Part 1: Half Mast and Splintered Roots
This is the first of a two-part series dedicated to acknowledging the inconsistencies between SNU’s Pride image and policy.
In case you were wondering, the buzzword for a 21st-century university anywhere in the world is ‘inclusivity’. You’ll find it on campus brochures and student council manifestos. You’re looking for it when you receive recommendations from a friend on where to attend university and you’re mentioning it when you’re selling your campus as a safe space. But a buzzword is just that. It’s a word that lures you in and very often it’s a word that lacks substance.
SNU is an all-inclusive, accepting, and warm campus for people of all genders, sexualities, and personal identities. That’s the dream, but it’s far from what has really been happening. The administration in the university has made efforts time and again to convince the student body that this is an inclusive and accepting space that provides the freedom and space to its students to live however they want to and be true to themselves. The SNU Queer Collective was formed in 2014 by students as an attempt to “make SNU a safe space for LGBTQ+ students.”, the mere existence of this club means that there are apparent lags in the way the institution functions. This is an attempt to show you just how queer-friendly this side of Tehsil Dadri, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, can be… or not be.
They have proven time and again that the reality is actually quite the opposite. SNU’s post on its official social media accounts with the caption said “Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR is proud to celebrate Pride Month each June along with the rest of the world and call for acceptance and support for the LGBTQ+ community.” If your eyes went below the dozen Pride hashtags after the caption, you’d find an inaccurate display of the colors of the Pride flag on the pillars of the library building. Following the response it garnered, the post was taken down.
Here is a rundown of the episodes that have occurred on campus that have made us question the promise of inclusivity in SNU.
The SNU queer Collective started an initiative, where on every valentine’s day they would send out invites to the student folk on campus to join them in tying threads of the color of the Pride flag around a tree which was called the Rainbow Tree. Students took pride and felt immensely hopeful when they spent the entire day putting forth this symbol of the LGBTQ+ community in a very wholesome manner. It’s always been a day filled with laughter, conversations, and hope. None of this came easy though. The Rainbow Tree has gone through a lot, and so have the students who stood with it and fought for it. Every year, students from the SNU QC approach the administration to grant them permission to use the grand tree located near the Central Vista, more commonly known as the ‘Lonely Tree’, but every year the administration shoots down this request with reasons along the lines of the location of the tree being too visible or that it is in the middle of all activity. Ironically, this was the entire motive behind there being a Rainbow Tree in the first place—to provide visibility and recognition to the Queer community on campus, for its symbols to stand tall and proud. This was just the start. The Rainbow Tree was originally located near the cricket field and physically uprooted from there in 2017 and placed near the cluster in front of ISC where it was practically inconspicuous. After that tree was placed there, it soon started to die. One can only imagine how this must have affected the students who spent days year after year spinning threads around it, but they didn’t give up and chose another tree to give another home to their ideas and identities. The explanation given by the authorities for removing the entire tree from its original place was that it came in the way of students trying to play cricket, however, if one now visits the SNU campus, they will see that an even larger tree has taken its place and stands there in all its naked-trunk glory.
It’s unnerving for the student community to have built and worked on gender fluid spaces to have them physically uprooted and removed. As a bisexual woman, this makes me feel rather unsafe and unrepresented.
– Second-year student
On October 1st, 2019, a student pursing a Masters in Fine Arts was granted permission by his faculty advisor to hoist the Pride flag on campus for the purpose of his assignment. He was granted permission and at 10 pm was joined by various SHSS professors and members of the queer Collective. The chilly October wind carried with it the hopes of all present watching the first and last Pride flag in a common space on campus. Later that night, by some accounts at 1 am, the flag was taken down by the campus security. When inquiries were made to the administration as to why the flag was brought down in the middle of the night, no response was received. Pride flags have since been used in an individual capacity.
Rainbow capitalism at its finest. You take down the pride flag but photoshop it over the library. Incorrectly. Multiple faculty parade their ‘opinions’ on the ‘unnatural nature’ of the LGBTQIA, which is, of course, outright homophobia. Time and time again our QC is denied even basic representation.
– Third-year student
I am just disappointed by the fact that it’s fairly performative. While the gesture to promote pride month on their page and their support towards it are appreciated, I hope it also translates to the increased legitimization of expression on campus and a more open conversation about policies and institutional and spatial changes to facilitate non-binary students.
I also hope that their gestures move from being just commercial and actually embody support for the queer population on campus.
– Second-year student
Since its Pride month, ‘inclusivity’ has been doing rounds on Instagram stories and commercials for big brands. We know that it was also on SNU’s LinkedIn page, a post that triggered outrage over the inaccurate representation of the colors of the Pride flag. To a lot of us reading who have the unfortunate internalized patriarchy and homophobia under our layers of ‘progressive politics’, a small voice inside will say “So what? They photoshopped something incorrectly, why the outrage?” For starters, try to assign the same respect you afford the national flag to the Pride flag and ask yourself “why the outrage?” again. Second, this is about a pattern of disrespecting the queer community faces that are willfully ignored. It happened with the taking down of the flag two years ago and the relocation of the rainbow tree to an inconspicuous location on campus. Symbols of queer pride are constantly invalidated on campus but we still feel comfortable using the buzzword in our sales pitch- SNU is a safe and inclusive space.
