A teacher who openly advocates for queer students makes a big difference.
(This interview was first published on the Prajnya Trust’s Peace Blog.)
I love meeting teachers who know that making their classroom a safe and affirming place for LGBTQIA+ (queer) students is part of their job. However, this awareness may not translate into a priority because most teachers in the world are overworked and underpaid. Priya Dali and Pooja Krishnakumar have created a fun and friendly zine titled A Straight Guide to Being LGBT Friendly, which is a useful resource for teachers who want to do something constructive but cannot make time to read a long manual. It was published by Gaysi Family, a support group and safe space for the desi queer community, in collaboration with the popular dating app Tinder.
I came across it at the Gaysi Zine Bazaar in Mumbai last month, and was struck by their use of humour and illustrations. Priya is an illustrator and graphic designer who likes to experiment with various forms of storytelling, and runs a blog called ‘स se Sex’. Pooja aka Jo is an activist who enjoys making information accessible, and is also the founder of three initiatives — Almaarii, The Queer Question, and The Circle. Here is an interview with them, and I hope you will learn as much from this as the guide itself. To enquire about copies, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org (All images courtesy Gaysi Family, Priya Dali and Pooja Krishnakumar)
Question: What inspired you to create A Straight Guide to Being LGBT Friendly? I would love to hear about specific incidents that made you think people around you could do with some hand-holding around how to treat LGBTQ+ folx in their lives.
Pooja: There are a lot of resources out there but, often, the important stuff gets buried in jargon. We wanted to write something that would be super easy to understand, consume, and share, so that people no longer have an excuse about not knowing. It is meant to be a starter’s guide to how not to be a terrible person to friends who are queer. It is about learning to be sensitive, to not keep thinking only about yourself.
Priya: I was relying on my personal experiences with allies. I did not have many queer people around me. My friends were a bit lost about how to support me after I came out to them. They worked hard to figure out how to be there but they were always a bit cautious and tentative. They did not want to end up saying something that might be offensive or hurtful. I took their cluelessness in a good-natured sort of way. At the end of the day, you cannot know everything. If you are willing to learn, then there is a way.
Question: It seems to me that this zine could be useful for teachers who want to provide a safe and affirming environment for queer students but are not really sure how to go about it. What would you say to them if they were holding a copy of the zine? What could their support mean to those students?
Priya: The fact that the teacher has a copy of a zine like this immediately signals that they are attempting to create a safe and affirming environment. They hold power in the classroom, so it matters when they are raising the subject and are curious to learn more. I cannot tell you how important it is for a queer student to have their teacher’s support. The school is like a second home, and students look up to their teachers. A teacher who is willing to take ownership and responsibility, someone who openly advocates for queer students, makes a big difference.
Pooja: I think that queer students who are out, and closeted queer students, will be extremely happy if a teacher takes this guide to a classroom. We hardly have such teachers. I remember that reproduction was taught in a hurried manner in my own school, and conversations on sexuality were quite rare. The guide can be a great conversation starter but it needs to be supplemented with other information. It is harrowing for queer people to be living through their experiences, and then having to explain themselves over and over again is exhausting. It should not be our responsibility.
Question: You ask allies to hold back responses such as ‘I knew it’ and ‘I have this other friend who is also…’ Could you please share a bit about why these responses are inappropriate, and the kind of impact they might have on a person coming out about their sexual orientation or gender identity?
Priya: These responses take away the focus from the person who is coming out. Their experience and their feelings need to be prioritised when they are making themselves vulnerable. It is important to hold space for them, to hear them out. Questions can be asked but one needs to be mindful of the timing and the place and their state of being.
Pooja: One-upping happens to many people who come from marginalised communities. When they talk about what they are going through, and how tough it is, the other person cuts in talks about how they have it tougher. It might appear harmless, or not really a big deal, but it is not okay because it is disrespectful to a queer person’s lived reality.
Question: I am glad you warn your readers to “never disclose anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity without asking them first.” I think that allies can end up doing this when they do not realise the consequences for the person whose life is at stake. Some find it awkward to do the asking. How do you suggest they ask?
