Why Indian schools have so few transgender students

Written By: Devanshi Verma WION
New Delhi, India Published: Aug 01, 2017, 05:51 AM(IST) Updated: Oct 27, 2017, 07:32 AM(IST)

'By not telling them, all you are doing is hurting them. I am gay and I wish there was something about the topic in schools while I was growing up' (Representational Image: USAID/Wikimedia Commons) Photograph:( Others )

How many genders do we know? The instinctive answer of the majority is “two”. How many biological sexes are there? Most again will say, "male" and the "female". In the Hindi language, children are taught the male and female categorisation of inanimate objects. History narrates tales of oppressed women and sings heroic praises of male fighters. When students reach puberty, biology teaches them about intercourse and reproductive system. But is our world only limited to the males and females?

It is about time we ask, why have the Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender (LGBT) people not given a place in school textbooks?

But is our world only limited to the males and females?
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Sex is science, gender is culture

There are more sexes and genders than what our system educates us of. The association of sex with gender is so deep that most cannot even differentiate between the two. Sex refers to biological differences, hormonal profiles, and the sex organs whereas gender refer to the characteristics that a society delineates as masculine or feminine.

Transgender people have a gender identity that differs from their assigned biological sex. At times, they opt for medical assistance to transition from one sex to another. “When someone says they feel like the opposite gender, it is presumed that they are or want to be a ‘hijra’. Many still see it as a physical problem. Gender is not always what one has between their legs,” says Sarah from Transgender India, an online and offline community that provides support in the process of transition. 

“Hijra”, “kinnar”, or hermaphrodites have both male and female sexual organs. They challenge the sexual orientations and identify themselves as the new, 'third' gender.

With the enforcement of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 during the British Era, eunuchs were considered criminals by birth.
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In Hindu mythologies, the third gender had a prominent role in society. According to the Ramayana, Lord Rama authorised them to confer blessings on auspicious occasions. Unfortunately, there was a complete role reversal with the enforcement of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 during the British Era. “Through this legislation, eunuchs were considered criminals by birth. Any eunuch could be arrested without a warrant and punished. Although the Act got repealed in 1949, discrimination prevails till date,” says Ishita Midha, law associate at Thomson Reuters.

Since the third gender can be recognised at birth, they are abandoned more often. The transgender people, however, usually come out at a later stage in life. “Surprisingly, the acceptance level among educated Indian families is increasing. In India, the family is the only thing a child has and will ever have. In places like the UK, US, Netherlands, there are foster homes and other community residences to take care of the child--sadly, none of that is present here. Making peace with their parents is the only way out for them,” explains Neysara Rai, founder of Transgenders India.

“The children are willing to make a career for themselves and lead a normal life. However, a normal life is a very over-ambitious goal because they are isolated and tormented--especially in schools and colleges where children are not sensitised and maturity levels are low. With such prejudices, it is almost impossible to take your mind off the body and focus on other aspects of life,” she explains.

With such prejudices, it is almost impossible to take your mind off the body and focus on other aspects of life.
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“Some children try to keep it a secret. The transition period requires medication. They save their pocket money and visit doctors on their own. These children, although adults, are college-goers and therefore financially dependent on their parents,” she adds.

‘I can only have the life I want if I can earn money’

Born as a male in a well-to-do but conservative Muslim household in the state of Karnataka, Jolene* always identified herself as a woman. “When nobody was at home, I would put on my sister’s clothes and try on her lipsticks. It was a liberating feeling,” she explains.

Jolene’s father has been always against social and extracurricular activities. “My mother and sister are also scared of him. He feels he can control everything because he earns for us,” she said.

Jolene was always confused and questioned her existence before she made friends with the Internet to discover that she was nothing but normal. “My only motive in life now is to study really hard, become big so that I can earn for myself and then I can stay away from them forever.”

My only motive in life now is to study really hard, become big so that I can earn for myself and then I can stay away from them forever.
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Self-acceptance was not enough. Although she knows who she is, she put up a face for the society and still goes as a boy, living in a boys hostel in an engineering college of Rajasthan. After learning about transition procedures from her community, she started self-medicating “I never have enough money to visit the doctor. A single session cost between two-three thousand rupees. My father sends me a fixed sum and would track every transaction. I tell him that I spent on dinner or coffee and then buy medications from that money,”

Day by day, she started to look more feminine. As she transitioned, the teasing and tormenting increased. One night, the bullying in the hostel took an ugly turn. At an informal party, a few drunk boys cornered her in a dark room. “Are you one of us? Let us see what you are hiding in those pants,” They preyed on her, assaulted her and beat her. She was not raped, but many like her have.

She did not complain, fearing that if her father gets to know about the medication, the consequences could be worse than rape “I have friends who are activists--they will help me out but I am just letting it pass. I need to get out of college and earn--then I will take care of everything”

According to Jolene, education is the only way she can empower herself but the lack of education in our society about a trans-woman like Jolene makes her a victim of discrimination and violence every single day. 

