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School uniforms: Struggles, trauma of gender diverse students

Transgender students often face internal struggles while following gender-specific dress codes in school. Uniforms along with many other issues contribute to high dropout rates, psychological trauma and skewed career paths among transmen and transwomen.

Written by Sheetal Banchariya | New Delhi |
Updated: December 4, 2021 10:08:45 am
Pride flag, LGBTQ, Pride, QueerThe transgender community is arguably the most marginalised in India — including educationally. File.

Thirty-year-old transgender man, Kabir Maan (his legal documents still carry his official name – Manisha Singh) can only remember his aversion towards the school uniform while growing up. He recollects the feeling of being a “misfit” as early as when he was in pre-school while wearing a girl’s uniform — a skirt that went just below the knee and shirt.

School uniforms, which are supposedly meant to bring a sense of inclusiveness among students, can have a completely different impact on the psychological and mental health of some students, especially transgenders and diverse genders.

Psychological trauma due to uniforms

“I may not remember what I studied or the game I played during those initial years of schooling, but I know I was a misfit and felt demeaned. I continue to carry that feeling of shame in my heart,” said Kabir, who recently started hormone replacement therapy and has come out in the open about his gender identity.

“I often felt there was something wrong with me. I felt unworthy as I could neither fit with girls nor with the boys. In senior classes, when puberty hits, these issues come to the forefront.  My board exam scores were affected and so was my further education. I dropped out of Jamia Millia Islamia’s course in Hindi Patrakarita because other students constantly questioned my dressing sense and ridiculed me. I have been called a lesbian, sex worker and even a pimp for wearing masculine clothes while having the body of a female,” Kabir said.

High dropout rate and unfair treatment 

Transwomen, too, face similar issues while in school and college. Kundan, who identifies as a transwoman and prefers she/her as pronouns, dropped out of college because of similar reasons as Kabir. “I could have had a better life today if I was accepted and included for what I am. Besides uniforms, using school washrooms is also a challenge for children who do not conform to the gender binary. In boys’ washrooms, I was ridiculed for being feminine and I often feared an assault. I always thought if something happened to me, I would not be able to tell anyone out of shame,”

Struggle with bodies and identities

Indira Pathak, the co-founder of Vikalp who identifies as a transman, said that the mandatory changes in uniforms are usually implemented at a time when a child reaches the stage of adolescence.

“This is the time when many trans persons are struggling with their bodies and identities. The school dropout rate is very high among such students. Even when kids are growing up, physical education teachers in most schools pay attention to the undergarments that girls wear and advise them to mandatorily wear sports bras. Transmen often view it as a fundamental violation of their identity as undergarments are a very private affair to everyone,” Pathak said.

Recently, the Valayanchirangara Government Lower Primary School, near Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district, in Kerala had introduced a gender-neutral uniform for 754 students. The new uniform for their students is a 3/4th shorts and shirt, irrespective of gender.

LGBTQ+ rights activist Maya Sharma, who is also the author of ‘Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India’, said more than becoming inclusive, our society needs to allow the freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice

“Introducing gender-neutral uniforms is a big and welcome step towards a sensitive society. But, what if a ‘boy’ wants to wear feminine clothes? In a way, we are still curbing their choices. Uniforms for boys and girls create a barrier for children belonging to the gender spectrum and gender-neutral uniforms also have the potential of further camouflaging them into the crowd. It may make them feel secure in the hiding, but it cannot make them feel accepted,” Sharma added.

In early November, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) had put out a manual entitled ‘Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap. The primary objective of this manual was to “provide a systematic understanding of the basic concepts of gender diversity” and to promote an environment in school where the needs of transgender and/or gender non-conforming students were recognised and acknowledged so that they can be integrated into the educational system.

Data on discrimination

The first-ever study on the rights of transgenders by the National Human Rights Commission in 2018 revealed that about 92 per cent of transgenders are deprived of the right to participate in any form of economic activity in the country, with even qualified ones refused jobs. Around 50 to 60 per cent of transgenders have never attended schools and faced discrimination. Over 52 per cent transgenders were harassed by their classmates and 15 per cent by teachers, a reason due to which they did not continue studies.

In Gujarat, a survey was done by an NGO — Vikalp (Women’s Group) — with 50 transmasculine persons and transgender men in the year 2013-14. It revealed that 84 per cent of the respondents had experienced violence due to their gender identity, of which 19 per cent faced violence at school. This included both verbal and physical violence. 10 per cent of the respondents said they faced violence from other students, while 7 per cent also said they were subjected to violence from teachers.

Need for gender sensitisation and sex education

On November 2, 2021, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) wrote to NCERT, saying they had received complaints against the manual. As a response to this letter, on November 6, 2021, NCERT took down this manual from its website. “The incident paints a picture of the environment that trans students have to be in while receiving education. It shuts doors for them to seek help or confide in teachers,” Pathak said.

Principal of Modern School, Alka Kapur, agrees that schools lack an inclusive environment and there is a need to educate stakeholders – children, teachers and parents – about the gender spectrum.

“Non-conforming people have not been accepted by society as much as they should be. More than the uniforms, the mindset needs to change. In India, having a boy wear a skirt is still a far-fetched idea and revolutionary but we can do away with gender-specific uniforms as the first step towards inclusivity. Something unisex like a track-suit can be introduced. Before expecting students to be sensitive, we need to bridge the gaps in gender sensitisation and sex education,” Kapur said, whose school will be working towards having gender-neutral uniforms in the coming few months.

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