377 verdict: Time for schools to grow safer, more inclusive for queer children

Queer children often get their first taste of bullying and discrimination at these institutions which leaves them with lasting scars.
377 verdict: Time for schools to grow safer, more inclusive for queer children
377 verdict: Time for schools to grow safer, more inclusive for queer children
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Grace Banu, a Dalit trans activist, became the first transgender person to get an engineering seat in Tamil Nadu in 2014. Her struggle to get access to education while well-known, is also a testament to the discrimination the LGBTQI+ community faces. She, like many others, celebrated when the Supreme Court’s historic verdict read down the archaic section 377 of the IPC on Thursday. However, like many activists and members pointed out to TNM, the verdict is a small, albeit significant victory in a long battle ahead – acceptance and normalisation are still a far cry.

Schools and educational educations are an important element here – queer children often get their first taste of bullying and discrimination at these institutions which leaves them with lasting scars. So, how do we make them safer, more inclusive spaces for LGBTQI+ children? TNM spoke to experts to find out.

What queer children face in schools

“When I was in school, I would use the bathroom at home at 8 am before I left for school and then would have to hold it until after school ended at 4.30 pm. I’d reach home by 5 pm and only then be able to relieve myself,” Grace recalls. “This is because kids do make fun of you. This kind of mental and physical strain takes its toll over the years.”

Experiences like this are not uncommon for queer children. Bengaluru-based graduate Siddharth Ganesh, who identifies himself as gender-fluid, told TNM earlier about the difficulties he faced at his school in Mysuru because he was considered too “feminine”. Even teachers added to his trauma. “I used to love wearing Livestrong bands. One time, a teacher pulled me up and asked in front of everyone if I was a sex worker because only sex workers wore them,” Siddharth said.

Several studies have shown that children who do not conform to heteronormative behaviour or display gender non-conforming behaviour are more likely to be bullied.

Rajesh Umadevi Srinivas, who heads Sangama, a Bengaluru-based NGO working with the LGBTQI+ community, believes that this sort of treatment has two effects. “One, it makes the child retract into a shell, burdened with guilt and self-doubt. Secondly, many of them end up dropping out, unable to bear the discrimination,” he says.

“If I can’t get into a school myself, how far will someone going into a school and bringing awareness be effective?” Grace questions.  

An open environment which encourages questions

While it may seem daunting to broach the topic of LGBTQI+ issues with children, experts say the many bridges can be built simply by having an open environment in schools and homes.

Himanjali Sankar is the author of Talking of Muskaan, a young-adult novel which tells the stories of three teens which grapples with issues of gender, class, sexuality and more. She observes that it’s impossible for children to not come across terms like “gay” and “transgender” because they, too, are big consumers of media.

“We don’t necessarily have the culture of sitting down and discussing uncomfortable things in India,” she points out. “But I think inculcating an environment where a child can ask questions without fear of judgment is a start. Children also emulate what they see. They will notice if you make transphobic or homophobic jokes. Small things like this can make a lot of difference.”

So, what can you do if your young child asks about why they are seeing people putting up rainbow themed profile pictures and hashtags of section 377? “In simple words, I would tell them that it’s about having the freedom of who they want to be, and who they want to love. And not everyone loves or behaves or looks the same way, and that’s okay. We should appreciate the differences,” Himanjali says.

Inclusion in curriculums

Sriram Ayer, Founder and CEO of Nalandaway Foundation which uses visual and performing arts to help children from disadvantaged communities, believes that we first need to make sexuality education a necessary part of curriculums in schools.

Sexuality education is a term which scares many parents. However, sexuality education is about a lot more than safe sex practices, Sriram points out. “It’s about gender sensitivity. And it needs to talk about the gender violence inflicted on women and the LGBTQI+ community. It sensitises children and educates them. And once that conversation starts, there will be curiosity and children will want to learn more,” he says.

He also notes that even without the bullying and ridicule, childhood and adolescence can be confusing and challenging times for a queer child, who is figuring out who they are. It would help them to also see more representation of the LGBTQI+ community in books.

Rajesh agrees. “Younger children especially respond better to visuals. We need to go beyond the heteronormative framework… Illustrations of normal, day to day situations should become more inclusive so that a queer child knows they are normal,” he says.

Rajesh says that apart from this, teachers and non-teaching staff also need to be sensitised. “There needs to be a module that can be formulated and made mandatory. Even parents should be sensitised in PTA meetings,” he says.

Interaction with LGBTQI+ community

Sriram says that a lot of sensitisation and inculcating acceptance in children can come by simply ensuring children have a chance to interact with LGBTQI+ persons.

“Schools can tie up and arrange for these interactions, where the persons talk about their lives and struggles. It not only will make children aware, but will let them know and being queer is normal and they are people just like them,” he says. “It can also be done through storytelling – where the storytellers are LGBTQI+ or where stories have queer characters.”

Further, the community should be given access and opportunity within the education system as well. “We have art studios in schools. In two of them, the dance trainers are trans persons. The children learn from them, respect them and so do their parents. They treat the trainers like any other teacher. The sheer creation of opportunity can bridge gaps,” he says.

Some resources with representation of LGBTQI+ persons

“Ideally, a picture of a family a textbook should include more than just a man, woman and children. Maybe they show two women with a child,” Himanjali suggests. She admits however that despite section 377 being read down, images like this are likely to face opposition. “If not textbooks, I think we should try to include these illustrations in other academic books or even storybooks,” she adds.

Grace says that media representation overall also needs to improve. “Over the years, a lot of sensitisation and change has been brought about through media, but if you watch movies, a lot of times the portrayal is very degrading.”

If you want to talk to your children about LGBTQI+ issues and gender here are some resources.

Stories are a great way to get children normalising queer persons and to talk about gender issues. Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar, Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar, the Mayil series by Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam, and Home, a stand-up book which features a gay couple with a family, by Nina Sabnani are some books you can check out.

There are plenty of online resources if you want to talk to your kids about LGBTQI+ issues as well. An excellent one is a website called Amaze, which has talking points, conversation starters and even scripts that adults can use to start an age-appropriate and comfortable discussion about topics like puberty, bullying, relationships, and more.

It also has helpful and lively animated videos which explain sexual orientation and gender identity in a child friendly manner.

You can also check out this page on defining LGBTQ words for kids. There are several other cues here.

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