‘Look beyond my body, into my heart’ -- The quote that changed Aryan’s life

The narrative of a transgender person is usually full of sorrows. However, the 30-year-old Aryan has embraced life. He was always unconsciously aware of his gender identity is male, although his body and society said otherwise. “For instance, when I had to choose clothes for myself, I would pick up from the male section,” he explains.

I was upfront about my identity in the college interview itself. My attendance sheet and all other college documents mentioned my name as Aryan--although my birth-name legally had not been changed.
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Aryan is pursuing masters in Psychology from Pune. He came out to his family in December of 2016. In a patriarchal society where women are still fighting for an equal spot for themselves, Aryan’s parents supported him without a second thought. “My father is very broad-minded. I can talk to him about my physical discomforts and about using the men’s washroom. When I told him I wanted to use chest binders, he said ‘Don’t worry about the money, just buy the best ones,’ I am blessed,” he explains.

Aryan did his diploma in counselling from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “I was upfront about my identity in the college interview itself. My attendance sheet and all other college documents mentioned my name as Aryan--although my birth-name legally had not been changed,” he adds.

Aryan plans on a physical transition next year. He is extremely comfortable with his gender identity and gives psychology studies due credit for it. “A lot of people take up psychology to resolve their own issues. Learning about the human mind is the first step towards healing. For transgender people, who happen to be more vulnerable, it is a more therapeutical subject,” he adds.

When asked if he had to deal with rejection from his peers, he assertedly said “Even if I get rejected, it is they who have to deal with the rejection, not me. All I have to is to accept myself and give an open end to others to do that as well--rest is up to them,” he says.

While it is extremely important for the LGBT community to receive education, at the same time, it is important to educate the society about the LGBT in order to normalise their existence.
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Sex education and LGBTQ inclusive curriculum in schools

As and when we talk about transgenders, hermaphrodites or anybody from under the queer umbrella, the narrative focusses only on their bodies. How can one empower the community? It is difficult to negate the gender and sexuality completely to focus on material success.

Is educating them the answer? Even for a well-educated, successful transgender person, it is difficult to break free from the deeply-rooted body politics.

While Aryan feels contented because of the support of his family and friends, Jolene is still struggling to make a space for herself. While both of them come from well-off backgrounds and have received quality education, the difference in acceptability levels exists because of the attitude of people around them.

While it is extremely important for the LGBT community to receive education, at the same time, it is important to educate the society about the LGBT in order to normalise their existence and carve a niche that is beyond body politics. “The need of the hour is to primarily ensure that awareness is spread amongst the society about the LGBTQ and how they are just like any other human being. Students must be educated about the plurality of genders from the very beginning,” Midha adds.

I will be enraged if my kid goes to a school that confuses him to with the idea of alternate sexualities.
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Children are not born homophobic, biphobic or transphobic--they learn negative behaviours very early on from outside influences. “It is the job of educators to ensure that all discriminatory views are challenged and eradicated to create a safe space for everyone,” says Neysara.

Most primary schools and parents criticised the idea of teaching about LGBTQ in the school curriculum.  “As a parent, it is my right to be able to see the curriculum and approve it before it is imposed on my kids. I will be enraged if my kid goes to a school that confuses him to with the idea of alternate sexualities,” says Ritu Bhandari, mother of a 7-year-old.

“Children shouldn't be brainwashed into believing that alternate sexualities are normal especially when they are not,” says another parent of a primary school student.

“Such courses should only be offered to students of the queer community. Why should ‘normal’ people be forced to learn about them? ” says Ashish Pant, father of a 12-year-old.

On the other hand, some broad-minded teachers, as well as parents, believe that LGBT studies are the first step towards inclusion. “Children are taught about the struggles of women, people of color, and disabled individuals, and how their differences should be celebrated. Why should it be different with the queer?" says primary school teacher, Meenu Verma. 

Bangalore University has one seat reserved for transgender people--but never has one transgender student been enrolled in it. The seat is all for media and not for practice
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“By not telling them, all you are doing is hurting them. I am gay and I wish there was something about the topic in schools while I was growing up. I had so much hate towards myself, thinking it was wrong and immoral. There are also many LGBT teen suicides and a major reason being the lack of information given to them. Education is the only way to combat these trends,” explains Hameed*

 “There are so many so called ‘schemes for transgenders’ which are actually only on papers and are more of marketing gimmicks,” says Neysara.

“For instance, the Bangalore University has one seat reserved for transgender people--but never has one transgender student been enrolled in it. The seat is all for media and not for practice. They say they do not get applications and no suitable candidate has applied. However, most of my students have reached out to the university but have never got a response from them about the seat. They are completely ignored and pushed away. According to my understanding, they do not want a transgender student to be studying alongside their regular students,” she adds.

Neysara’s students have tried contacting the Vice Chancellor since they suspected that the working staff at the lower ground are not completely aware of the reservation. However, they were never able to reach the Vice Chancellor either.

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