Schools are important. You learn how mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, know forever sin x/cos x = tan x, understand trickle-down economics is a myth and whatnot. You also get policed for the length of your skirt, learn your first cuss words, internalize body image issues and most of these things stay with you forever. Especially for younger kids, belief systems, moral compasses are aligned with what is taught. And homosexuality has never fared well in these teachings. Our world is cis-heteronormative and so are our institutions, therefore schools, educators, counsellors only enforce this down our throats. When I look back and think of what I learnt about queer people at school it’s probably the word ‘fagg*t’, it’s a lot of internalization and wanting to fit in heteronormative relationships and it’s complete intolerance to these issues in the classroom. And as we move towards creating queer-inclusive spaces, these archaic thoughts just won’t do.
How many times have you encountered literature at school that has contained queer undertones? How often have you heard of sex education that is not centred around heterosexual intercourse and reproduction? How many times have you seen homophobic and transphobic slurs being reported? For me, never. For you, I’m sure the number is a single digit too. The queerphobia in schools comes from school’s inherent need to be moral. When you are younger it’s speaking the truth, not stealing etc. As you grow older these are often classist, casteist, misogynist, queerphobic and ableist propaganda- the notions of ‘well-behaved women’ and ‘coming from a good family’; add to this ‘homosexuality is perverted’ and ‘trans people are diseased’ and you have most of the schools we went to. It is almost impossible to single out queerphobia from this dense network of preachings. Thus, the first reform needed is to change schools from places with the moral high ground, to simply places that are accepting, that treat all individuals with dignity, and places that are inclusive to diversity.
Queer issues have either been erased or reduced to profanity in teaching environments. While most teachers shy away from even mentioning these identities, others mostly mention them as ‘western’ or ‘unnatural’. There are a few key problems in how queer issues are currently dealt with in teaching. Firstly, there is a complete absence of queer issues from the prescribed syllabus of various boards. Every curriculum must reflect the full diversity of the world. While there is a huge difference in what the textbook says and what we are taught, the silence of syllabus on these issues is a free pass on ignoring them forever. Thus, whatever knowledge people do get about queer issues, is often not trustable or nuanced, and seen as separate from ‘important issues’ as their textbooks cover it. Secondly, none of the supporting mechanisms at schools reflect diversity. Most counsellors are uninformed about these issues and therefore unsupportive, most activities are divided into gendered binaries and there is no affirmation of queer identities at any point. Sex education is centred around reproductive sex, and there is silence on the bullying and harassment of queer students. In a recent survey taken for this piece, 70% of the respondents reported encountering queerphobic comments from educators, counsellors and administrators as compared to only 30% who ever recounted any queer positive comments. Thus, a hostile environment is created – you don’t discuss queer issues- queer students do not find schools safe enough to be themselves – cis-het students grow up in a world they see as only cis heteronormative – and these belief systems are carried on much later in life. Since children are so impressionable, this homophobia and transphobia becomes intrinsic. This queerphobia is unchallenged because all institutions are cis-heteronormative. There is also the problem of agency – which most students are deprived of, due to which schools treat minors sans dignity. Queer students are told they are too young to know, and these topics are declared pervasive.
Inclusive pedagogical approaches are a comprehensive process, from language, to syllabus and even class norms. Firstly, educators need to realize, sexuality doesn’t only mean sex. Sexuality is an overarching experience, and is not limited to the bedroom. Yes, that may be the most apparent point of difference, but there are so many ways to make this discussion inclusive of even younger age groups. It is an identity, like gender and caste, with a comprehensive history. Syllabuses can delve deeper into LGBTQ+ reform histories, the sociological aspect of this, the AIDS crisis, literature by queer authors, all without having to discuss the nitty-gritty of sex. Further, there is a need for safe spaces for queer people. The pursuit is not to make sexuality the central facet of their identities but recognize that it exists. Simple things like replacing gendered language to gender-neutral language, asking students to share their pronouns without giving into assumptions, can go a long way. This also means sensitivity around privacy, to not out anyone without their consent. Anti-harassment committees should also recognize the queerphobic nature of most remarks, and the bullying queer students are subjected to. Schools also have the power to counsel parents, which they must use, to make all environments queer affirmative for any student.
Also, it is impossible to be queer affirmative without being an ally. Changes in syllabus can only do so much when the person introducing students to it is bigoted. School can undertake workshops and trainings to make staff more informed about queer issues and take to practices that have been cultivated after research and designed by queer individuals. Even the demographics of teachers must be looked into. Representation also equals narratives. If queer teacher’s are present the ideas of queer people are no longer fictional. This also gives queer students a sense of being seen, and not just as powerless students. Sex Education while a taboo in Indian schools is also very much heteronormative. It is centred around reproductive sex- automatically leaving queer people alienated.
However, these reforms do only so much when schools are structurally heteronormative and cisnormative. There have to be deeper reforms to truly account for diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation. Washrooms are always divided into the binary, and this is a source of immense anxiousness for any gender non-conforming student. Uniforms are also gendered, and this expression hampers people from living their authentic selves. Even forms only have female/male as options and all students are seen as cisgender. Unless schools recognize the gender binaries they enforce schools will likely be a site of erasure for trans identities.