Mus doesn’t remember much from their childhood or school days, but one memory remains palpably alive. “I’ve always had this thing about body hair. I reached puberty a bit earlier than other boys my age and I was very uncomfortable with the hair on my legs, it always made me feel weird and I hated wearing my school shorts,” they told Re:Set. Mus, a non-binary writer and mental health advocate based in Delhi, also recalled a gym teacher who regularly mocked them for preferring to play with girls over boys.
Besides families, the school plays an integral role in socializing children into their predetermined gender roles and teaches them the so-called socially acceptable ways of expressing their gender. Anyone who deviates from the norm — even slightly — is brought in line using harsh teachable moments that manifest in the form of jeers, jokes and jibes — both from peers and teachers. This teaching is not so much about imparting knowledge and wisdom, as it is about indoctrinating societal norms and discouraging children from questioning any of it. Which is why the NCERT’s much talked about teacher-training manual for the inclusion of transgender children in school education was a small step in the right direction. But that was only until it was removed in the aftermath of social media outrage.
The key objective of the manual was to sensitize teachers and educators “regarding gender diversity keeping gender-nonconforming and transgender children at centre stage.” While the NCERT’s intention of addressing the issues faced by transgender and gender non-conforming persons within the school system was lauded by many, several people were offended by its suggestions to include gender neutral washrooms, sensitize students about gender-affirmative hormone therapies, and its mention of caste patriarchy. One person even filed a complaint with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Moreover, Vqueeram, one of the panelists who contributed to the manual, faced vicious trolling and targeted online attacks from anonymous Twitter accounts set up specifically to malign them.
When teachers bring their biases into the classroom, they risk passing on their belief systems and prejudices to an entire room of impressionable minds. If they humiliate or punish students for not conforming to gender norms, they’re not just dehumanizing the student in question but also teaching everybody else that intolerance is acceptable.
“As students we spend nearly 8-10 hours in a school setting with teachers and we pick up cues from them because we see them as people who are in authority, having power and responsibilities,” Nadika, a transgender writer and researcher who works with the trans community in Chennai and Bangalore, told Re:Set. “They also play a role in guiding behaviour based on the examples they set, how they treat any kind of discussion or when they silence any questioning. These are the things that stay with us for a long time and have a lasting impact on how we see ourselves.”
Reinforcing gender binaries
School was where Dona first realized they were supposed to be a girl. “As a child, I didn’t know anything about gender. My parents were quite liberal, I was allowed to keep my hair short and my mum would always buy clothes for me from the boys section because she knew I liked them more. But I didn’t have that option in school,” they told Re:Set. Instead they would eagerly wait for winter because everybody wore pants and blazers, irrespective of gender. “In school you have to behave like a perfectly poised girl, and these expectations only get worse as you reach puberty,” they added. When Dona, who identifies as non-binary, moved to a co-ed school during their teens, their “tomboy” nature initially made them a misfit between the girls as well as the boys. “One day, my benchmate told me that she’d teach me how to sit and walk like a girl because she wanted me to fit in.”
“Had this manual been put into use, it could have helped a student struggling with their gender identity.”
Schools reinforce gender binaries through uniforms, lack of gender neutral washrooms and infrastructure, absence of appropriate sex education, and by inculcating patriarchal notions in the name of values. Dona, like many others, have had their dysphoria triggered by the ways in which schools function. While adults still have access to support to navigate their gender dysphoria depending on their privilege, students often have no choice but to endure it all until they leave the school system.
“I don’t think I would have been able to survive school with all of its gendered restrictions if I had known back then that what I was feeling was called gender dysphoria,” Dona told Re:Set.
Young Indians are often at the receiving end of bullying and abuse, both at home and at school, due to their queer identities. A 2018 study conducted among sexual and gender minority groups, by the NGO Sahodaran alongside UNESCO, found that 60% of the respondents were physically harassed in middle or high school. In such scenarios, educators, who are sensitized and trained, need to make their students feel seen and accepted.
The NCERT manual, with its suggestions to discontinue binary practices in schools and include gender neutral infrastructure, hoped to foster more inclusive school environments in a country where nearly 50-60% of transgender people have not been able to attend schools due to the discrimination they face based on their gender identity.
Can one teaching manual undo the hatred and transphobia that has percolated through generations? “The manual was supposed to be a recourse to justice for those who feel they have been mistreated by the school system,” Nadika told Re:Set.“It wouldn’t have had an immediate effect on existing teachers, but maybe five years down the line, had this manual been put into use, it could have helped a student struggling with their gender identity.”