How is life for children who don’t conform to their gender-roles? When we mock a young boy for crying by calling him a ‘girl’ are we not perpetuating gender discrimination? As more and more Indians come out to assert their real gender identity the opposition from traditional religious-based groups is also increasing; Valay Singh discusses some of these issues with equal rights activist Harish Iyer.
Valay Singh: Are there enough mechanisms in our schools to appropriately handle children who don’t conform to social norms when it comes to gender?
Harish Iyer: Why just schools, even in our homes we only encourage heteronormative behaviour, which is to say we only approve of children behaving according to their gender-assigned roles. So a girl should be subdued, meek and boys should be strong and boisterous. These are ridiculous notions of course but in our schools too, we find that children who don’t conform to their gender are abused and bullied by their peers and even by teachers who are not sensitised or trained enough to deal with such children. In most cases, such children would either drop out or grow up in a mentally traumatic environment. We don’t have any mechanisms in our schools to deal with children who are ‘different’.
Valay Singh: Why do you think we as a society show so much intolerance to gender non-conformism?
Harish Iyer: There’s no one answer to this question however, let us first admit that we are big hypocrites. For example, many legislators have been caught watching porn inside the Maharashtra legislative assembly and then the same assembly opposed sexuality education in schools! I would say we should also introduce sex education in our assemblies so that our law-makers also learn about sex and sexuality in the right way. The other side of hypocrisy is that at least half of India’s children are abused according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s report released in 2007. More boys are abused than girls. This abuse at home and in school, usually by people known to the children is the silent tragedy of this hypocrisy. We are a country where gay men are encouraged to marry even when their families know that they are gay. This is just to maintain the pretence of a ‘normal’ life. If children were taught how to understand sex and sexuality at a young age only then can a real acceptance to gender non-conformism can come about.
Valay Singh: What do you advise people, parents and teachers to do when they notice a child is not conforming to his or her gender?
Harish Iyer: To begin with, I would tell them not to single out the child especially in front of her/his peers. It is absolutely essential that the child is not made to feel bad about herself or himself. I would advise parents and teachers to get in touch with child psychology and gender counsellors. The process of self-discovery is not a short-term process and it is best facilitated by those with right training and sensitivity.
Valay Singh: Can you elaborate more on this so called hypocrisy because most of us may not realise how gender-biased we are.
Harish Iyer: You see, when boys talk about sex, conversation relating to fantasy are normal, for example, ‘’how many girls have you slept with?’’, such questions are taken as normal. However, if a boy was to talk about sex and sexuality in a scientific way, then the conversations are labelled as strange or weird. Similarly, it is quite normal among girls to discuss their menstruation patterns etc… but you would not hear many boys talking normally about their issues, or even what kind of underwear do they wear! So we need to take these conversations out of the realm of fantasy and treat them like normal conversations.
Valay Singh: What according to you then is the solution?
Harish Iyer: Conversations. More awareness and education and more conversations is the only solution to transform our deeply biased views on gender.Some day, I hope, we wouldnt need to camouflage sex education as ‘safety’ education, we shouldn’t consider sex to be a taboo that we don’t talk about it. We need state support to educate our children about sex and sexuality so that they grow up in to healthy citizens. Hence we need more conversations, between children and parents, among children and between children and teachers. This is the only way forward.