me because it seemed to mark a significant milestone for queer visibility at the Institute. Queer people have always existed on this campus, but there is a huge stigma surrounding being queer, even today, that prevents many of us from being openly ‘out’, especially to our professors and lab mates. A 2020 comment piece in the Lancet states, “The problem of invisibility is exacerbated in STEM fields due to heteronormative stereotypes, which can lead to challenges for LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace.”
There is a huge stigma surrounding being queer, even today, that prevents many of us from being openly ‘out’, especially to our professors and lab mates
Heteronormativity is the assumption that gender is binary – that there are only two distinct genders, male and female, one of which we are all assigned at birth – and that romantic and sexual relationships are only meant to take place between a man and a woman. Tied to this assumption is the idea that all people are cisgender, which means that they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, thereby stigmatising people who are transgender. Lab environments are typically heteronormative, and any deviation from this is usually treated with disapproval, which can negatively impact the mental health of queer students and employees. “How people perceive us can also affect our professional life, and the projects, grants and opportunities we get,” explains Prarthana, a first year PhD student who identifies as queer and non-binary, and prefers to be referred to by “they/them” pronouns, rather than gender-binary pronouns such as “she/her” or “he/him”.
Simba*, a former student at IISc who is currently employed at another Bangalore-based academic institution, identifies as a cisgender gay man. He says that even though he would like to wear nail polish or kohl in his workplace, he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so owing to an undue pressure to be ‘professional’ that is often conflated with heteronormativity. This pressure hinders visibility, and the lack of queer visibility can prevent queer students from connecting with each other, which can add to the isolation that many of us already feel. Thus, events like IISc Pride are very important for queer folk to find a sense of community within the campus. Prarthana says that they did not know any other queer person in IISc when they joined, but they met a lot of other queer folk at IISc Pride, which gave them a sense of belonging within the campus. “It’s nice to have people around who understand me without me having to explain my whole background to them,” they say.
The start of QueerIISc
IISc Pride is the culmination of decades of effort by the LGBTQIA+ students on campus and our allies to increase queer visibility and acceptance. Rajnish Rao, a data scientist working in Germany, did his PhD at the Department of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics (MRDG) from 1998 to 2006. In a Journal Club meeting in 1999, Rajnish presented on “Same-sex behaviour in the animal kingdom” to an audience of PhD students, professors, and postdocs. He also talked about homosexuality in humans and mentioned famous people in history who identified as homosexual, a scandalous topic at the time. “Most people were too shocked to react, except for one senior professor who had a million questions and asked me for a printout of the list of famous queer people to cross-check on the Internet,” he recalls with a chuckle.
When he came out as gay, Rajnish did not know any other queer person at IISc. He reached out to GoodAsYou, one of the oldest surviving support groups for LGBTQIA+ people in Bangalore. That’s where he met Niruj Mohan, another queer student on campus. Figuring that there must be more than just two queer students on a campus of over 3,000 students, Niruj and Rajnish started a support group for queer students called QueerIISc. Through posters and events, they raised awareness about the group, and soon a small community of queer folk (largely gay men) nucleated around them.
Figuring that there must be more than just two queer students on a campus of over 3,000 students, Niruj and Rajnish started a support group for queer students called QueerIISc.
Being part of this queer community on campus helped Vivek Nithyananda, now a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow at the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution and the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University, come to terms with his identity. Vivek did his PhD in animal behaviour at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) from 2002 to 2008, and realised that he was gay halfway through his time at IISc. This was followed by a string of postdoctoral research positions at universities in Minnesota, London and Berlin, where he experienced a much more accepting environment to explore his queer identity. He adds, “I think it was easier partly because I was in foreign countries without prior social connections, letting me be anybody I wanted to be without too many repercussions.” Vivek recalls that in his time, CES and MRDG were the “gay hubs”, indicating a relatively more queer-friendly environment in these departments. Vivek came out to his Principal Investigator (PI), and has even introduced his boyfriend to her. Even now, the biology departments seem to have a higher proportion of students that are ‘out’, including amongst those that are only out to the members of QueerIISc, according to Asha*, the current convenor of QUASI (IISc’s peer support group which has both queer folk and straight allies). “Perhaps it is because biologists are more tolerant of complexity,” reckons Vivek.
Bittu KR, currently Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, puts it bluntly, “Being both a good biologist and homophobic is impossible.” Bittu did his postdoc at CES in the same lab as Vivek from 2010 to 2013, and was one of the first trans people to be ‘out’ to the campus queer community. “I knew other trans and non-binary folk from campus, but most of them were not comfortable being ‘out,’” he says. Conversations about queer issues in his lab were made a little easier because Vivek was already in the lab, and by then it had quite an inclusive culture. However, Bittu recalls that in his time in IISc, conversations about being queer or trans were discouraged. Nevertheless, he engaged in conversations with his peers about the need to create a trans-friendly workplace.
