In 2014, transgender people were accorded legal recognition but remained criminalized for their sexual behaviour under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code till 2018. Since 2014, acknowledgement of the legal changes and action towards inclusion of transgender people in our everyday lives has been scant to say the least. So, last month, when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) released the draft of a manual titled Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap 2020-21, it came to many people as a pleasant surprise.
It took the NCERT seven years to come up with a manual to sensitize and train school teachers on issues surrounding transgender people. While not perfect, the manual did do justice to several aspects of transgender lives. It provided a solid starting point for schools to become more inclusive. While the manual’s language could have been refined, the intent and meaning were evident. But it all seemed too good to be true.
Given the reactionary social environment we live in, it is no surprise that the manual attracted adverse reactions on social media. Right wing media outlets called it ‘woke’, and people tweeted to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) about the manual’s contents. Instead of batting for the concerns of children who do not subscribe to rigid gender norms, the apex child rights body opted for status quo and conveyed its objections to specific aspects of the manual to the NCERT. Eventually, in a sad turn of events, the NCERT took down the entire document from its website.
Thankfully, civil society actions to bring the manual back are under way. So, what is it that the manual says that has opened up a new front on the struggle to resist discrimination against transgender people?
Highlights of the manual
The NCERT brought in experts from different NGOs, universities, and research centres to make the manual come to life. It also tried including voices from different transgender communities in India.
The manual gives a succinct list of terms that apply to indigenous transgender communities in India. It also looks at the definitions of terms used across the anglophone world by different transgender people. These terms and definitions are extremely useful for teachers, particularly those who have little to no exposure or understanding of transgender realities. It is to be remembered that India is a country where all transgender people are clubbed together in the imaginations of people in the most negative light, and are often severely discriminated against.
National Education Policy mandate
The manual points out the different vulnerabilities faced by transgender people, including the lack of accurate data around their population numbers. It includes several critical excerpts from nationally and internationally recognised documents that speak about gender identity and human rights. It also highlights the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 which aims to “provide to all students, irrespective of their place of residence, a quality education system, with particular focus on historically marginalized, disadvantaged, and under-represented groups”. The policy says, “Education is a great leveller and is the best tool for achieving economic and social mobility, inclusion, and equality. Initiatives must be in place to ensure that all students from such groups, despite inherent obstacles, are provided various targeted opportunities to enter and excel in the educational system.”
The NEP also states that a ‘gender-inclusion fund’ will be created in order to support equitable education for cisgender girls and transgender children. It puts special emphasis on sensitization of people on issues affecting transgender people, which is where the NCERT manual comes in. The manual too highlights the need for schools to be accommodating of all diversities.
Non-normativity and the power to discriminate
The NCERT manual highlights how society stigmatises people who do not fit into normative standards, and how gender binary models are used constantly to ‘categorise’ people, both advertently and inadvertently. It lists the aspects in which schools often reinforce these binaries – with uniforms, seating, play areas and so on. Thus, children are socialised into gender binary roles and appearances and not fitting is often seen as a sign of indiscipline.
The manual highlights power hierarchies, and how Indian social hierarchies affect the way bullying is practised in schools. Caste, class, religion and gender (among others) are all factors that affect children, even if they are going to the same school, and sitting in the same classroom. This bullying affects the self-esteem of children, and more so in the case of transgender children.
Endangering by excluding
The manual addresses issues of transphobia and prejudices, and how they can lead to safety issues and issues of mental trauma for transgender people. It often leads to high rates of dropping out and how those who stay on often hide their true selves fearing discrimination. All of this often leads to poor academic performance, and as children are not always capable of handling these issues themselves, they can resort to dropping out, self-harm or other negative coping mechanisms.
The manual lists the measures taken by the Government of India, different ministries, corporate bodies, and the United Nations over the years to include transgender people in the mainstream, and how these efforts carry on till date. It also lists how schools in different countries have taken initiatives to be more diversity friendly.
Recommendations in the manual
The manual makes several recommendations around how to make schools more inclusive and welcoming. For instance, schools need to sensitize all staff – both teaching and non-teaching. Toilets and common spaces should be gender neutral. One aspect that is interesting here is that the manual recommends that the toilets for children with special needs be marked gender neutral. This is a step that many countries have taken, but not without controversy. In fact, the manual proposes doing away with binary practices in all aspects of classroom life.
