EPISODE — 1
THE LACK OF INTERSECTION OF EDUCATIONAL SPACES WITH QUEERNESS
Our guest for this episode is Zayan (he/him) who is a Dalit trans man, a trained educator and currently working with a queer organisation. We have a fruitful discussion with Zayan about the intersection of queerness with the healthcare sector in India, particularly, with the Medical Science curriculum and education space. He has been studying the field of education for the last 6 years and has written on platforms like The New Leam and Teacher Plus. He has experience in conducting education research and creating modules on gender and education.
He is also a Rise Up Youth Champion Initiative fellow from India, 2021. Zayan is passionate about bringing awareness around gender, caste and sexuality in the mainstream of education(al) discourses. In his free time he loves to strum the strings of his guitar and sing to its tunes.
In this episode, we go into depth about how homophobia and transphobia persists in the Indian healthcare sector through the inadequacies in our Medical Science education, the lack of awareness and sensitisation in a heteronormative culture and ways in which we can be more sensitive to peoples’ identities.
Rishma (Host from Rangeen Khidki Foundation): Do you think Indian Medical Sciences textbooks include homphobic or transphobic language?
Zayan: Yes, it does. A lot of times, what we see happening in the practice is that a lot of doctors do not even have an idea that queer and trans people exist, which translates into their practices. For example, if I share my experience- I’ve never shared anything about my gender identity to any of the doctors I have met throughout these twenty four years of my life. That is basically because of the fear I have in my mind that these people are not going to understand what it is and they might start giving me unsolicited advice. This fear, if we go back into the education system and the curriculum of Medical Science, then we would very easily be able to see that there is usage of terms like, ‘unnatural,’ which then stigmatise the identities of people like us. So, the answer to your question is yes- the curriculum of Medical Science is homophobic, transphobic and significant changes need to be made there.
Rishma: Right. I think you already mentioned about the stigma that comes along with this desensitised approach to medicine when it comes to the queer community. What do you think are the consequences of these inadequacies on the efficiency of those who are practicing medicine? How do you think that affects the doctors who are practicing as we speak, and how can that be bettered or fixed in any way?
Zayan: This is a very interesting question, Rishma. Since I now work with a lot of Medical Science students who often call us to interact with them and talk about gender and sexuality, I can say that changes are being made. We see significant changes in the way people think now and these new, budding doctors are much more inclusive. However, years back, this was not the case. We often see that whenever a person goes into a clinic, the form that they get in the hospital or in these clinics have very clear binaries of gender and sex. A lot of times, doctors do not have the idea of what is the difference between gender and sex because they see, in the category of gender- male and female but that is something that comes under sex. So, gender is actually man or woman and sex is male or female (if we are talking within the binaries) They often conflate all these identities which come under gender and sex with eachother and it creates a lot of confusion. So, the very basic thing of someone entering the hospital, and having to fill the form and there the options that come under gender is very limited. So, that in a way makes a person who is a beneficiary of this system believe that there is no space for them. At times, we also see the receptionists are not very inclusive of queer and trans people. If I go to a clinic, they would call me by the name that is on my identity card which is not Zayan. They would say my dead name. So, the lack of sensitisation is there as well.
I think these are the ways in which this violence happens against people like us because of the way in which the curriculum has been silent on our lives and our lived realities. I’m sure many of you might have heard of Ananya Kumari Alex who died due to medical negligence because our bodies are a sight of experiment for a lot of doctors. Our lives do not really matter to them. That says a lot about the priorities of the system in which we live and are trying to navigate ways to access these very basic healthcare services which come under the basic rights of people. A lot of times we also see and I also hear it that though conversion therapy is banned in India, these conversion therapies have been happening in some way or the other. For example, the doctors that tell people, ‘your child is not fine and we can cure this homosexuality or their transness by these very anguished, painful shock treatments.’
So, this really takes me to a point which is a very political thing as well, that what is really seen as a problem, right? There is a lot of politics involved in what we see as a problem. For example, a problem which benefits people who are very powerful, who have the privileges of caste, class, social capital, cultural capital, is a problem that will continue, Why? Because it benefits these people. Therefore, this problem that is a part of our everyday life carries a solution that is hard to even navigate. So, we have to think more about this.Though,the Madras High Court judgement very clearly said that we have to make the curriculum more inclusive, have more queer-trans representation in schools, and make significant changes to the medicine textbooks- the question is, how will it pan out? For example, the controversy around the NCERT manual which was about the inclusion of trans students in the classroom and was meant only for teachers but people thought it was for students. So, even when there are changes being made, how are they panning out? That’s what we need to focus on. As I said before, the politics of this problem is around us, and it impacts our everyday life. The backlash of the manual was at such a large scale level that the manual had to be recalled. At the end of the day, I think that even though we have judgments and laws that talk about inclusion and rights, the on-ground reality is very different. We really need to strategise the way these changes take place.
Rishma: I understand what you’re trying to say because this binary of sex and gender- the cultural and biological aspects as well as the confusion that people harbour about these two concepts and how one is biological and other is man-made is a debate that is ever-prevalent. Anything out of the heteronormative is considered to be a disease and the general narrative is shaped in such a way that says queerness or transness is not normal which is so harmful for the growth of society, I feel.
So, you mentioned power politics and how caste, language, religion, money- all of this plays a part in polarising the debate and affecting any changes that are being implemented or tried.
