Safe, not straight

Chintan Girish Modi

It is gratifying to meet teachers who are eager to learn how schools can be happier places for students. These are professionals whose genuine love for supporting children and youth has not been diminished by the nerve-wracking nature of their job. They may not have sufficient time or adequate resources but they stretch themselves as much as they can to be there for their students.

In June 2018, when I was facilitating a two-day Teachers For Peace training hosted by the Prajnya Trust in Chennai, I met some teachers who would fit the above description quite well. After going through sessions on envisioning peace, defining violence, and exploring non-violent communication, we ventured into an exercise where I divided them into groups of three. I wanted them to think actively about structural and cultural violence against people who are not heterosexual.

This was the task assigned to them: “Imagine that your group is a special committee that has been invited to draw up a list of guidelines for teachers and administrators in schools all across India about how to make schools and classrooms safe and welcoming for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or preference and their gender identity.”

I wanted to set aside some time for this exercise because students who identify as or are assumed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer are vulnerable to physical violence, hate speech and sexual abuse in classrooms, on school buses, in washrooms, and on playgrounds. They deserve to feel safe, affirmed and loved for who they are, not in a manner that is patronizing. However, there are few spaces – if any – for teachers to talk about these issues in Indian schools.

Each group was given a copy of an article titled ‘Kolkata school that forced students to confess to lesbianism exemplifies how not to treat queer children’, written by Sandip Roy, and published on firstpost.com on March 15, 2018. It was meant to serve as background reading material that would help orient teachers to the issues at hand and develop empathy.

After discussing the article, each group did a small brainstorm and drew up a set of guidelines. My role as a facilitator was to encourage them to articulate their own ideas, and also learn from the insights and questions shared by their peers. I did not want to block their creativity by offering them quick-fix solutions. It was wonderful to hear the amazing guidelines each group came up with. I summarize them here for your reference.

  1. Schools should have gender-neutral bathrooms in addition to bathrooms marked out for boys/men and girls/women.
  2. Schools should not shy away from teaching about sexuality and relationships.
  3. Sexuality education programmes in schools should not be heteronormative. They should address the needs of individuals of varying sexual orientation or preference.
  4. Teacher and parent training is essential to cultivate awareness and sensitivity.
  5. Counselling services and mental health support should be available to all students.
  6. Schools should have a no-bullying policy.
  7. Books, films and other forms of popular culture should be used to combat prejudices.
  8. Medical professionals should be invited to give health advice about sexually transmitted diseases.
  9. There should be a strict policy about non-disclosure of students’ sexual orientation or preference and their gender identity.
  10. Schools should show zero tolerance towards sexual violence.
  11. Trusting the child is important.
  12. Gender inclusion ought to be embedded into the curriculum.
  13. The library should be stocked with resources to create awareness about LGBTQ+ experiences and issues.
  14. Schools should keep a box wherein students can anonymously write their questions and complaints on pieces of paper and drop them in. These should be addressed promptly.
  15. Guest speakers from the LGBTQ+ community should be invited to schools.
  16. Schools should ensure diversity in hiring policies and practices.
  17. An inter-disciplinary approach should be adopted so that these issues are discussed in language, biology, literature, art and social science classes.

I do not wish to reveal their identities without their permission, so I am not using full names. However, I do want to recognize their efforts and their contribution. This beautiful set of guidelines was put together by Saraswathi, Gowri, Archana, Bhuvaneshwari, Umamaheshwari, Anu, Minoo, Athmika, Rema, Sreedevi, Tulika, Gayatri, Indra, Srinivasarao and Sudaroli.

Later on, I did share with them some ideas from the Gay-Straight Student Alliance Handbook written by Kristopher Wells and published in 2006 by the Canadian Teachers’ Foundation. However, it was important to prioritize their own contexts, experiences and realities, which would eventually shape what and how much is possible. Change is slow and gradual. It cannot happen overnight. I know that sounds disappointing but it is true.

Section 377 of the Indian Criminal Code is dead but heteronormativity is not. Numerous families will continue to expect youth to marry, procreate, and continue the lineage. Homophobia, bi-erasure and transphobia will persist. The recognition of legal rights is only one step forward. Dignity, respect, and acceptance are waiting for their time to come.

School textbooks in India might take a while to embrace sexual diversity but children’s literature is already making headway. I would strongly recommend that you read Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan published by Duckbill Books in 2014. This novel has a cast of relatable characters who study at the same school.

Muskaan is a lesbian who is repeatedly tormented to ‘act like a girl’. There is immense pressure to get her legs waxed, show interest in boys, and wear pretty dresses. She feels secure about her sexuality but others at school grow uncomfortable. Her mental health and her academic performance get terribly affected because of the bullying.

Muskaan is in love with Aaliya, a friend she has been close to for several years. Aaliya cares a lot about Muskaan but is battling an internal conflict. She likes Muskaan, and they share a special moment of intimacy in a tree house but she also feels attracted to boys. Aaliya prefers the security that comes with ‘being normal’. In her attempt to protect herself, she ends up being extremely cruel to Muskaan. I do not identify her as ‘bisexual’ because that is not a term she chooses for herself.

At the end of the article you will find some excerpts from Talking of Muskaan. The book does not employ an omniscient narrator. The reader gets to hear directly from the characters who narrate their thoughts and feelings. Read the excerpts carefully, and revisit the guidelines for school teachers and administrators collated above. Would you alter, add or delete anything after knowing what is going on at the school described in the book?

This would make a worthwhile activity for a professional development programme with teachers across subject specializations. Even if your school cannot afford to buy multiple copies of the book, get started with the guidelines and the excerpts. This is an important conversation to have. Freedom, equality and justice need to come alive not only in the courtroom but also the classroom. Let us walk together, and take some brave steps. Our children deserve to love without facing bigotry.

Excerpts from Talking of Muskaan

Excerpt 1: Aaliya as narrator
I was glad I’d kissed a boy at last. I didn’t want to be lesbian or even bisexual. Everyone made fun of gays. Besides, I really did enjoy kissing that Rishi.
For the first time since it had happened I allowed myself to think of the tree house – the floor shaking a little as Muskaan and I kissed. If I had to be very honest I would admit that that had blown my mind and made the rest of the world disappear. But perhaps that was because I had always loved Muskaan so much? Kissing didn’t have to be a big deal.
On the other hand, I’d just kissed a guy I didn’t know at all and quite enjoyed it. I am so not gay.

Excerpt 2: Subhojoy as narrator
Muskaan had started reading up on the natural world since she knew lots of people consider homosexuality ‘unnatural’. She told me many surprising facts about the creatures that lived deep underwater. They changed their shapes, their colours, the rules they followed and the way they lived, whenever they wanted. No questions asked. They might kill to survive but they were not petty like human beings.

Excerpt 3: Prateek as narrator
Muskaan is homosexual. She likes girls. I almost laughed out loud when I first heard that. No wonder she didn’t want to go out with me! I should’ve guessed. But I also find it a little yuck….
‘My dad was suggesting that we keep a bit of distance from Muskaan,’ I told Rashika gently. ‘You know, as he pointed out, homosexuality is not quite normal.’
‘What?’ Rashika said.
‘Not a big deal, baby,’ I said. ‘But we should just be a little careful.’
‘Careful? It’s not an infectious disease. And I can’t distance myself from her at a time when she’s already so troubled.’

The author works with schools on exploring context-sensitive approaches to resist misogyny, toxic masculinity, homophobia and bi-erasure. He has an M.Phil. in English Language Education, and over a decade of experience in working with teachers and children. He can be reached at chintangirishmodi@gmail.com or send a tweet to @chintan_connect.

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