I don't think the majority of people are ready to heal, and that's why they repress us trans and gender variant people, because they've done this violence to themselves first. They've repressed their own femininity, they've repressed their own gender nonconformity, they've repressed their ambivalence, they've repressed their own creativity. And so, when they see us have the audacity to live a life… instead of saying, "Thank you for teaching me another way to live," they try to disappear us because they did that to themselves first.Alok Vaid-Menon, Gender Non-Conforming Artist, on The Man Enough podcast
A few weeks back, the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) released a groundbreaking booklet designed to sensitise teachers about their implicit gender-related biases: a hopeful step towards creating safer, gender-affirming spaces in schools around India.
Following a social media backlash against this document titled ‘Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap’, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued a letter on 2 November, to NCERT, suggesting it was ‘conspiring to traumatise school students in name of gender sensitisation’.
The manual has been now removed from the website of NCERT.
The outrage against this guide proves the need for schools to start the process of unlearning systemic and implicit gender biases to create safer spaces for all genders while incorporating gender and trans-affirming training guides.
To understand the debate, it is important to analyse gender and sex through a sociological lens.
'Biological Sex Isn’t Carved in Stone'
The World Health Organization defines gender as "the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours, and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other."
On the other hand, 'sex' is understood as a designation – typically male, female or intersex – given at birth, based on a person’s external anatomy, chromosomes, gonads, and sex hormones.
Still, these are oversimplified explanations with a historic legacy of being misused in the context of intersex, trans, and gender-nonconforming people.
“The truth is, your biological sex isn’t carved in stone, but a living system with the potential for change,” Simón(e) D Sun, a doctoral candidate in the Tsien Lab at New York University's Neuroscience Institute, writes in the Scientific American.
The mainstream science used to back arguments about the binary to uphold differences between ‘males’ and ‘females’, falls apart the more you dig into the details of how genes, gonads, and hormones can keep biological sex subject to change.
But, as individuals, we often actively or passively continue to impose a gender binary that represses everyone at different levels, regardless of their gender identity.
These ideas paint trans and intersex people’s bodies as controversies, perpetuating mainstream fear that doubles down as policing, hate crimes, and violence that disproportionately affects trans women and femme folks at intersecting marginalised identities.
Children Are Socially Conditioned to Follow Binary Gender Norms
Thus, children are taught, actively and passively, to perform characteristics that have been culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth and not born with a biological determination to act like a girl or a boy.
This starts in labour rooms where boys are dressed in blue and girls in pink (which was widely considered a masculine colour until the 20th century), and is carried forward in environments like schools, as the NCERT guide points out, which are systemically and socially conditioned to create and reinforce binary gender norms.
For example, in toilets, assembly lines, classroom seating, uniforms, and the games students are encouraged or allowed to play. The reinforcement of binary gender roles puts children who don't conform to them at risk of being taunted, teased, and bullied by teachers and classmates. Boys who wear ‘feminine’ colours or girls who like to play football, are teased or bullied into aligning with gender norms.
This institutional rigidity and harassment are particularly worse for trans and gender non-conforming children, who might find that their evolving sense of gender identity is not in alignment with their socially imposed sex and gender.
More than half of trans youth was at risk of suicide this past year, according to Trevor Project’s latest mental health survey on LGBTQ+ youth in the US. This risk was lower among those who had access to spaces that affirmed their gender identity.
Higher Risk of Being Bullied by Peers, Abused by Teachers
Therefore, rather than labelling someone’s identity as the problem, we need to address the environments that exacerbate the mental distress by imposing a binary worldview on trans and gender non-conforming children.
For example, under the current school systems, a trans girl might start feeling uncomfortable with being forced to wear a ‘boy’s’ uniform if it conflicts with her growing gender identity as a girl or woman. This discomfort, called gender dysphoria, can be worsened by other imposed expectations, such as being forced into the boys’ lines, or into using the boys’ toilet.
Children who are trans and gender non-conforming are at higher risk of bullying by peers and abuse by teachers. These unsafe environments often lead these children to drop out of the school system.
Our ongoing work in TransCare COVID-19 and other research project reveals stories of trans and gender non-conforming children, who are bullied in schools, lack parental support and leave schools often finding that sex work and begging are the only accessible options to sustain themselves.
The strict enforcement of a binary gender in schools has other effects as well. Several studies have shown how gender segregation is linked to creation and perpetuation of gender bias. This is important to consider in the background of the high levels of gender-based violence in India, and its relation to the lack of education and awareness in unlearning misogyny and casteism.
How Can Schools Play a Role to Prevent Hate Crimes
Schools can play a crucial role in fighting and preventing the ongoing epidemic of violence against trans people, most of whom are trans women and femme folks at intersecting marginalised identities.
Practising gender inclusion at schools is necessary to safeguard the rights of children. Gender affirming school spaces will allow all children to explore activities, cultural pursuits, and careers that transcend binary gender expectations, increase gender equality, and reduce gender-based violence of all forms.
Guides that affirm trans people’s identities, and affirm that love is to be celebrated rather than feared on the basis of another person’s identity, can be a step towards ending the insecurities of cisgender heterosexual men who are often the perpetrators of hate crimes against trans women.
Thus, the NCERT training material is timely and vital to improve the wellbeing of children.
Why Is NCPCR Comment Incorrect?
For example, the NCPCR notice mentions that “such an approach will expose children to unnecessary psychological trauma due to contradictory environments at home and in school”.
We find this incorrect because, firstly, Indian homes typically do not follow a gender-segregated toilets system, and studies have found that trans-inclusive bathrooms have been linked to decrease in sexual violence and reduced waiting times.
Secondly, NCPCR’s comment dismisses the often nerve-wrecking experience that using gender-segregated bathrooms impose on trans and gender-nonconforming people – Galop’s 2020 Transphobia Hate Crime Report found that nearly two thirds of respondents weren’t able to use public bathrooms because of transphobia.
As discussed before, it is the current strict enforcement of gender binaries which is contradictory. It uses ‘sex’ to separate children based on external anatomy labelled at birth, and restricts people based on their perceived gender rather than seeing them for their individual, lived experiences.
A Platform For Discussion, Step In Right Direction
Further, the NCERT training material does not ask for a complete removal of gender segregation in schools. We understand this standpoint on two accounts.
One, in the case of low resource settings, to children who are menstruating to have a private and comfortable space. But this need not preclude the availability of gender inclusive or gender-neutral toilets which will make the space inclusive of children who are transgender. Two, in recognition of gender hierarchies and power differences, it may be necessary to have gender segregation to ensure equal opportunity through a form of affirmative action.
Thus, we believe that the NCERT training material is in the right direction towards improving gender inclusion in schools both for inclusion of transgender children and for reducing gender bias and hierarchies.
The document has been developed based on extensive review of 65 reference documents along with a team of internal and external experts including transgender persons. It is in line with the politico-legal developments in India, including NALSA judgment, Trans Act, National Youth Policy, National Education Policy.
Finally, as mentioned in its title, the material is a ‘concern and roadmap document’ – and isn’t currently mandatory for schools to follow but a platform to open up discussions on this neglected topic. Instead of shutting it down and labelling it as a conspiracy, we must take an expansive understanding of child rights and pursue an open-minded discussion of gender in our schools.
(Dr Harikeerthan Raghuram (He/Him) is Project Coordinator at Sangath India. Ragi Gupta (They/Them) is Head, Creative Content Management at Pixstory. Dr Aqsa Shaikh (She/Her) is Associate Professor, Community Medicine, HIMSR. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)