NCERT takes step to help teachers support transgender kids, faces right-wing backlash

Training material aimed at sensitising teachers to improve the school experience for gender nonconforming children has run into trouble following complaints.
School kids playing in the ground
School kids playing in the ground
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Back in 2014, the first gender audit of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks showed that men and women were represented in a gender normative way -- women were more likely to be shown in caregiving roles like nurses or as cooks, indicating household work, while men were shown having more varied jobs like pilots, astronauts, police and sportspersons. A couple of months later, the landmark verdict in the case of the National Legal Services Authority vs the Union government (NALSA judgement) was passed by the Supreme Court. The court declared self-determined gender identity a fundamental right and directed the government to make provisions for the education, health, and employment of transgender persons. The gender audit, however, did not talk about the lack of representation of transgender or non-binary persons in textbooks, or how gender stereotypes could affect gender nonconforming children. 

More than seven years after the NALSA judgement, the NCERT’s Department of Gender Studies came up with training material for school teachers, to make school education more inclusive for gender nonconforming children. The training manual was created with inputs from transgender scholars, professionals and activists, including Bittu Kaveri Rajaraman-Kondaiah, Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University; Priya Babu, head of Madurai-based Transgender Resource Centre; and Vikramaditya Sahai, Associate at Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) in Bengaluru.  

The document had been available to the public on the NCERT website before a recent news feature on Firstpost brought it under the scanner online. While the step taken by NCERT was commended by many, scores of tweets also found fault with the manual, calling it a “woke” move to bring “American propaganda” to Indian schools. A complaint on the contents of the manual has reached the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which has sought a response from the NCERT. Meanwhile, the document has been removed from the public domain. The backlash, while not particularly surprising, is entirely based on misinformation, say educators, and note that it is the absence of such inclusive measures all these years that should be a child rights concern. 

Sensitive, inclusive classrooms 

The training material, titled ‘Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap’, is aimed at sensitising teachers by getting them to overcome their own biases. It provides practical suggestions for supporting any struggling transgender children, or non-binary or gender nonconforming students (who may not identify as a transgender person but are similarly harassed and alienated) who often drop out of school due to bullying.  

Fathima, a Bengaluru-based CBSE teacher, says that teachers are usually very poorly equipped to support intersex, transgender and gender-nonconforming children. Recalling her own difficult experiences from school, Fathima, who is a transgender woman, says, “The bullying and feeling of alienation takes a toll on studies and badly affects the child’s mental health. I suffered panic attacks and developed social anxiety.” 

L Ramakrishnan, an LGBTQI+ rights activist from the NGO SAATHII who was one of the external team members involved in the project, says the training is crucial, considering the correlation between gender-nonconforming kids being bullied and dropping out of school, and the effects on their career prospects. 

The training material explains terms like gender identity, biological sex, gender expression, sexual orientation, intersex persons, cisgender, transgender, gender incongruence, gender dysphoria, gender affirmation, genderqueer, non-binary etc., offering vocabulary for teachers to have sensitive conversations. “Many teachers, sometimes even biology teachers, may not be able to tell the difference between biological sex and gender,” Fathima says, adding that apart from teachers, principals and other staff also need to be sensitised. “Even once the training is implemented, issues may arise, as it has many elements cisgender teachers may find hard to accept. But it’s an important starting point. When children cannot speak to their family about these things, at least teachers need to be informed,” she says. 

The training manual talks about how gender normative socialising at school and home can leave gender nonconforming children perplexed, and how gender binaries are imposed on them through school uniforms, seating arrangements in classrooms, participation in sports and other school activities, choice of hairstyle etc. It offers practical strategies for teachers, like having inclusive infrastructure by adding options for gender nonconforming children when it comes to restrooms, changing room facilities for sports, hostel facilities etc., modifying any biased curriculum to make it inclusive, and including profiles of successful transgender persons like news anchor Padmini Prakash, engineer and activist Grace Banu, lawyer and body-builder Aryan Pasha and many others. 

Saurabh Bondre, a Mumbai-based multilingual teacher, who has been a member of the Sanskrit textbook committee of Balbharati  (Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research), says that most syllabi, including science, do not mention gender identity or sexuality, across grades. “Besides, these topics haven't come up in any of the training sessions so far. We cannot expect teachers to already know all this,” he says. 

The backlash 

After news of the material drew attention on social media, especially Twitter, OpIndia published multiple articles against its contents. The main objections were with the document’s acknowledgement that having toilets for boys and girls as a binary can be confusing for gender nonconforming kids, the mention of ‘caste patriarchy’ as one of the reasons transgender persons are relegated to stigmatised occupations, and also the mention of ‘puberty blockers’ while referring to Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy (GAHT). While some negative reactions were predicted owing to prevalent transphobia, Ramakrishnan says it’s disheartening to see such vicious backlash to the extent that NCERT was forced to make the document private. 

The issue of binary toilets for boys and girls is raised in the training material as one of the problems with infrastructure. Drawing from transgender persons’ experiences, it talks about the conflict and discomfort of choosing a toilet for children whose self-perception does not match social expectations. However, the suggestion is not to do away with the present system, but to have additional options of gender-neutral restrooms and other spaces, Ramakrishnan says. 

The other aspect, which has been mentioned in the complaint to NCPCR, is the mention of “puberty blockers”, with the complaint claiming that teachers have been told to discuss them with students. The document merely mentions it among the terms that teachers must be aware of. While those opposed to the manual have been triggering alarm by claiming that these treatments can cause permanent changes in the body, endocrinologists assure that they are safe to use and their effects reversible. 

Senior endocrinologist Dr Sanjay Kalra says that “puberty delayers” is a more appropriate term, adding that they are commonly administered to cisgender kids as well when they face medical and psychological risks due to very early onset of puberty. “Studies have shown positive outcomes in terms of psychological development and the child's acceptance in society once they go on GAHT with pubertal suppression,” says Dr Sruti Chandrasekaran, a Chennai-based endocrinologist, while Dr Kalra says that not availing hormone therapy can worsen the child’s gender dysphoria and overall mental health. 

Moreover, the treatment isn’t very commonly administered in India. World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) guidelines followed by medical professionals require several checks including assent from a mental health professional after extensive psychiatric counselling or psychotherapy, as well as parental consent for minors, according to these doctors. They say that administering pubertal suppressors is highly uncommon in India, as parents usually don’t consent to it. 

The mention of ‘caste patriarchy’ has also triggered outrage as it is being seen as an insult to Hinduism. Incidentally, the training manual itself claims that there is evidence of expression of gender fluidity being socially accepted in Vedic literature. Saurabh, who is also a Sanskrit scholar, points out the irony in people grumbling about the manual ‘importing of Western ideology’ and asking NCERT to teach Sanskrit texts instead. 

The backlash has now veered to concerted vile, queerphobic attacks online against some of the team members who contributed to the manual, with their qualifications being questioned in a problematic manner based on their personal choices and self-expression.

NCPCR has reportedly asked NCERT to take appropriate action based on the complaint and to “rectify the anomalies” in the document.

“The people opposing the training material claim to be protecting children’s rights, but that's exactly what we have failed to do all these years for transgender children,” says Saurabh, adding that while the hostility is expected, the NCERT and educators need to stand their ground in students’ interest. 

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