These symbols of queer culture are important in affirming the campus as a safe space, and the complacency displayed by the admin in their removal is clearly indicative of how deep their own homophobia/ transphobia/ queer-phobia runs.
– Second-year student
Part 2: Clear Skies and a Rainbow In Sight
We all look forward to the ‘I told you so’ moment. While writing the first part of this article, we were convinced that there is blame to be assigned and that we were self-anointed prosecutors. As you continue to read you will see how we were wrong and that this isn’t leading up to the ‘I told you so’ moment. It’s leading up to lasting and definitive progress for the queer community on campus. It’s leading up to hope.
This second part aims to introduce you, to the different stakeholders in SNU’s campus life and how they’ve treated members from the queer community on a daily basis and in exceptional events. It will explore the student community, faculty and the DSA in line with the aforementioned themes.
The SNU student community provides a gray answer to the question posed by this article. In a lot of ways SNU has proven to be a safe and inclusive environment because of the student community’s commitment to ensuring the same. However, there are elements within the student body that have pointed us to another side of the movement, a pernicious dimension that hinders any real change from within the community. Instances of the QC being reduced to terms like ‘the rainbow tree people’ or jokes about the ‘QC waale’ are undeniable and should be undisputed. The everyday microaggressions faced by the queer community in the form of jokes or online comments are testimony enough to prove that the student body can do better. Nevertheless, below is a real testimony from an alumni who speaks directly to the worrying nature of SNU’s toxic tendency to malign.
Well, it’s safer than a lot of places but it still has a lot of ‘fun jokingly bullying’ if you have the supposed traits of the gender opposite to you. Being queer in any way will land you up in a position where you will be mocked and obvious questions being asked just to trigger you. Applying nail paint as a guy will get you in such a position of mockery as well. The hetero norms are still strongly considered ‘normal’ you know they are pushed to be the ‘normal’. Anything else will attract a bit of uncalled scrutiny and jokes.
Although the student body has not always been on its best behaviour towards the queer community, they have often acted as the last standing support system for a lot of people. Students came together and acted as a family for people who had no one to turn to, and for many of them, SNU became the home they never wished to leave. They loved unapologetically and stood together against anything that came forth. Along with the struggles and daily obstacles, the strength that peers provided, the wisdom that some professors imparted and the constant reassurance that they have not alone transformed campus life for many. The SNU student body stepped up and evolved into a relatively better and more comfortable space. There is always scope for doing better, but it would not be fair on our part if we don’t take a moment to appreciate the comfort and safety that many students provide to each other on a daily basis. This gave us hope, and it continues to give us hope every day in the realisation that these students are saving lives by showing the simplest acts of kindness.
I would like to think that SNU is a pretty inclusive space because some of my queer friends have felt that. I think the idea of sending roses on valentine’s also started from QC but I’m not sure and if that’s true, I’d like to see those roots of that tradition celebrated. Other than that my professors have always been very tone sensitive regarding such topics in class, even if they are responding to some student’s homophobic comments.
With the hope to cover all our bases, we approached a few faculty members from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Their insights and the way students perceive the faculty in matters regarding queerphobia are to be discussed in this section. We’d like to begin with the latter. Some students have found that “professors have always been very tone sensitive regarding such topics in class, even if they are responding to some student’s homophobic comments.” There have been discouraging incidents as well like the Totem Pole episode described below.
The Totem Pole Episode
The Totem Pole is the Sociology club of SNU. It was formed in 2017 with the aim to take the discipline of Sociology beyond the boundaries of the classroom and open it to the student community. Enthusiastic to start this process, the club decided to screen Ruby Rose’s transformation video to highlight the issues that the transgender community faces. This was then followed by a discussion series about the same. However, when they sent out the university-wide email, inviting everyone to the event, they had to face a lot of transphobic and hateful comments by some faculty members in the university. One would expect that ideally there would be strict actions taken against such comments that were being made out in the open, rather than what it really did was put the Totempole Club under constant scrutiny. The club received a lot of support from their professors too which made the event possible but the impact that those comments had on them remained just the same.
Insights from Our Professors
Broadly, the professors we spoke to seemed to highlight two issues. First, that there is a need to sensitise the administration, faculty and all stakeholders in campus life to gender and queer identities. They suggested the need to perform a professional gender and sexuality sensitization workshop for everyone, particularly members of the administration. They emphasised on the fact that our university is young and is yet to institutionalise democratic processes. The second aspect they addressed is the issue regarding availability of free spaces meant for expression, in terms of infrastructure and otherwise. The lack of institutional practices and infrastructural accommodations like gender neutral washrooms, common spaces etc is a concern that needs to be amplified. Finally, they spoke of the importance of representation of the queer community in the ICC (Internal Complaints Committee, which takes up matters regarding sexual harassment).
