Whenever I talk about how bad school was for us with another queer person, I end up remembering how I would go without water all day long to avoid using the washroom meant for ‘boys’. Back then, I had neither the language nor the opportunity to express myself, but I felt uncomfortable in spaces demarcated based on the gender binary of male and female. Everything was divided from washrooms and uniforms to school assembly queues and class-seating arrangements. And there was of course no conversation on the diversity of gender experiences.
While gender-diverse people and communities have existed in India for a long time, their criminalization is a legacy of British colonialism, which remained in place in the post-independence attitude towards gender and sexuality. It is only recently that legal advances like the right to self-identification of gender and the decriminalization of same-sex relations have at least created a space for our experiences. Yet, Indian schools remain grounds of discomfort and bullying for trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) students.
State-level surveys in India depict regular harassment faced by trans and GNC students in schools leading to dropouts. A study in selected districts of Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi found that about 28 percent of trans people surveyed faced harassment at school. “While 18.5 per cent of them were physically abused, 13 per cent of transgender people were sexually harassed and 60 percent were verbally abused,” it said.
For Scamel, hiding who they were at school became a daily struggle. Scamel went to an “all girls” school until 10th grade. They felt that their dislike for skirts and desire to bind their breasts were examples of femininity. It was later when they joined a co-educational school that they started experiencing dysphoria. Their teacher in 11th grade asked all those perceived to be girls to wear makeup for performance during a class assembly, which made them miserable.
“My last straw was in March 2021, when we had a graduation and all the girls were forced to wear a saree, high heels and specified makeup. I was the class topper, but I was so intensely dysphoric that I chose to skip my graduation,” Scamel said.
To address such issues and apply strategies to integrate all students, the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), which is the country’s apex educational body, came out with training material for school teachers. The manual included a glossary for understanding different gender identities, expressions, and regional terms for trans and gender-diverse communities in the Indian subcontinent.
It further defined the concerns of trans and GNC children in school education related to the imposition of the gender binary in uniforms, classroom seating, and sports. It advocated for practical solutions like trans-friendly infrastructure, curriculum reforms, the creation of support groups for trans students, and the sensitization of school staff.
Many of us felt that it was an important first step in this direction.
But it was met with backlash, especially from right-wing platforms in India. It also led to systemic targeting on social media of a trans researcher who was one of the external team members behind the manual. Even the head of the child rights body wrote to the NCERT and asked them to rectify the “anomalies” in it. He wrote that the idea of removing binaries could deny equal rights to children for their biological needs and expose them to “unnecessary psychological trauma”.
Soon after, the NCERT removed the manual from its website and transferred two senior faculty members of its Department of Gender Studies who helped develop it to other departments.
Such an outcry depicted institutional apathy in place in the country. Despite the legal recognition, trans and GNC folks continue to face barriers not only in access to education but also in healthcare, housing, employment, and access to other social provisions. The Supreme Court of India in 2014 had recognized the right to self-identification of gender. The Indian parliament has also passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act even though it has many flaws. Such policies haven’t changed the daily realities of young people exploring their gender expression and identity.
Ishant Sharma is another student who shared multiple incidents where he felt out of place participating in binary activities in school. In one instance, a dance teacher made a comment on his dance movement: “I remember, he said to me, ‘Why are you walking or doing this in a certain way? Do it like boys are supposed to do it…Don’t do it like girls.'”
Ishant, who doesn’t relate with a particular label at present and uses the umbrella term “queer” for himself, said that, like many others, he became familiar with the vocabulary to express himself only after school.
“Since I did not have the vocabulary and understanding, these almost two decades of my life [of school] are always going to be ‘in retrospect’. I never got to live them as they were,” said Ishant.
Instead of being avenues for free expression and development, trans and GNC students find themselves punished for their gender nonconformity, explained Dr. Bittu K.R. (a doctor who asked to have their last name redacted for safety reasons). Dr. Bittu K.R. was one of the external experts who contributed to the NCERT module. They added that Indian schools need to explicitly protect gender nonconformity and suggested sensitization of teachers to be a step in that direction.
In December, the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu called the NCERT’s decision to remove the manual from its website a knee-jerk reaction and later directed the NCERT to implement it for the next academic year. It remains uncertain what changes will be made to the manual and if there will be a strong will to follow it.
Dr. Bittu K.R. was not sure if the educational body would act on it. “I’d just hope that schools in general are thinking about these things as a consequence of it being in the media,” they said.
I, myself, wonder if I would have felt less alone if I had some avenue to understand or relate my experiences with others in the school. I instead learned to police my behavior and ignore all comments on my way of speaking or sitting. It left me with a deep sense of loneliness which followed me in college and at the workplace.
Schools are not the only places that enforce gender binary, but they are essential instruments for the early socialization of young people outside the family. That’s where they can provide students with the opportunity to explore and be curious and express themselves without censoring their lived experiences of gender. All debates and misgivings around washrooms, uniforms, and sports in India and countries like the United States are nothing but instruments of policing any deviance from the existing binary norms and codes of conduct.