Pooja: Yes, people can be shy about asking. I understand that. The best way to ask someone is: ‘Do you identify as queer?’ I don’t think there is any shame in asking that. You can identify as anything you want. If you can ask someone, ‘Are you Indian?’ because they are brown, it should be okay to ask someone, ‘Do you identify as someone who is from the LGBT community?’ If you sense that they do not want to be asked, then don’t ask. I think people are usually awkward about asking because they believe that being queer is a bad thing. They feel like they would be offending someone by calling them queer. Why should anybody feel offended if they are thought of as queer?
Priya: We live in India. It is not the best place for queer people. It is always a good idea to have someone’s consent if you are going to talk about their sexual orientation or their gender identity with someone else. After all, it is their personal life. Outing someone by mistake can be terrible for the person who is outed.
Question: ‘Check your privilege’ can be a difficult thing to hear for someone who has no understanding of the social, political, emotional, legal and historical baggage that queer folx have to carry. How can they educate themselves?
Priya: The simple way to do this is to step into someone else’s shoes, then you can see their life experiences from their perspective. These are experiences that they have on a daily basis. Allies need to cultivate self-awareness because that is closely linked to empathy. Without empathy, there can be no allyship.
Pooja: A lot of the work has to be on yourself. I am privileged in many ways. I am an upper middle class person. I am Hindu. These too are matters of privilege. I had to learn that on my own. Nobody can do that for you. You can expose yourself to spaces where this privilege is being broken down. The moment you see what equality looks like, you feel disprivileged. That is the problem. It took me a long time to understand this. I am still growing as a person. This cannot happen overnight.
Question: I appreciate your suggestion that allies take an active interest in queer issues, attend events organised by the community, and also speak up. How can they do this mindfully in a way that their allyship focuses on queer folx, and does not become a way for them to earn brownie points for being woke or progressive?
Pooja: Allies should not cry about being disprivileged when they are not invited to a space that has been created specifically for people from a certain community. Most queer spaces do have free access for allies, so it does not make sense to feel hurt about not being included. Queer people have been excluded forever.
When allies go to a queer space, they should realise that the attention needs to be on the queer people. We love allies, and we need allies, but they need to learn to pass the mic. Being an ally involves learning when to speak, and when to listen. If an ally is at a family dinner, and is the only person there who identifies as an ally, that is the time to speak up for the community if it is being discussed.
Priya: Allies can use their visibility and reach to speak up about queer issues. They can amplify the voices of queer folx who may not have the network, the platform and the audience.
Question: Allies are sometimes anxious about vocabulary that is commonplace in queer circles but often unfamiliar to them. As you shared earlier, they do not want to be offensive, and are afraid to risk asking something that might be unpleasant or triggering. What would you say to them?
Priya: They should go and read up about it. We use Google Search all the time for basic definitions. There is a ton of literature out there. Those who are truly interested will take that step. They cannot wait to be spoon-fed. If they take the initiative, queer folx will acknowledge that and help out. However, they have to step up.
Pooja: Queer people have bigger problems than teaching cis and straight people how to behave. As radical and rude as it may sound, we don’t need to do their labour for them. There are workshops, and there are talks. There are YouTube videos. They have to make the time if they want to learn. When I wanted to learn about the struggles faced by Dalit people, I did not go around asking them to spend their time educating me. I made the effort. I read and researched.
Question: Teachers who want to advocate for the needs and rights of queer students in a school setting might feel hesitant to speak boldly and openly, fearing that their colleagues might assume they belong to the community. What can they do to address their own fears?
Priya: This is a good question, and it is a real test for allies. If being thought of as queer is something they feel ashamed about, there might be some residual homophobia that they need to work through. They can be allies only if they are ready for this.
Pooja: I am part of a support group called The Circle, which I co-founded. We have learnt that it helps when schools call facilitators, and sensitisation about queer rights is made compulsory. People are scared to be identified with the community because it is stigmatised. I understand that. The only way to get rid of that stigma is to talk about it openly in schools, companies, and different kinds of organisations.