“It gave me the freedom to tell my hetero cousins that I like men and that I enjoy their manhood. If not for that, sadly, I wouldn't have been the person I am today,” says *Keshav Chaudhury, a 25 year old communications manager from Delhi who has come to acknowledge his trauma as something cathartic.

His peers in school bullied and physically and sexually abused him. The trauma led him to decide to leave school early. Now out as a gay man, he says

“The way I walk, gesticulate, talk, move - everything is connected to that trauma. It didn’t respect my ego or me or what I could have become, but it forced me to be one particular thing for many years.”

He says the severity of his experiences made him more sure of himself.

Had awareness been built on issues of gender and sexual orientation, he thinks those who bullied him would have behaved differently.

“If those boys knew what wrong they’re doing, maybe they’d have stopped. It’s about changing the status quo - and in worse cases, a fear of a law.”

He thinks that having open conversations with everyone involved in a child’s growth “will kick off the slangs, the diction will change, and the tone will change.”

He wonders why there aren’t any consequences for this violence.

“These bullies get off on a moral ground… so there should be consequences,” says Sourish Samanta, 24, a young journalist based in Kolkata.

Recalling interactions with peers from his school years, a time that he had filed away as “difficult”, Samanta realised how far they strayed into bullying territory.

“There is always a lingering anxiety,” he shares.

A schoolmate, one of the few people in his school life he had come out to, sexually abused him repeatedly. “It was at a time when I was not very sure of what is sexual abuse, so I assumed that this was normal. He used to coerce me a lot. It was only later that I was able to recognise it for what it was and walk away from it.”

He constantly carried a fear of what might happen. Even amidst the ongoing abuse he was afraid of the consequences of speaking up. “What if he told others that I am gay and made me lose my ground in school??”

Samanta also remembers being bullied by a group of students his abuser had instigated against him. “Not only did he physically abuse me, but he was also mentally harassing me in school, or at least enabling it.”

The bullying was begun when he was in the 8th grade, followed soon after by sexual abuse. This treatment persisted for three years.

Samanta began to identify himself as gay when he was in grade 12, in 2016.

“For any queer person who is figuring themself out, I would say the school space is quite anxiety inducing,” he shares.

He thinks that at an age when separate facets of an individual’s personality are being cultivated, gender and sexuality cannot be taught as personality traits removed from all the rest.

Alongside gender identity and sexual orientation, adolescents are still cementing other parts of their identity from their economic background, social-political leanings and family dynamics, while also developing likes and dislikes. So it is unfair for gender and sexual orientation to be treated as isolated concepts.

And as the degree of social awareness and absorption vary in different youth communities, any such teaching will need to involve the parents.

He asks, “While in some school spaces there will be a visible disruption if proper sex ed is introduced, what about the institutions at the grassroot levels?”

“When we speak of the school space, we speak of children being in an age group where not just their gender identity, but their whole identity is being formed. This identity begins to form at the ages of 12-18,” says psychology professor Saakshi Singla.

Besides teaching BA and MA students at the IILM University in Gurgaon, Singla is a child and family coach, a gender equality advocate, and a child and parenting expert.

“In the school setting there is no platform to talk… 90% of the parents have never had this discussion with their child,” she tells The Citizen.

She agrees that one way to ensure a reliable and consistent change in mindset is by educating parents on gender awareness.

“Both home and school settings need to be tackled,” she says. “It affects their adult life forever, this atmosphere for gender dysphoria. And not just their adult life, but the next generation too.”

“If any part of a child’s authentic identity is curbed, gender or not, it has the potential to continue to harm them in adulthood, and affects their relationships, conflict management skills etc.”

She proposes using visual media to communicate these concepts, as these can be a powerful tool for building awareness. “This is the kind of thing that if you see, you cannot unsee. But we need to give that to our kids.”

Singla observes that “our” media is still constructed largely to imitate the heterosexual male gaze, which is hugely detrimental to the fight for gender equality.

And at school or university, the near complete erasure of queer texts or queer characters from the curriculum denies children the ability to think outside of heteropatriarchal bounds.

