By Karthik Shankar:
I remember my first sex education class in school when I was thirteen. After an initial round of snickering, there was hushed silence as all of us learned about our bodies and sexual desires. It also led to a never ending flurry of questions that ranged from the mundane to the introspective. At an age where most of us felt like aliens in our own skin, that class reassured us that going through puberty was a normal teenage ritual.
The term sex education already raises a lot of eyebrows in our deeply conservative society. In a culture where sexual repression is the norm, fringe conservative groups get riled up by its very mention and religious leaders launch diatribes against Western influence and the deterioration of Indian culture.
Given that sex education is sporadic in our schools, it would seem crazy to even make the next argument; that we need to incorporate LGBT education into our curriculum and sex education is the first logical step. Incorporating LGBT issues into sex education can have multiple beneficial effects. It’s been found to reduce homophobic bullying and promotes school safety.
In the past year, LGBT issues have actually been part of the national water cooler conversation. In December 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Delhi High Court judgement that turned down the obsolete Article 377 that criminalises homosexual activity. The judgement unleashed a flurry of outrage and for once put India in the thick of the worldwide conversation on gay rights. April 2014 thankfully saw a more progressive judgement from the Supreme Court when its ruling granted legal recognition to the third gender. Transgenders face numerous barriers in getting access to and staying within the education system itself. Talking about transgenders in education is the foundation of a collective support system that starts from school and then moves all the way to college and government jobs in the form of reservation quotas.
Imagine a school that actually dares to put LGBT issues on the table in its sex education classes. Wouldn’t it reduce common assumptions and stereotypes about LGBT people? Children’s world views and beliefs are extremely malleable. It’s the reason why education has always been an ideological tug of war. In an environment where such issues are discussed openly, it promotes the safety and personal wellbeing of such children. Only in sex education can various issues such as body dysphoria or Sapphic love be addressed. Given that we live in a heteronormative society, it’s important that children are taught that such sexual or gender identities are natural and not perversions.
Recognising LGBT people without ‘othering’ them will also allow the education system to recognise the myriad fields in which they have deeply contributed. How can a discussion of Vikram Seth’s contribution to Indian English literature be complete without analysing the LGBT themes in his work? Look at the kind of dreck children in Indian society are currently exposed to. You have Dostana and Bol Bachchan, both practically minstrel shows in terms of how they portray homosexual men. For transgenders, there’s Sangharsh, where our typical cisgender hero played by Akshay Kumar saves a kid from a murderous transgender who keeps kidnapping children for ritual sacrifices.
For the vocal culture activists, LGBT issues being a part of the curricula is not the death knell for Indian society. It is ironic that most of those who are virulently opposed to such reforms are from Hindutva groups, given that ancient Hinduism took a very liberal stance regarding some of these issues. Ancient Hindu scriptures celebrate androgyny and people who belong to the third gender. In fact, the God Ayyappa was said to have been born after a union between Vishnu and Shiva after the former took on a female form to seduce the latter.
Including LGBT topics in school can have a salubrious economic effect as well. A recent research paper by the World Bank said that LGBT discrimination costs India billions of dollars. In 2012 alone, that economic loss amounted to anywhere between Rs 11,200 crores and 170,000 crores. There’s a clear economic upside to investing in equality.
Of course all this is expecting too much in a country where religious leaders like Baba Ramdev espouse the value of yoga as a substitute for sex education and even the former Union Minister for Health, Harsh Vardhan, takes a retrograde view saying that sex education should be banned. Still, for those who choose to believe in the value of inclusivity, history is on their side.