Disclaimer: The term “queer” in this writing is used as an umbrella term synonymous with “LGBTQIA.”
Deciding whether to disclose personal information in any situation should rely primarily on personal comfort. You should evaluate your identity and determine if the time and environment are right to share it.India is no exception. For some queer people, belonging to the community is a huge part of their identity and for some it is not. Going into my study abroad experience in India, I had to evaluate how much being a gay man meant to me compared to all other identities. Doing so allowed me to get the most out of my experiences and involve myself with the queer community in India as much as I was comfortable doing.
Be open about who you are on a situational basis. This was the best advice I received before my study abroad. Although it may be a bit annoying to have to do it in the first place, exercising good judgment when deciding who is a safe person to come out to and who is not is crucial. My general rule of thumb was the younger, more urban, and more educated someone was, the likelihood were a safe person was higher. Because Pune is an educational hub of India, you’ll never find a shortage of young students to engage with. In fact, I went into my Indian experience expecting to be completely closeted to everyone I met. To my surprise, people were far more accepting than I could have ever anticipated. I found support within the IFSA program from staff members and my peers. Even locals that I made friends with throughout my time showed to be people I could trust and confide in. With all that being said, sexuality isn’t something that is widely discussed in many contexts unless otherwise prompted.
One important thing to remember when in India is to be cognizant of any sacrifices you make and how that impacts your mental health. Not being true to yourself can take a toll and it’s most important to remember who you are and not who the society you’re in wants you to be. Whether the solution be dressing in a way that best aligns with your individual gender expression or sitting down to have a conversation with somebody about what you’re experiencing, having an outlet is critical.
Satisfying your need to be out and proud
When it comes to being out in India and remaining, or getting, involved in the queer community, there are so many avenues to explore. While the queer community in India is slightly less boisterous than that of the U.S., it still exists. In Pune, you can get involved in a slew of local organizations like MIST, a non-governmental organization that hosts queer social events, Samapathik, a queer activist organization, and many more. I chose to attend a few events put on by Mist and was able to make some friends and felt comfortable being surrounded by queer people in a queer atmosphere.
Another useful way to stay connected is to keep in touch with queer communities at home. Whether it be friends, family, or organizations, keeping up to date on the happenings back home can be a great way to maintain a small sense of sameness to combat some of the inevitable culture shock and homesickness.
Recognize the place in history
Being queer in India partly involves acknowledgement of where India is historically in the fight for rights. During my stay, we saw Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized homosexuality be retracted. While this was an amazing verdict, I had to continuously remind myself that this happened in 2018. Given the progress that queer movements in western countries like the U.S. have made, this illustrates just how far India has to go in the fight for equality. Though there is still much to do, thinking of India as just a few steps behind in the fight helped in easing some of my frustrations surrounding homophobia. Hopefully it does the same for you as well.
When thinking about some of the societal issues surrounding queer topics, it’s important to remember that you’re studying abroad in India to observe and understand a society and culture.Although it can be hard to tame the activist in your soul, you’re not in India to change the society. To counter this, I found it helpful to engage in learning about the queer movement and the successes and challenges they’ve faced. Although many people may worry about safety and the negative implications of being in an extremely heteronormative society, using good judgement led me to not once feel unsafe because of my identity. Hopefully keeping these few things in mind during your time in India will be as helpful as it was for me.
Noah Cordoba is a psychology major at North Central College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Contemporary India program in Pune, India in fall 2018. He served as an International Correspondent as a First Generation College Student.