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Posted by Maitrayee Sarma
Like all forms of prejudice, discriminatory behaviour against queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are learned from the environment that we inhabit. Schools, as places where we spent half our childhood and where we learn how to socialise, are extremely crucial in this regard and should be held accountable. Before going into the ways in which Indian schools teach us these behaviours, we must look at how our schools are structured.
A majority of our schools, almost all government run schools, are divided into “all-boys” and “all-girls’. By virtue of their existence, schools that segregate children on the basis of their biological sex perform a complete erasure of gender minorities, and further deny the scope for the creation of an environment in which queerness and gender nonconformity can exist, let alone thrive.
Girls schools, convent schools in particular, have a tendency to brand themselves as specialised institutions that produce “proper” girls, wherein “propriety” and “sophistication” are but veiled excuses to breed generations of straight-laced women who are constantly pit against each other. In my small town, the convent school that I went to had a reputation that we flaunted with a certain pride. We were deemed “hard to get”, “high maintenance”, always belting out English phrases that no one really cared for.
There is almost a sense of a colonial hangover in the expectations that it puts on us, which should not really be a surprise considering the fact that most of these schools, including ours, are at least seventy years old and were in fact modelled after finishing schools of the past. The obsessive imposition of dress code, right from skirt to “proper” innerwear, is strongly reminiscent of Victorian moral codes.
The people most at risk under such conditions are the queer, trans and gender non-conforming youth. The first thing that comes to one’s mind, as I had briefly touched upon earlier, is the enforcement of dress codes. Much has already been said and written about the regressive undertones of school uniforms and the deep-rooted misogyny that they represent and how they have generations of young women growing up in our country, and continue to do so. What often gets ignored is the potential impact they might have on queer, trans and gender non-conforming youth.
Clothing and general bodily appearance is a big part of the politics of queerness; every little choice is an expression of their identity and a testament to their “difference”. To see such expression getting thwarted in the name of uniformity is an experience all too familiar for queer people, the trauma of which often goes ignored. Students who do not conform are shamed and their behaviours are viewed through a strictly moral lens that completely ignores their desire for creative self-expression.
In 2018, UNESCO in collaboration with Sahodaran, a male sexual health project based in Tamil Nadu, conducted a research on the experience of bullying in schools among sexual/gender minority youth in the state which provides several important insights into this matter. The first important fact to note is the paucity of research in this regard, which is rather interesting to note as any person who has ever been to school will be able to say that sexual/gender minority youth are the most likely to be bullied in a school setting.
Almost 60% participants in the UNESCO-Sahodaran survey reported physical harassment at middle/high school. But the more shocking statistic was that 18% of them took their complaints to the authorities, out of which 29% were “asked to change their perceived feminine mannerism/behaviour.”
The report is clear—school authorities do not deal well with harassment complaints from their gender-nonconforming and queer students. There are several reasons why this happens—a general lack of awareness, conservatism or even plain apathy. All these reasons in some way can be traced back to the heteronormative structure of our society that sustains itself by punishing certain behaviours while rewarding others. Undoing this status quo in a country like ours would probably take several decades, but there are still some basic steps that schools and other educational institutions can take up in this regard.
Like I said in the very beginning of the article, the fact that we still have schools that segregate children in terms of biological sex is plain absurd. The only possible argument for it could be that such institutions help nurture homosociality, which is important for every child. But this same homosociality becomes a breeding ground for homophobia, something which I have realised from my own personal experience of going to an all-girls school for almost a decade.
There are unwritten codes for female friendships which when broken might have you stuck with undesirable labels and associated bullying. A certain level of sexual and romantic experimentation while at school, although discouraged by authorities, is common enough, but as soon as school is over and you enter the world outside such behaviours are deemed “a phase” and not really reflective of anyone’s identity.
As teenagers we had almost no vocabulary to talk about any kind of nonconformity besides that of morality, which is fuelled by the general confusion of adolescence. The fact of the matter is that, even though strong homosocial bonds are crucial, we have to learn how to fruitfully conduct ourselves with people of all genders and sexes in a way which benefits everyone, and when you spent years being ingrained with false expectations about the opposite sex based on rumours and hearsay and a complete erasure of the vocabulary of queerness and homosexuality, the minorities are bound to suffer.
A major step towards helping children overcome the shame and stigma attached to identifying with a gender minority could be the inclusion of gender sensitivity training for all teachers and instructors. This is not to say that all teachers and institutions are insensitive by virtue of their existence. They might show empathy whenever a complaint is made or when events take a serious turn, but until such issues are institutionalised and mandated by the administration and discussed and debated upon, they are bound to be buried under shrouds of shame where they lie now.
Students should not have to wait for someone to get hurt in order to discuss such issues, but instead care should be taken to avoid such behaviours in the first place. A gender-sensitive institution must also include counsellors who are trained to talk to children who might have issues with their gender identity and might be acting out in ways that seem otherwise unrelated and that go against the rules of the institution. Instead of treating them with moral indignation and trying to rectify them with reinforcement or just ignoring them because the children facing them do not form a large enough group, they must be treated like mental health issues that need to be addressed properly.
Like any issue that affects minorities, bullying in schools and our institutionalised homophobia is not talked about because the affected parties are deemed too few to matter. But, like all minorities, gender minority youth do not exist in a vacuum and their existence is bound to affect many around them, as are their issues.
But more importantly, we cannot pretend to imagine a feminist future which is not queer/trans inclusive. We are living in an age where we have access to vocabulary that is allowing us to question models of femininity and masculinity that we have been handed down to us. Raising a generation of youth that recognises that the fight to end patriarchy is not a fight against men but against the gender binary is thus the need of the hour, and for this fight to succeed our institutions must step in.
Maitrayee Sarma has recently finished her graduate studies in English literature from Ambedkar University Delhi and is currently engaged in sitting-at-home, doom scrolling and wishing someone would pay her to rant. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India