NCERT Removes Teacher-Training Manual on Transgender-Inclusive School Education After Backlash

Along with social media outrage, one person filed a complaint with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights on the manual.

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Hyderabad: The National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) has removed from its website a teacher-training manual towards increasing the inclusion of transgender children in school education following outrage on social media.

The manual and its contents

The manual, titled “Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap”, was published on the NCERT website earlier this year. The production of the manual, coordinated by Poonam Agrawal, professor and former head of the department of gender studies of NCERT, involved contributions from Mona Yadav, professor and head of the department of gender studies, NCERT; Mily Roy Anand, professor in the department of gender studies, NCERT; Rajesh, professor in the department of adult and continuing education and extension, University of Delhi; L. Ramakrishnan, vice-president of Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII); Bittu Rajaraman-Kondaiah, associate professor of biology and psychology at Ashoka University; Manvi Arora, independent researcher; Priya Babu, managing trustee at Transgender Resource Centre, Madurai; Vikramaditya Sahai, associate at the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), Bengaluru; Astha Priyadarshini, Junior Project Fellow; and Pawan Kumar, DTP operator.

The cover of the manual that was taken down.

The production of this manual is possibly a result of NCERT’s recent engagement with questions of gender and sexuality: NCERT had renamed its Women’s Studies department to the Department of Gender Studies in light of the 2014 NALSA vs Union of India judgement that recognised the right of transgender persons to self-identify their gender and extended all constitutional rights to transgender persons. Moreover, NCERT has previously produced other training manuals that aim to sensitise educators about transgender persons. For example, the 2019 “Facilitator Guide for School Health Program” by the NCERT mentions that “At upper primary level, learners will develop basic understanding of gender identity, including transgender [identities]; question gender stereotypes and negative constructs of masculinity and femininity; and begin to promote positive gender roles and gender equity – at home, school, society and the media.” In a similar vein, the training material on school leadership development has a module on the “relevance of gender dimensions in the teaching and learning process”, which mentions that discrimination against women and transgender persons in schools need to be curbed.

The key objective of the manual in question, a copy of which The Wire has seen, is “…sensitization of teachers and teacher educators regarding aspects of gender diversity keeping gender-nonconforming and transgender children at centre stage”. In the “Overview” section of the manual, it recognises that the sensitisation of school teachers with respect to issues faced by transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary persons is crucial to improving access to school education for transgender children; this is because teachers are in constant association with school children and form a bridge between the curriculum and the classroom. Moreover, the manual also recognises that teachers may themselves have internalised societal perceptions about gender roles, which they may end up bringing to their classrooms, which in turn may impact how they interact with transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary students.

The manual also mentions that it can be used to train and sensitise “other stakeholders…e.g. members of school administration, curriculum developers, textbook writers, parents and the public at large”.

The manual also talks about how transgender persons in the Indian subcontinent enjoyed a socially accepted position until caste patriarchy and later, the British rule led to a decline in their social status and stigmatised any diverse gender and sexual identity other than cisgender-heterosexual gender and sexual expressions. It goes on to explain several important terms in respect to identities of and issues faced by transgender persons, including the difference between biological sex and gender, gender incongruence and gender dysphoria, gender affirming therapies, regional and cultural transgender identities, etc.

Also read: India’s Healthcare Systems Persistently Exclude LGBTQ+ People. This Needs To Change.

According to the manual, only 19 and six transgender students registered respectively for class X and class XII exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in 2020, although a high pass percentage among transgender students indicates that this “abysmally low” number of transgender students in schools is not a result of diminished intelligence or lack of interest in learning.

Excerpts from important judgements and policies – for example, the NALSA vs. UoI judgement 2014, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP2020) among others – are also cited by the manual. Notably, the manual quotes the National Education Policy 2020 saying that “All participants in the school education system, including teachers, principals, administrators, counselors, and students, will be sensitized to the requirements of all students, the notions of inclusion and equity, and respect, dignity, and privacy of all persons.” It is important to note that the NEP 2020 recognises transgender persons as a socioeconomically disadvantaged group.

The manual then goes on to highlight various problems faced by transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in schools, including issues concerning gendered uniforms and infrastructure (e.g. washrooms), violence and abuse, lack of support, etc. Importantly, the manual also talks about measures taken by various governments, the corporate sector, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the UNDP, schools and NCERT to improve the social status of transgender persons.

Penultimately, the manual not only mentions several concrete steps to improve the access of school education for transgender persons, but also suggests changes in school curricula for a more holistic education. For example, the manual highlights the importance of gender-neutral and transgender-friendly infrastructure and the “[Discontinuation] of binary practices” (for example, gender-segregated uniforms, rows of students etc.)

Finally, the manual ends by highlighting the contributions of transgender persons who may be introduced to students as role models. This includes people like community researcher Santa Khurai, engineer and entrepreneur Grace Banu, bodybuilder Aryan Pasha and others.

As an annexure, the manual provides detailed suggestions on how the pre-existing contents of school textbooks can be modified to be transgender-friendly and -affirmative. For example, the manual suggests that teachers, while discussing the “Biomolecules” chapter in class XII NCERT textbooks, include a brief discussion on trans-affirmative hormone therapies.

The outrage and its consequences

After the manual was published, Firstpost published a report on it. A tweet by Firstpost highlighting this report received severe backlash from several Twitter users, although many users also applauded the manual. According to Chintan Girish Modi, the journalist who wrote the Firstpost report, “We happen to live in a world where people feel threatened by experiences, identities and viewpoints that they do not understand. Instead of seeking understanding, they try to block out what they do not want to deal with. And this manifests as violence, something that transgender people in India and all over the world are at the receiving end of.”

