According to the American philosopher John Dewey, schools are a reflection of our society. Therefore, much of the ideals and values that schools uphold for the students are a reflection of the value system of its surrounding community. If this is the case, then we must not forget that our society also has its own set of vices and prejudices. And needless to say, there are many such biases against the queer community in particular.
Coming from India, it wasn’t until September 2018 that gay sex was legalised in the country. However, societal acceptance of homosexuality is far from being a reality. In 2019 UNESCO surveyed the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The report, while looking into the consequences of bullying faced by LGBTQ students in schools pointed out to repercussions like the feeling of guilt, low academic performance, having few or no friends at all, absenteeism from school, physical injuries and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
One of the most profound aspects of this report was that only 18% of the LGBTQ respondents reported the bullying to the school authorities. So, what exactly is this telling us? Are our schools aware of these shortcomings? And are there any that are attempting to course-correct?
As part of my research on trying to map the experiences of children with alternative sexuality in Indian schools, I came across the outstanding example of a school in the capital city of New Delhi called the Tagore International School.
Under its Human Rights Initiative Outreach program, the school runs a programme called Breaking Barriers, which is an attempt to sensitise school students and authorities about the LGBTQIA community, to rectify the misconceptions that thrive from years of stereotyping and social conditioning. The recommendation of this programme came from two of its students back in 2013.
The campaign is an entirely student-driven initiative, and the school authorities have been in complete support of their students’ endeavours at every step. The fundamental task that lay before them was to get parents’ consent, as even today, matters of sex and sexuality are considered profane in the Indian society, especially at the school level. They began this by sending out circulars to parents to get their consent. To their surprise, not even a single parent posed any objections to the programme.
Tagore International School’s example shows that a mere classroom like mode of explanation and discourse is not enough
On their induction to the programme, the participating students are at first expected to go to their grandparents and try explaining to them the concept of alternative sexuality and what it entails. Presumably, the idea behind it is that theirs is a generation that is more likely to be unaccepting of the LGBTQ community. Thus, making a conscious effort to extend the dialogue into their homes and introducing them to what lies ahead.
Furthermore, the school partners with LGBTQ and feminist human rights NGOs in the city, who then take forward the task of training these students by conducting nearly 25 hours of intensive training for the peer educators and also provide the necessary resources needed to conduct the workshops.
On the completion of this training, the student campaigners eventually go on to conduct gender and sexuality sensitisation programmes for their teachers within the school. They are familiarised with the various nuances of homosexuality and how to make their classrooms more LGBTQ-inclusive.
The outreach program just doesn’t stop at the doorstep of the school. As part of their initiative, they have actively reached out to other schools to help start similar conversations and campaigns. However, while commenting on their experience with other schools, programme director Vedica Saxena said: “The road to getting the consent of other school authorities has been an uphill task, but we have managed to reach out to 30 schools in the city with over 3,500 students.
“Most schools are still very brandished about discussions around sexuality with young school children. Their major concern has been the use of the words like ‘sex’ and LGBTQ itself, because of which we have had to use euphemisms like ‘gender sensitisation programme’.
However, these school students have managed to make their mark by transcending across the school spectrum. Companies like Amazon India, American Express and Canadian High Commission in New Delhi have invited the Breaking Barriers team to conduct an LGBTQ sensitisation programme for their employees.
Their initiative has also received many accolades from various national media networks. Only as recent as 1 June 2020 it was mentioned in one of the national dailies that Tagore International is the only school in the country to have participated in the Pride month celebrations. And besides this, to lend their support to the community, they have relentlessly engaged with every Delhi Pride Prade from 2013-2019.
Additionally, the school has not just restricted itself within the school premises; they have extended support to queer students within the school in coming out to their parents. Furthermore, they have set up an informative notice board, a separate section in the library dedicated to queer literature and an anonymous complaint box for people to express themselves freely and raise their voice against any discrimination within the school.
The benefits of the campaign have been reaped by many queer students within the school, who were earlier coy in expressing their sexual identity but have now come out openly, accepting their identity to their peers, counsellors and teachers alike.
For the student campaigners, the school through the Breaking Barriers initiative has helped shed all of their preconceived notions that were cloaked in society’s heteronormative ideals, and they insist that these dialogues must begin at an early age because it’s the young that are the future leaders and policymakers of the world.
What can UK schools learn from this?
So, what exactly can schools in the UK learn from the example of Delhi’s Tagore International School? According to the British Government’s Department for Education, under its Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education policy document an entire section is dedicated to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
It lays down the statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and teachers. It highlights two necessary steps for schools to undertake. First is to comply with the government’s Equality Act 2010 provisions, under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are amongst the protected characteristics, and schools shall look into the needs of all pupils. And ensure that everyone understands the importance of equality and respect for the LGBT community.
Second, is for schools to ensure that all of their teachings are sensitive and age-appropriate in approach and content. At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson. Schools are left free to determine how they do this. While the government has provided schools with a broader framework on what they can do to spread awareness.
Tagore International School’s example shows that a mere classroom like mode of explanation and discourse is not enough. We need to first recognise that children have an agency of their own; they are independent thinkers. In the internet age, with no shortage of information and exposure. If given the right kind of platform, they can generate campaigns and ideas which can set the precedence for society at large.
In 2013, when two of its students suggested the idea of starting an LGBTQ campaign, the school gave the necessary impetus like teacher support and arranged LGBTQ NGO interactions. But they allowed them to lead the campaign with minimal interference. A fine balance of classroom discussions and active student involvement can thus help play a crucial role in normalising queer identity in schools.
Nivedita Srivastava is a former high school history teacher from India who is now pursuing a masters degree in education. She is working with Tagore International School as part of her research.