Note: The names of the respondents in this article have either been changed or omitted in order to protect their identities.
June 2018, the internationally celebrated month of PRIDE, saw an unprecedented level of discourse about sexuality in Pakistan, not just on social media platforms but surprisingly also on a handful TV news channels. This year the month coincided with some alleged revelations about Imran Khan that were only touched upon on TV and discussed in detail online. A couple of years back, another revelation surfaced on the internet in the form of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr.’s video (grandson of the late ex-PM) in which he discusses queer politics and his own performances as a drag queen. To me, it is clear that discussion about sexuality is not something we can keep ignoring so I decided to approach the one community I have access to — the students of LUMS.
LUMS is famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) for its bubble environment which is seemingly tolerant enough to allow the coexistence of liberals as well as conservatives. To an outsider, the campus may seem like an ideal multicultural setting where students live in harmony. However, to those of us who are more familiar with the institution, this is far from the reality of the ever-growing divide between the conservatives who populate Tariq Jameel’s bayaans, the majority liberals who just mind their own business (pun intended) and the few politically active groups who are ridiculed for posting against problematic theme days on LDF. Amidst these more visible categorization, there is a community which isn’t often acknowledged: the LGB+ students of LUMS.
With this write up, I aim to touch upon the queer experience at LUMS and the way the institution oppresses or liberates its students. For the purpose of this article only, I will be using the term ‘queer’ to refer to the labels of gay, lesbian, bisexual and asexual. Please note that I know these terms are not interchangeable. I reached out to seven informants who were either alumni or currently enrolled in LUMS with one them relating their experience as a student of IBA, a university often cited in comparison to LUMS. These responses will be incorporated throughout this write-up.
The LUMs student handbook does not explicitly mention anything regarding PDA which implies that the administration does not want to interfere in the personal lives of the students. At least not formally. The closest the handbook comes to mentioning anything about this is under the Student Conduct section of the handbook which states: “Students are to maintain proper decorum and etiquette, and adhere to accepted local social norms while interacting with their peers, faculty members, guest speakers and the staff at LUMS.”
So how do students of LUMS test the boundaries of sexuality defined by ‘local social norms’? To what extent are they able to question the boundaries of acceptable relationships?
If you are a student of LUMS, you are no stranger to public displays of affection between straight couples. At least within the bubble of LUMs, dating is considered a norm and not something to be frowned upon by most students. The same, however, cannot be said for non-straight couples.
All the respondents were of the view that though their choices are not embraced by the general society, they have been able to find safe spaces within LUMS in the form of accepting friend circles and a handful progressive societies including FemSoc which is also conscious of being an inclusive space for sexual minorities. Hania voices out frustration about how LGB+ folk can only be semi-out even in the seemingly tolerant bubble of LUMS. If they dare to be too public about their sexuality, who knows how the conservatives of LUMS will react? And subsequently, who knows what the disciplinary committee might do if things get out of hand?
According to my informant from IBA, their administration displays a ‘simultaneous ignorance and hypervigilance…with regard to similar-sex interaction’. And LUMS appears to run along similar lines of ambiguity.
The following paragraph is a word-to-word account of the experience one of my informants has as an openly gay person in LUMS:
“It’s easier to get around and there is the prospect of finding love and having a decent amount of respect from your friends and a few circles. However, it’s not easy to explore your orientation here at LUMS. It’s still Pakistan despite whatever I had heard before my first year at LUMS. I made the mistake of not denying my sexual orientation to anyone who asked me and it ruined me. We know how gossip travels around these red-brick walls. My relationship was on the line. My ex wasn’t open about his orientation and because of his relationship to me, people started finding out and in a way he was forced to leave the closet, which wasn’t okay at all, obviously. That destroyed everything I had with that particular individual and I was left to bear the brunt of it, alone. Being open about my orientation at LUMS is something I can’t go back on now. People know. People judge me by the way I talk and walk. People stop to stare and laugh or pass me smiles reeking off discontent, as if they’re trying to tell me they scorn me for who I am and for who I love; as if they’re somehow responsible for my actions, as if they’re responsible for what I do and who I love; as if I’m a burden on them, on society, as if they’re embarrassed to merely know this image of me that LUMS and its people chose to give me, without my consent. So my expectations completely changed after what I faced here at LUMS. The homophobia is sickening and suffocating and the worst part is, there’s this pseudo-image that LUMS has as an institution that is perhaps the most lgbt-friendly in Pakistan. That’s not true, not for me, at least. The green, dusty Khoka benches and the cigarette butts that line every single place within LUMS, are witness to what I have faced and will continue to face, feeling almost alien, with a thousand eyes deciding my fate. As far as spaces are concerned, perhaps this small circle of people that I hang out with at parties and raves and stuff, would be people I feel safe around and accepted by. My cousin, my friends, a few junkies and that’s mostly it.”
Kamran’s queer experience at LUMS was evidently shaped by bullying at the hands of his peers. It should be noted that such forms of harassment cannot be officially reported either. Here is what another informant had to say about his experience as a gay individual in LUMS:
“LUMS has still managed to exceed my expectations as there are very strong allies in this community and people that I have become close to have never ostracized me for my sexuality like I had initially feared. The friends I have made have really helped ease me through the ups and downs of the gay experience in Pakistan. It’s all a game of figuring out who the right people to stick with are really.”
He also went on to add that he feels that the general population of LUMS is so confused when it comes to their own sexuality that they engage in behaviour that is psychologically harmful for themselves and their partners. Hamza was definitely more hopeful about the prospect of pushing the envelope to discuss such taboo topics within the university but also noted that ground realities remain dismal for queer people in LUMS.
Another widely unrepresented identity, even in popular LGBTQI+ discourse, is asexuality. Here lies the paradoxical nature of Pakistan’s perception of sexuality, as Farheen points, where on one hand overt expression of any form of sexuality is looked down upon but at the same time, rejection of the norm of sexual attraction is also considered unacceptable. Farheen recounts the number of times she has been told by friends that she just hasn’t ‘met the right person yet’ or that ‘it will happen eventually’.
Though every individual has their own experience, there seems to be a very noticeable common theme in all three of the above accounts — the importance of having an accepting circle of friends. My respondent from IBA voices out their disappointment about there being a lack of collective effort to reach out to other queer people. In their experience, individuals who had access to queer networks were very appreciative of their strong friendships and also managed to perform well academically as compared to those who are not able to form queer friendships for various reasons. There seems to be an absence of such strong networks in LUMS, a lack of collectivization of the queer experience.
Ali points out that in an institutionally homophobic society such as Pakistan, it is necessary for queer people to have networks that act as support systems. This has become much easier in today’s day and age since platforms like Facebook (*whispers* and Grindr) allow like-minded people to keep in touch and share their experiences. However, are these networks a substitute for tangible structures of solidarity? Ali doesn’t think so; but if this informal and marginalized source of solidarity is what they have, they’ll take it.
The queer experience at LUMs is quite complicated. It is unsurprisingly a marginalized experience which is subject to change depending on the friendship circles of the person. Bear in mind that this is the experience of students who come from more privileged backgrounds and have access to relatively progressive spaces. We can only imagine what people without financial and academic privilege go through while exploring their sexuality.