Atey, a trans boy, is the protagonist of the documentary Nawa – Spirit of Atey, a film I directed in 2019. Atey’s father is a carpenter and mother a homemaker. He has three sisters. It is a happy family, one that allows Atey the freedom to dress and live the way he wants to. I have known him since before the making of the documentary – his mother has been a close friend even before she got married. Atey’s family lives hand to mouth but is peaceful.

The coronavirus lockdown has pushed trans persons in Manipur into a disastrous situation. Many of them have had to shut down their businesses. Some of us have been distributing rations to trans people early on since the lockdown started. I have been communicating with them over phone, and Atey is one of the persons I called recently. It was his eldest sister who answered the call.

The conversation started with Atey’s schooling during the lockdown. His sister said Atey stopped going to school since 2019 without appearing for the final exam of the seventh standard. The school insists on his wearing the uniform for girls. But Atey does not agree. At almost 14 years of age, he no longer wants to be detained in front of his classmates.

This is not the first time that Atey has stopped going to school. The same problem occurred when he was in primary school. But when some of us who are engaged in trans activism sensitized the school authorities to the realities of trans persons, they made amends and allowed Atey to wear the boys’ uniform. Unfortunately, for his higher classes, Atey had to change schools and the new school has not been willing to revisit its rules. Atey dropped out of boxing lessons as well for the same reason. My film highlights the contradiction between our rigidly gendered educational institutions and the space for gender plurality in Meitei traditions.

After speaking to Atey’s sister, I spoke to his mother as well. She revealed that Atey was actually deeply interested in continuing his education. But she seemed despondent because of the barriers that Atey had to face. When I asked Atey about how he was spending time during the lockdown, he said, “I’ve been writing out the text from my school books repeatedly so that I don’t forget the feeling of school.”

This daytime photograph shows Atey with the author and his parents at his home. All four individuals are wearing masks meant to prevent coronavirus transmission. Atey is semi-kneeling on the floor, while his mother (to his right), the author (to his left) and his father (next to the author) are seated on low plastic stools. The room in which they are seated shows a humble home environment – it has asbestos walls, a window space screened by a large piece of cloth and some household items like a cane basket and plastic water containers. A part of an adjoining room, possibly the kitchen, can be seen behind the author, but it is in darkness. Photo credit: Borish Yumnam

Atey (kneeling) with the author next to him and his parents at his home

I spoke also to Atey’s aunt and she shared that they searched for a school that might relax its policy for Atey’s sake, but they were not successful. She was however optimistic. Though she had no claims to formal education herself, she had the brightest ideas of all. In her jovial manner she asked me if Atey’s schooling could be continued online, just like the other children receiving home tasks over WhatsApp since the lockdown started. We discussed that if this were to happen, then Atey would need a smart phone, quite a luxury for his family.

The conversation continued with many light moments and several unanswered questions. We talked about mobile phone abuse and addiction and many other related topics. Our call ended with the harsh reality of Atey’s father’s loss of income and the financial crisis that had beset the family.

What has stayed in my mind is the thought of introducing distance and alternative learning for children like Atey, who are unable to attend school because of barriers around rigid gender norms. Can technology be a solution, at least a partial one, for trans students faced with social barriers? Access through technology may well be able to facilitate both formal and non-formal education for trans students – till at least the time educational institutions learn to become trans inclusive. Already many trans students prefer to pursue higher education through distance learning rather than attend colleges and universities that do nothing to change their transphobic environments.

I have started contacting people with expertise in distance learning, social work, mental health and legal aspects like the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. I have had discussions on the need for trained human resources for distance learning, and on how to deal with technology addiction and detoxification. A counsellor I spoke to is willing to help sensitize schools on the need to introduce online education for trans students. But if such an approach to education has to succeed, the family members of trans children must also commit to guide their children and communicate regularly with the schools. Smart phones and computer tablets alone will not work.

Will the education policy makers spare some thought in this direction?

The author, with the help of AMaNA, a Manipur-based trans rights collective that she leads, has started an online fundraising campaign to help 15 students from underprivileged backgrounds in Manipur purchase computer tablets so that they can continue their education during the lockdown. Read more about the campaign and make your contribution here. This campaign seeks to support students irrespective of their gender identities and is not limited to trans students – Editor.

All photo credits: Borish Yumnam