St Joseph's professor Ashley Tellis, fired 'for being gay', says he fears death of dissent in classrooms

The question of my sexual orientation is tied up with larger questions of democracy and dissent and the dangerous new direction that educational institutions in India are taking

Ashley Tellis March 13, 2017 17:17:20 IST
St Joseph's professor Ashley Tellis, fired 'for being gay', says he fears death of dissent in classrooms

The media in today's India is not interested in complex stories, or in questions of democracy and dissent. The media may be doing its job as the fourth pillar of democracy, but it's is a job it's ill-suited for, because education is not training them for it.

Headlines in all the reports of my sacking from St. Joseph's harp on my homosexuality. All that I said about democracy and dissent is forgotten. The question I am asked is whether the sacking was because of my sexuality or any other reason. As if this binary is so self-evident and it can be only one or the other.

Well, the answer is that it is both my sexuality and other reasons. They are tied together. My sexual orientation was not in my job application, as the college claims. But there is no need to mention one's sexual orientation in a job application. The principal did not even interview me — it was two English professors and one Jesuit representing the establishment — the principal was not around.

St Josephs professor Ashley Tellis fired for being gay says he fears death of dissent in classrooms

Ashley Tellis. Image courtesy: Twitter/Ashley Tellis

My sexual orientation was the reason I was denied the job at St. Joseph’s College of Commerce a little while before the interview at St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science. It was the reason I was suddenly uncalled for an interview by Mount Carmel College's English department before that, on the day of the scheduled interview. So, had the priests and nuns communicated with each other better and had the principal known, it is highly likely I would not have gotten the job at St. Joseph’s in the first place.

Religious institutions of all kinds are homophobic. Any LGBT faculty in any of these places are in the closet and with good reason. I am an activist and so ever since I came back to the country after my PhD, I have been out and proud, as a gay academic. I do research on sexuality. Minority sexual orientations are a no-no in most institutions across the country but especially, and ironically, in minority institutions. For all their talk of being for the marginalised and the suffering, let's make a list of all the LGBT faculty Bangalore's Christian institutions have. The page might well be blank.

Most importantly, however, my sexuality is tied up with various other issues that I have been talking about in classes, which have upset the Jesuits enough to throw me out. These topics, in any open-minded, democratic educational institution, are par for the course: Abortion, sex work, religion versus science, monolithic understandings versus pluralism, surrogacy, tribal rights, Dalit rights, women's rights, the rights of sexual minorities, environmental rights, First World exploitation of Third World natural resources, Maoism, standing for the National Anthem in cinema halls, patriotism, nationalism, child sexual abuse, the rights of students in the face of draconian, anti-democratic rights in colleges and universities.

Some of these, allegedly, "very much disturbed" (sic) students and their parents.

So the question of my sexual orientation is tied up with larger questions of democracy and dissent and the dangerous new direction that educational institutions in India are taking.

Is it taboo to talk about, discuss and build arguments about these issues in an educational institution or in a democratic society? Are critical and political disagreement, debate and discussion of these issues — central to the structure of argumentation in speech, reading and writing, which is what we teach in general English classes across the board — to be discouraged, censured and expelled from the classroom?

If a handful (or even a large group) of conservative students are upset by some of these arguments, does that mean they have the right to ask for a teacher to be removed? Do parents have a right to doctor what is taught in educational institutions? Are academic establishments allowed to hide behind students and parents to sack faculty they do not like? Are only straight (hegemonic, conservative) faculty who toe the line to be hired? Is a gay perspective too disturbing for the majority? Is a dissenting view from the norm something students need to be protected from?

What are the implications of these questions? They tie up beautifully with the government's new education plan where any political organising among students is not to be allowed. Apparently, there are courts and other institutions to deal with inequality and exploitation. Students don't need to do anything about it. What kinds of students will fill the courts and institutions once they graduate if this is what we do to them and their teachers in college? What is the kind of society we are moving toward?

Ashley Tellis was a professor at Bangalore's St. Joseph's College of Arts and Science, and was sacked by the institution on 9 March.

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