There is considerable emphasis on curriculum reform that does away with prejudices and biases against transgender people. Given the extremely heteronormative literature that is utilised in most schools in India, it is highly important to create inclusion where gender diverse children can see themselves within their curriculum. The manual gives several suggestions on how textbook writers can modify their writing to be more inclusive, at different stages of schooling, and how teachers can include various topics in their discussions.
The manual talks about mobilising the community into becoming more diversity accepting. It recommends creation of support groups for transgender children in the school itself and encouraging all students to work and participate in gender justice programmes.
Reception and controversies
After the social media posts created a furore around the manual, the NCPCR took suo moto action and wrote to the NCERT objecting against the manual, stating that “The text of the manual suggests gender-neutral infrastructure for children that does not [seem] commensurate with their gender realities and basic needs. Also, the idea of creating and removing binaries shall deny them equal rights of children of diverse biological needs. Second, this approach will expose children to unnecessary psychological trauma due to contradictory environments at home and in school.”
The NCPCR also took exception to the inclusion of puberty blockers and their availability in discussions conducted by teachers with their students. It even went so far as to say that “the background and qualifications of the members of the drafting committee was not verified”.
Schools are sites for education beyond what is taught at home. When we are in a classroom with children from diverse religious backgrounds, we do not think of how they are different from what is practised at home, and how they should be excluded from the curriculum. Yet, the moment it comes to disrupting heteronormative practices, and the inclusion and accommodation of transgender people, the matter becomes traumatic? This is nothing other than pandering to majoritarian views of how patriarchy and heteronormative values should be the only structure within which to educate children.
If we are to limit ourselves to what we learn at home, then we might as well be kept at home and home-schooled by our parents and keep it limited to what they know and practice. By that logic, if a child learns violence at home, then they must be traumatised by seeing people outside the home treating each other with respect! The NCPCR’s reaction to the manual seems poorly reasoned and it comes across more like trying to create barriers rather than actually addressing real issues.
The aspect of puberty blockers that the NCPCR seems to be most upset about is something that has been in use since the 1980s. While these blockers have been used only recently to enhance the lives of transgender children, as such, they have been used by medical professionals for a long time. Essentially, blockers temporarily stop the onset of puberty, which basically means that a transgender boy does not have to deal with the trauma of his body feminising or going through menses every month. It means a transgender girl will not have to deal with male genital development like a cisgender male does.
The use of puberty blockers enhances the lives of transgender children by stopping them from going through some of the harshest aspects of gender dysphoria. Once the blockers are stopped, puberty can resume. While on the blockers, transgender children can start hormone therapy to make their bodies more congruent to their genders. What does this mean? It means fewer surgeries, fewer agonising days and years, fewer anguish-filled stares into the mirror.
Gender dysphoria and body incongruence has ended many young, beautiful lives. To stop a teacher from discussing this in a classroom is tantamount to cutting out a vital aspect of information that could potentially be lifesaving. Discussing these matters is not an immediate invitation to the students to go and have medical interventions. It is an invitation for them to have a frank conversation with their parents and guardians about their needs and wants.
Frustration or education – what is the way forward?
For too long, the Indian educational curriculum has left several people out of its ambit. LGBTIQA+ people are hardly ever mentioned within the readings of history and science. Children grow up with biases and prejudices primarily because of a lack of exposure. This manual is a chance to set things right at least for transgender people.
Several legal changes have happened in recent years concerning LGBTIQA+ people. However, if spanners keep on being thrown the way they are, the changes will remain on paper and have no real meaning. Recalling the manual or watering down the content that enumerates basic steps to be more inclusive will only enhance the deprivations that transgender people already suffer from in India.
The Preamble to the Constitution of India opens with “We, the People of India”. Nowhere does it say that the people must be cisgender and heterosexual. Perhaps it is time for the dominant sections of society to wake up to the realities of the world and take cognizance of the changes around them. Otherwise, they will most definitely get left behind.
About the main illustration: Cover page of the manual Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap 2020-21