For Sourish Samanta, “In having to deal with their own questions about identity and cope with the bullying they face, children are losing their bandwidth. They are not able to have thoughts and introspect freely.”

For researcher *Shivani Khanna, 24, some children need a conducive environment to come into their identity, while some others “just know”.

For her it was the former. But even being young and out has its challenges, she says. Many children know that they are queer long before they hit puberty, at an age when it really isn’t much about sexuality.

She points out how “People will say that it is inappropriate to talk to children about queer stuff, but we talk about heterosexuality in front of them all the time!”

She remembers being shut down in convent school when she tried to bring up questions on sexual orientation with her teachers in grade 11.

“There was not only a culture of silence and erasure, but there was also a very explicit culture of homophobia. I think about how, because of the environment, I’m still not out today, as an adult. Not explicitly, at least.”

She says it not only affects relationships, but more subtle things that may have nothing to do with sexuality - like ideas of self confidence.

“Perhaps if I had a more accepting environment I would be out today.” She surmises that being denied a community also ends up making queer youth more susceptible to things like abuse - from peers who are bullies, and from adults who want to take advantage.

“Youths in general are not given much voice, that is the big problem,” says Karishma Swarup, a sexuality educator based in Kolkata. With thousands of followers on Instagram, Swarup was finalist in the 2021 Brook and SH24 Sexual Health Awards for excellence in sex education and information.

“Teachers should make it easier for these types of conversations to happen in classroom spaces… We have a responsibility to have a deeper conversation about gender and sexuality, rather than stopping at just our beliefs on the subject.”

She shares her experience teaching sex ed to middle schoolers.

“Everyone just assumes a child is straight the moment they are born,” she points out, “and any behaviour that doesn’t fit into cisgender heterosexual norms is mocked as deviant or abnormal.”

This can cause lasting harm.

“The most compelling evidence for me is the statistics for depression and suicide among queer youth,” says Swarup.

A CDC study in 2016 found that suicide is the second highest cause of death among people aged 10-24, and that LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.

Swarup thinks such surveys might be unreliable in India, however, where the “cost of self identifying is very high, and it is difficult to access minors without the parents getting involved in some way.”

More broadly she thinks, “People refuse to accept the fact that young adults and adolescents have sexuality. They have desires, they masturbate, they have curiosities, they may be in a relationship.

“But the mindset dictates that kids don’t think about sexuality and so they don’t need to be taught about sexual orientation. When we know that is just simply not true, having been adolescents ourselves!”

For Vaishnavi Chopra, 16, this ignorance “affects all of society because they cannot be the best version of themselves. It negatively affects economic growth too.”

They are founder of We Don’t Hide Our Pride, a youth welfare non-profit led by teenagers that aims to create a safer space for queers and allies through social media.

The Delhi-based organisation has been trying to collaborate with schools for nearly two years, and they keep getting turned away, says Chopra.

Sometimes they have explicitly been asked not to include discussion on queer issues during mental health webinars.

“They say no to us because they do not want any parents coming to them and saying that it’s wrong for them to teach their children what they have not approved, or what they think is not right,” they explain.

But “instead of taking such feedback from parents, it should be more of a survey for students. Students should get to choose if they want to have a discussion or want to learn more about queer issues.”

Chopra says that queer folks have largely accepted the fact that the older generation cannot change, and that most of the efforts should be concentrated towards the youth and young parents.

They recall how their school counsellor personally reached out to them asking them to shift their focus away from these issues. “I didn’t expect that from a counsellor, because she should understand me.”

They recently organised a pride parade, which was very well attended and caused something of a backlash.

“As a child I had always wanted to be part of a Pride Parade. I couldn’t attend any because of the pandemic so I thought I’d keep one myself.” While the event was a huge success, their parents and the parents of schoolmates found out and the teachers were informed.

Chopra shares that they faced personal consequences for hosting the event, and for speaking of their experience discovering their sexuality.

Publicly announcing themself as pansexual at the pride parade caused “tension” within the family, and judgement and discrimination at school.

“I have an elder sister, who was very supportive. She spoke to my parents,” says Chopra.

They say the adults in their life are slowly becoming more supportive of their identity.

*Names changed on request