(This was first published on 13 November 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after the death of a 16-year-old student from DPS, Greater Faridabad following alleged homophobia.)
Do you know what it feels like to be made fun of, stigmatised against, and being made to feel isolated by your peer group and teachers, just because you are not like one of them?
Can you imagine not being able to fit into the uniforms that are made available by the school or having to use restrooms where you can never really ‘rest’?
Can you imagine going through your entire school life feeling this way, without having anyone to explain why this is happening to you? If you can, you might have probably had similar experiences. Or you are probably just a human who can empathise with other people’s lived experiences. Unfortunately, that is not what the current education system in India is able to emulate.
Lack of empathy for children who do not fit into societal constructs of gender is seemingly what led to the pulling down of a manual that was proposed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which would sensitise teachers about transgender, gender-nonconforming children.
What Is the Manual About? Why the Backlash?
Seven years after the landmark National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) judgment, where the Supreme Court legally recognised third gender/transgender persons for the first time, the NCERT came up with a training manual to make schools more inclusive. However, the manual was made available online for only seven days before it was pulled down on 4 November.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had sent a complaint against the manual to the NCERT, seeking the ‘rectification of anomalies’ within a week. The NCERT is yet to respond to the letter.
However, the manual was pulled down after facing Right-wing outrage on social media. For instance, Vinay Joshi, a former RSS pracharak, who in his complaint to NCPCR said it was a 'criminal conspiracy...to psychologically traumatise school children'.
How Lived Experiences Can Be ‘Traumatising’
The Quint spoke to some gender-nonconforming and transgender people to get a better understanding of their lived experiences. Sujitha, who identifies as transgender, non-binary, and pansexual, says 'being a queer child in this cis-heteronormative hellhole of a world is traumatic to say the least'. Since Sujitha was attracted towards girls, it left him feeling guilty and confused.
“I passed as a girl child. I was fat and had a large chest and a large bottom. I was forced to perform as a girl. My body was unnecessarily sexualised by my parents, relatives, teachers, and random strangers in public, especially as a teenager. As a teenager, because I had these ideas about what a person who is attracted to women must behave like, I tried to emulate the behaviours of a 'macho' man, which was not healthy for me and the people around me."Sujitha
Similarly, Doel, a writer, performer and trans rights activist shares her experiences of what it was like growing up, while having to conform and perform the designated gender roles of a boy.
“My school was very strict about gender roles as far as the code of conduct and dress code were concerned. There was no way to even slightly negotiate with the length of my hair, nails etc. My gender expression never aligned with my choice."Doel, writer, performer and trans rights activist
Dealing With Transphobia, Shame, and Bullies
Micheal (name changed), who identifies as non-binary and gender-queer, says that while growing up, they were seen as the ‘tomboy’ of the family. Micheal went to an all-girls catholic school, where students had to conform to the traditional ideals of femininity, which was 'stifling even for cisgendered peers'.
“I was singled every day for the way I sat, ate, walked, and even spoke. I was the student who always wore the uniform wrong. Mainly because we had to tuck in our shirts. I used to keep mine untucked because of my dysphoria. Every time I tucked in my shirt, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I now know it was because I was hyper-aware of what my body looked like. I was shouted at by teachers and seniors and eventually by the principal. She insisted I looked shabby and that I had to wear my uniform properly.”Micheal (name changed), student
According to Doel, shaming by teachers is the norm. She recalls an experience in her school days, when her hair grew longer than the 'standard length'.
"I remembered one of my favourite teachers asking me to stand up in her class. She asked me to explain why I have not cropped my hair short. When I honestly answered her question stating that I like my hair a bit longer, she said that she will allow me to keep longer hair if I would wear skirt, plait or ponytail my hair and come to school how the girls did. I can't tell how badly I wanted to say to her, 'I would love to do all of these. But will you really allow me?' I couldn't say that because I was aware of the repercussions and how conventionally feminine boys were bullied by other students in school. I didn't want to go through that. I didn't want to say anything that would reveal my gender identity," she says.
The transphobia is not only external but is also internalised. As Sujitha says, he had also bullied several peers for 'behaving gay or transgender'.
"Ironically, I was called a transgender as an insult because this boy thought girls are supposed to have a certain kind of face, and that mine didn't match that," he adds.
'Need a Safe Space While Growing Up'
Naturally, having had to deal with such conflicting and disturbing experiences while growing up, all those who identify themselves as gender-queer and who do not conform to this cis-heteronormative society would welcome such a manual that was proposed by the NCERT.
"In childhood and adolescence, we need(ed) people to tell us that we are not monsters and that our existence is valid despite the world around us insisting otherwise. We need a space where we feel safe to explore the concepts of gender and sexuality, and figure out who we are. We would at least be able to accept ourselves, even if we have to keep fighting to exist," says Sujitha.
‘Education System Under Threat in India’
Akkai Padmashali, a transgender activist, motivational speaker, and singer, says that the pulling down of the manual by NCERT shows how the education system in India is under threat.
"The fact that in the 21st century we are still fighting for inclusivity says a lot about our education system. This is not about westernisation of education. People across the globe are discussing about such inclusivity, it is unfortunate that we are still not talking about this in the largest democracy. This shows how immature and uneducated we are. There is a threat against a certain community, which is not acceptable or compromisable."Akkai Padmashali, transgender activist, motivational speaker and singer
The Quint has sought a response from the director of NCERT, Dr Sridhar Srivastava, via email, on why the manual was pulled down and whether such a manual will be made available in the future. The article will be updated as soon as we get a response.