Non-binary, trans inclusion
When Asha, who is also transgender, joined IISc in 2018, they had already gotten in touch with Bittu, who assured them that they could reach out to him anytime for help. Asha also reached out to QUASI through its Instagram account (@quasi_iisc). At the time, QUASI and QueerIISc had very few active trans and non-binary members. However, this changed when Asha became an active and visible member of the IISc queer community. “Soon, [trans and non-binary] people started coming out to me, and we formed a supportive group for each other,” Asha says. Eventually in 2020, Asha became the convenor of QUASI and helped drive conversations around trans and non-binary identities within the IISc queer community. Their own personal experiences were a driving factor in trying to improve trans visibility on campus.
Nyx*, a transgender UG student in her first year, has not yet come ‘out’ to her project supervisor even though she is in a department considered to be relatively queer-friendly. She is wary of people’s tendency to be inconsiderate when their heteronormative expectations are not met. Sharaj, a transgender UG student in their fifth year, recalls one such experience as a performer in a Rhythmica music show. “As I was getting ready to perform, some people came up to me and started questioning why I was wearing kajal. One of them even told me that I looked scary.” Trans and non-binary folk hear such inconsiderate comments every day, reminding us that some people don’t want to accept us the way we are.
When I asked Nyx about whether she feels comfortable among her peers and in the IISc queer community, her face lights up. “It’s great having people around that understand my experience,” she explains. Nyx realised that she was trans during the lockdown, a tough period for a lot of queer people. However, she managed to find a lot of friends online, like Asha, that helped her come to terms with her identity. The increased visibility caused by openly non-binary and trans folk such as Asha has brought together a community in which people feel at home and accepted: new students like Nyx and Prarthana say that watching other queer people thriving in IISc gives them the confidence that they can do it too. “Most people in the UG community refer to me by my correct pronouns,” Nyx adds happily.
The visibility and acceptance of queer folk in the UG community has followed a slightly different trajectory than in the broader IISc community because of the UG programme’s relative isolation. In the early days of the programme, queer visibility was poor despite the campus having a thriving queer community. “I wasn’t aware that there was a queer group in IISc, so I didn’t have anyone to contact,” says Simba, who was in the UG programme in its initial years. I could relate to Simba’s experience. As a UG fresher in 2016, I was bullied by my classmates for having a non-normative gender expression. I knew some queer people in my batch, but I was one of the very few that were ‘out’. I had access to QUASI and QueerIISc and I met a lot of wonderful people, but I never fit in because of the lack of non-binary visibility in the IISc queer community. That distanced me from the community, and I left QueerIISc because I felt lonely there. After graduating, however, my friends told me about the vibrant community of non-binary and trans folk that had become visible, and I joined the group again. Simba too, found out about QueerIISc after graduating, and he is now an active member, in the process of starting a similar queer support group in his workplace.
The road ahead
In my time at IISc, I have seen a steady and gradual shift towards increased queer visibility and acceptance. This shift was driven by outspoken queer folk who started conversations around queerness and sensitised their peers to queer identities, and faculty who were empathetic to the queer movement and were willing to change their conditioned beliefs, allowing for a more inclusive lab environment. Mohit Jolly, Assistant Professor at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering (BSSE), says that he is learning to use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them to avoid misgendering non-binary people. Vivek, who just started a new lab in Newcastle University, says that the key to providing a safe and conducive space for students is starting conversations about queer rights and discrimination, and sensitising people. Mohit, who also values open communication in his lab, does not tolerate deliberate misgendering of people, and has enlisted the help of Sharaj, who is his student, to sensitise the members of the lab to issues of gender and sexuality. “Telling people your pronouns when you introduce yourself, even if you don’t identify as queer or trans, signals that you respect pronouns and are an ally,” Sharaj says.
“The key to providing a safe and conducive space for students is starting conversations about queer rights and discrimination, and sensitising people”
“There is a significant increase in queer visibility, but that is because of the efforts of queer students themselves,” adds Sharaj. QueerIISc and QUASI are hoping to receive an official IISc email address where students can reach out for support. There have also been reassuring efforts from a few faculty members who are allies to the queer movement, though there is still a long way to go in terms of providing support to queer people. Two close friends of mine from IISc took their own lives recently. Although they were dealing with a lot of other problems, I know that their lives would have been a lot easier if their environment was more accepting of their queer identity. As I stood on the stone platform opposite the Main Building during Pride, performing poetry and dance in a lovely blue dress and purple lipstick, I thought of my friends. Wherever they were, I hope they were watching. I hope they were looking into my heart, for they would have seen how much I wanted to walk the first IISc Pride March with them. I hope they see how things have been changing, and will continue to change.
Listening to the stories of queer folk in IISc across several years, I discovered how queer people inherit social capital from the torchbearers of the previous generation, using it to question and confront heteronormativity, generate more social capital, and pass it on to the next generation of queer folk. The trail that Bittu and Asha blazed is now walked upon by people like Prarthana, Nyx, Sharaj and me. When Prarthana and I were talking over lunch outside the Sarvam complex, they said, “The reason I am sitting here, wearing suspenders and a bow tie, is because I’ve seen people like Asha express their truth unapologetically.” I, with my painted nails and just a hint of kajal, nodded in agreement.
Rohith KMS is a former UG student at IISc and a science writing intern at the Office of Communications