Institutionally there needs to be a lot more done to make SNU a QUEER Safe campus. Unfortunatley there have been instances of administrative highhandedness based on homophobic worldviews. I feel there is an urgent need for educating and training the administrative, support staff and faculty. Also creating support groups for the LGBTQA community on campus.
– Professor from SHSS
Dean of Student Affairs
Fridays don’t always make for the most productive experiences. Our Friday towards the end of pride month proved to be an exception. In an effort to truly understand the situation for the queer community on campus, a meeting was held with two important members of the DSA, Student Council, queer Collective and was led by us, the Campus Caravan. It was established that this wasn’t an inquisition but was a conversation, while at the same time we made sure that we put forward all the concerns and questions that the student body had raised in our research period with no alterations. And once the conversation started flowing, it became evident that the members of the DSA were cooperative and accepting of the suggestions from the different student bodies that were present. There were several ideas that were put forward and here they are in unattractive but efficient bullet points. We’d like to begin by shedding some light on the response that they had about the Pride flag incident and the Rainbow tree relocation.
- The DSA also acknowledged the issues regarding the Pride flag in 2019 and the relocation of the rainbow tree. They have offered us insight. The issue regarding the flag seems to be there was a miscommunication where the faculty head did not inform the DSA about the student who needed permission to hoist the flag. The relocation of the rainbow tree was not supported according to the DSA. At the time, many other trees were being relocated and this particular tree was caught in the middle of the mass transplantation.
- The primary breakthrough was in ensuring that there is queer representation in the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) so that people in the queer community feel more comfortable approaching the body in the case of any untoward incident. “The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) or Gender Committee in SNU, is inclusive. It requests everyone belonging to the SNU community, irrespective of their gender and sexual identity, to come forward and approach the ICC if they experience any form of sexual harassment. The ICC is governed by the 2015 UGC Regulations which recognizes that those who do not conform to the normative gender binary are especially vulnerable to forms of sexual harassment. While the ICC specifically hears cases related to sexual harassment, more broadly it is committed to fostering an environment where everyone feels safe and secure.”
- A significant suggestion was there should be established events celebrating the queer presence on campus. There is the possibility of SNU’s very own Pride month since June is usually our summer break. There is also going to be a permanent and prominent symbol of Pride on campus in the form of a new Rainbow Tree. It is likely to be the Lonely Tree until it passes and will then be another tree in the well known areas of campus.
- The administration was enthusiastic about taking forward new steps and actively invited ideas. They stated how they wished to make efforts to open dialogue and to make sure that engagement is consistent so as to ensure that there is definitive impact. We’ve agreed to expect monthly/bi-monthly updates from the DSA and the SC on what they are doing to make campus safer.
- There was an emphasis on increasing the number of gender and sexuality sensitization seminars, with the help of professionals and people from the community for everyone on campus.
- There were a myriad of proposals that came forward, some of which were regarding addition in courses that were taught in the university to include Gender and queer studies, which will provide a more direct approach towards sensitizing and educating the student body about the queer community.
- There was also a lot of emphasis on the fact that any kind of misbehavior, discrimination or offensive behaviour on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, caste, class or socio-economic background will not be tolerated AT ALL, and perpetrators will be severely reprimanded, be it for the student body, members of the faculty or the administration itself.
And so on that Friday, we began to believe that there is a lot of hope for positive change.
However, we did want to share a few reservations.
The first and most apparent concern during the meeting was that the cause of queer community was the obligation of only the student body. The need for betterment should begin within the student community and then proposals must be sent to the DSA for approval and execution. This perception led us to question the ‘equal stakeholder’ principle in campus affairs. We hope the DSA will take a more involved stance in the coming years and will perhaps join hands with us in our brainstorming sessions. Second, we found that queer struggles were not understood well. There was a sense of clubbing the welfare of queer students along with the needs of the rest of the student community. Essentially the “all lives are important, let us not fixate on the select few” notion. We think that perhaps, the professional sensitization workshops will result in a shift in attitude towards better understanding queer struggles.
If given some thought, one will realise that these instances that happened are not surprising at all. These struggles have existed for a long time, and it is likely to happen again. This is not to say that one should just accept it as it comes. Speaking up and taking action is an essential part of bringing about a change. It has been observed that there is a certain level of disconnectedness between the different parts of the university. Events and instances in one part rarely reach the others, which is why any call for action does not receive a response, much less an enthusiastic one. This is similar to what happened with the Pride flag incident in 2019. We came to know that a majority of people did not know this ever happened, which is why there were hardly any questions asked. All the efforts that have been made by the students, faculty or administration to bring any sort of a change did not gain traction because of the overwhelming sense of detachment. This is something that we all can make an active effort to fix, an effort to make sure that we are not indifferent and impassive towards anything happening around us. Once we do this, we will be taking responsibility and accountability towards ourselves, trying to be our best selves and standing strong for what we believe is right.