Ramakrishnan told The Wire that “The backlash…was triggered by mention of caste-patriarchy, which was assumed to be an attack on Hinduism.” Moreover, Ramakrishnan also feels that Twitter users who were offended by the manual may have misinterpreted that training material to be advocating a complete removal of gender-segregated washrooms; rather, the material only advocated for inclusion of gender-neutral washrooms along with gender-specific ones.

Also, some of these people were also alarmed by the mention of puberty blockers as an option for children with acute gender dysphoria. It is important to note that the ~100 page document mentions puberty blockers only twice: once while introducing the idea of gender-affirmative hormonal therapies (GAHTs), and once in the annexure while suggesting to class XI health and physical education teachers that they talk “…about puberty blockers (hormones) that delay certain development of the body” and that they “convey [to students] that these are available and accessible for adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria, who may later identify as transgender persons”.

Finally, according to Ramakrishnan, “Many of those leading the backlash seemed to think this was part of a curriculum for students; it was actually a curriculum for teachers.”

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Along with the social media outrage, one person filed a complaint with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which, according to several media reports (see this and this), has asked the NCERT for a response on the manual. Moreover, according to a copy of NCPCR’s letter to NCERT made public by OpIndia, NCPCR has asked NCERT to “take appropriate action in rectifying the anomalies present in the document”. It is, however, not clear what the “anomalies” are, or if the NCPCR has checked that the issues raised by the complainant are indeed valid causes of concern. An email to NCPCR chairperson Kanoongo and joint director of NCERT Sanjay Srivastava regarding the same did not receive a response at the time of publishing the report.

According to OpIndia, the complainant has raised four main issues: (a) that the idea of “removing binaries shall deny them [school children] equal rights”, (b) that school children may be exposed to “unnecessary psychological trauma due to contradictory environments at home and school”, (c) the mention of puberty blockers and their availability for adolescents, and (d) the qualifications and credentials of the drafting committee.

As a result of the outrage, the manual has been taken down from the NCERT website.

The manual is very important, say educators and doctors

The Association for Transgender Health in India (ATHI), a group of medical practitioners working towards transgender-inclusive healthcare in India, has issued a statement in solidarity with the NCERT. The statement, a copy of which The Wire has seen, has been signed by Sanjay Sharma, CEO and managing director of ATHI; Sharma is also a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).

The statement cites several studies, which testifies that the NCERT manual is scientifically sound. The statement says, “A considerable body of research has highlighted the positive effects of Gender Affirmative Medical Care including puberty blockers and hormonal therapies on social adaptation and mental well-being of gender dysphoric youth , while lack of appropriate gender affirmation, whether by close family, schools or neighborhood, the law or society, can lead to adverse health effects.”

The statement also mentions that teacher sensitisation and training is crucial to the well-being of young transgender individuals: “Sensitization and education of Indian teachers and teacher educators about transgender concerns in academic setting through this material will enable fostering of gender inclusive school system and take us closer to similar gender sensitive models of education of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand at global level. This eventually will reduce mental health issues (depression, anxiety disorder and suicidal ideations) and dropping out of schooling for transgender, gender-nonconforming, gender dysphoric and questioning learners.” Further, the statement applauds the NCERT for providing material that can also be used to sensitise other stakeholders of school education, including parents of children who may be facing gender dysphoria and may identify as transgender later in their lives.

Representative imahe. Photo: monikawl999/Pixabay

According to Ramakrishnan, the NCERT training material is very important because “much of the harassment and violence faced by young persons who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming begins in the classrooms, playgrounds and restrooms of educational institutions, and is perpetrated by peers.” Ramakrishnan also points out that teachers and staff in schools often blame this violence on children’s gender non-conformity while pushing them to conform to traditional gender roles.

Fathima, a transgender woman and a CBSE school teacher, believes that the “NCERT teacher training manual is a big, welcome step in bringing equality to society.” While Fathima doesn’t believe that the manual is able to address all shortcomings in the current school education system regarding inclusion of gender-diverse students, she believes that this is a “great beginning in the journey of inclusion”. According to Fathima, transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming students go through “unimaginable trauma” in school, often due to insensitivity from school staff.

Commenting on the outrage against the manual, Fathima said, “It is a sad state of affairs that we talk a lot about ‘Education for All’ in the contemporary world, but do not realise its true meaning.”

What next?

As we await NCERT’s response to the NCPCR, Ramakrishnan told The Wire that activists in several states, including Karnataka and West Bengal, are approaching state government authorities to communicate their support for the manual to national authorities.

Moreover, parents of queer- and/or trans-identifying children are writing to the NCPCR and NCERT in support of the manual. For example, Nilakshi Roy, a parent of a queer child, has started a change.org petition requesting the NCERT to retain the manual. The petition, addressed to Srivastava, mentions, “If the children and schoolteachers continue to NOT see these people for who they are, or to allow disrespect, support bullying, lack of privacy, all because they are ALL EQUALLY MISINFORMED about them, they are actually holding the Supreme Court in contempt. It is the duty of every citizen, and institutions, especially schools, to uphold the law of the land and support suitable reforms” (emphases from the petition).

Will NCERT and other bodies, including the NCPCR, listen? Only time can tell.

Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective TheLifeofScience.com, and tweet at @queersprings.