What do you think are the steps that, as a society, we can take to make the curriculum more wholesome or factually correct and not pandering to misinformation? How can we address queer health concerns better?
Zayan: Thanks for your question, Rishma. To address this, we would have to go and locate the roots of where this problem stems from in the reality of our lives. So, this starts when a person is in school, right? Throughout those twelve years of education, many of us did not get the chance to know that different gender identities and sexual orientations exist around us. We were not given any exposure to such discourses. That, again, is a very political question to be asked of the people who make these curriculums. Nonetheless, if someone says they did learn about queer and trans identities in school, my question to them would be- what kind of school was that?
An elite private school? Yes, because there the privilege of the students attending pans out in a way that discourses about queer-trans identities can take place which would not happen in a low-fee private school or a government school. We see that when it comes to schools, there are a lot of hierarchies and different kinds of schools. For example, we have government schools like Pratibha Vidyalaya or Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodayas, etc, and in private schools we have low-fee, elite private schools and schools that come in between. So, it’s very important to question and acknowledge the fact that this violence happened from the very beginning- from when we started our education. We were not given any literature that would help us understand these identities, or help us understand ourselves. For example, it was very difficult for me to figure out what I was feeling and what is this identity called. It took me fifteen or sixteen years to understand that this identity is called trans man. And, then it took me years to accept myself as a trans person. So, the violence happened because of the school education that we got. Now, think about the teachers that were there with us. They were also not very aware of these different terms and terminologies about identities and a lot of thinkers say that education is a tool for emancipation but at the end of the day, it just ends up reinforcing these hierarchies. So, when the situation is such, it is important for us to understand if these twelve years could not teach us about these subjects, how do we go about changing the Medical Science curriculum? The question should be that if we have the expectation of changing the curriculum, how much space do we need to devote to teaching about LGBTQIA+ identities? We are very hopeful that change will happen. It will take time but it will happen. First, we need to see how much space in the curriculum is devoted to queer healthcare and then who will teach these subjects. Will those teaching be given proper training? Will they be properly versed in what our issues are? And this takes us to another issue which is that in our different academic disciplines, there is strong barricading and this exists to make sure the discipline is ‘pure’ and that it refuses to borrow from anything else. I’m taking this idea from the educator, Padma Sarangapani. Even with the Social Sciences, we have discourses about queer-trans identities but these kinds of topics do not make it into the Medical Science curriculum. So, we need to find ways to dismantle the barricading that’s occurring in this particular discipline. I think it will be really significant when there is more exchange of ideas between different disciplines and how that will impact the realities of people on the ground. This would culminate in people of different intersectional identities being able to walk into healthcare spaces, feeling heard and safe.
I think it’s also important to be more sensitive to the pronouns we use. We all have different pronouns. For example, when a person looks at me, they end up calling me a ‘ma’am’ or they use the pronoun, ‘she.’ However, if we got used to asking people for their pronouns first, it would help make the other person feel comfortable. Changes as simple and basic as these need to be applied to our daily lives.
Rishma: Yes, that is the ultimate hope. We all are literally surviving on the hope that things will get better. They have to get better, more inclusive, and more accepting. These are the primary priorities amongst all of us. You mentioned the need for structural change in school curriculums and the fact that this sensitivity and sensitisation needs to be done from a very young age so that this ‘other-isation’ doesn’t happen of this community. This is extremely valid, I feel. Thank you so much for bringing that up.
That is the hope that we have with this podcast- that it opens the doors to information for people who are seeking it and for people who are uncertain about terms and who can relate to being somewhat alienated because of this cis-het normatice culture that is prevalent in our society. So, is there anything else that you would like to add about this? And is there anything that you feel should be put out there for our audience that they need to hear?
Zayan: What I think is that infrastructure is a very important part of our lives. Hence, I would like to talk a little about the gender politics that go into using a basic amenity like a washroom. Sanitation is a basic right for all of us. Sustainable development goals also talk about their importance. But, that is not really happening for people who are queer or trans because when we go out into public spaces, and here we are specifically talking about healthcare services and spaces, there is no inclusive infrastructure. That is a very basic thing we should all start thinking about. Sharing from my personal experiences with these public spaces, I faced a lot of issues of having to control my urge to pee because I wanted to avoid such gendered spaces. Because I do feel comfortable in a men’s washroom but the infrastructure of a men’s washroom is such that it does not allow a man who menstruates to use that space. For example, if I said that I expect a sanitary napkin vending machine in a men’s washroom, there would be, expectedly, a lot of controversy and arguments about it. This is because our bodies are such that they often become sites of exploration but that exploration does not have any sensitivity to it. It doesn’t translate into any meaningful avenue. That is the problem when a person who is queer or trans tries to navigate their presence and use this very basic structure called washroom.”
Additionally, when I think about significant changes being made in the Medical Science curriculum and how we should incorporate knowledge about queer-trans identities, and struggles, my main concern becomes- will these changes be brought into these university spaces and within classrooms as well? Granted changes are made, but will there be gender-neutral washrooms in your colleges? This becomes harder for people to accept along with other concerns that go along with it like how to finance this infrastructure. These things may be difficult for people to understand but this is something very basic to our lives.
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This podcast has been transcribed by Priyanshi Prasad, Junior Research Manager at Rangeen Khidki Foundation