Back in September, Trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika wanted to start a residential school exclusively for a small group of trans students. The idea was to help them clear their Class 10 Board or equivalent examinations. And now, with the support of National Open School (NOS), the Sahaj International School will be inaugurated on December 30 in Kochi.
The initiative is attempting to meet a dire need. Till date, there are no trans students enrolled in Delhi University, despite it welcoming applications from such students to its Post-Graduate programmes from 2014 onwards. And for the 18 trans applicants who did make it into School of Open Learning in 2016, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Several have reported being in a less-than-welcoming and even actively hostile learning environment.
The 2014 Census perhaps best sums up how the education system has failed transgender Indians. Only 46% of 4,90,000 trans people documented by the government are literate. And even with a national budget of INR 10 Crore for welfare programmes for transgender people, it seems not enough is being done.
Cake reached out to Mallika over Facebook, who said the getting the school on track was a dream come true for her. “We stand for inclusive education,” she said, mentioning that the programm was only for drop-outs. “Our school is educate those Trans persons who couldn’t study once.”
Mallika said that they weren’t accepting government grants. “If some one wishes to sponsor a trans candidate in bridging their 10th and 12th [exams], they are most welcome.”
“While I support trans-led initiatives like hers, it is the state’s responsibility to provide education and employment opportunities without discrimination to trans people,” trans artist and activist Gee Semmalar told Cake. He remains a little cautious about other education programmes for trans people. “NGOs are mushrooming in Kerala after the budget allocation of crores and it’s pretty clear that their intentions are not to serve trans communities, but to make some money out of this.”
But this is exactly why a community-led programme like Sahaj is required. And in addition to its primary objective (education), a school like this could also serve as a support system against rampant transphobia.
Cake spoke to Hyderabad-based trans activist and scholar Karthik Bittu, who said: “It is useful to have residential schools since many trans students face discrimination and exclusion from families and their homes as well as from peers teachers and staff in school.”
However, he foresees some issues in its functioning: “This move reduces peer discrimination but gives teachers and staff a lot of power which could be misused. There must be a lot of vigilance and monitoring by independent non-NGO trans activist teams.”
While preparations are being made for the inauguration, one can expect some criticism and cries of “unfair advantage!” from those who enjoy their cisgender-heterosexual privilege, we have to remember that the idea of learning spaces for specific sections of society is not new, especially not in India.
Delhi alone has several prominent colleges for religious minorities, like St. Stephen’s, Jamia Milia Islamia, or Khalsa College. Today, female students constitute 39.9% of the student body in higher education largely due to the existence of women’s colleges. And earmarking a school for gender and sexual minorities isn’t entirely unheard of either.
In Toronto, the Triangle Programme was started in 1995 as the first LGBT+ school, and continues to that safe space even today. Cake reached out to Canadian trans rights activist Jessica Durling about what a space like that means.
“Marginalized groups deserve spaces free from prejudice, and being judged for who they are,” she says. “In high school I was ostracized just for having my sex misidentified at birth. That, and being lesbian. It was the hardest time of my life between social stigma, prejudice, and segregation. When I went to university, I thought I had died and went to heaven. Nobody throwing bottles, there were no cars driving at me, nobody trying to attack me. I know I have trauma from the rural high school I went to, and it isn’t fair that so many youth have to go through similar experiences.”
But could there be a downside to minimizing interaction between trans and non-trans people? For one thing, it might let cisgender (who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) students, teachers and staff off the hook, instead of having them confront their own transphobia.
Says Semmalar, “I think for drop-outs it’s a good idea to have a separate school because it would need a lot of individual attention and work to catch up on lost time. But for trans kids, a conducive and supportive environment to continue in schools with other kids should be made.”
One also wonders if a school like this might go down the same route as the proposed “third gender toilets” in West Bengal. Could it, in some way, amount to segregation? Durling disagrees.
“I have been segregated, I know what it feels like,“she says. “It’s one thing for a marginalized group wanting a separate space for their safety and to be around peers who share the marginalization. It’s another thing for the political powers to say ‘you are different from us, so you can get separate but equal’. The marginalized in the first situation can rejoin larger society as they please, the ones in the later situation are restricted and ostracized.”
The Sahaj International School, once it opens and begins accepting students, will certainly set a precedent in India. And if all goes well, it could expand, or be replicated across the country, and effectively tackle the issue of access to education for the trans community.
Only time will tell whether or not schools like these will prove helpful, but here’s hoping they do.
Update: This article was updated to include a comment by trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika, which was sent to team Cake via Facebook on December 17, and a change in a quote by Gee Semmalar.