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Name, Please? How Online Classes Are Erasing Identities Of Trans And Enby Students

Trigger Warning: Deadnaming, Misgendering, Mental Health Issues

The globe has been afflicted with the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly a year and a stretch. People were separated, secluded, and constrained to undertake all human activities from within the boundaries of their dwellings. Virtual classes for students are now a cornerstone of these activities. While these on-screen exchanges are not the best thing that could have happened, they do provide students with a sense of optimism and camaraderie.

But, are these classrooms as promising and uplifting as they promise for students with trans and non-binary gender identities?

Students with these identities are regularly exposed to deadnaming, misgendering, and other derogatory remarks by campus faculty and staff, as well as their peers. This is detrimental to one’s health and quality of life.

It not only contributes to the inherent transphobia, which is damaging to their livelihood, but it also breaches their rights. Most of the time, the privacy of trans and enby students is jeopardized since they must explain themselves repeatedly. And then there’s the additional behaviour of toxic households, who leave nothing but a tight space for them.

It is past time to recognize and discuss their concerns. Let’s go a little further into these interactions, ramifications, and emotional overcomes.

Are online classrooms as promising and uplifting as they promise for students with trans and non-binary gender identities? Representational image. Photo: YKA

On The Breach Of Privacy In Virtual Classrooms

When someone refers to a transgender individual by the name they used before making the transition, it is known as Deadnaming. It may also be alluded to as referring to someone by their birth name – which is distressing since it implies denial of one’s choice of identity.

“I, unfortunately, had to sign for the classes under my deadname and birth gender. I had to face constant deadnaming,” said Keith, a trans guy who recently graduated with a Masters degree from Presidency University, Kolkata.

While fellow classmates and friends are accepting of trans people’s gender identities, it is the professors who become the source of this anguish.

“When things went online, I made it clear that I didn’t want my deadname on the list and asked if they could use my actual name,” said Valerie Jay, a trans girl and recent SRM University graduate. “My professor said that for something like this, they would have to contact the Dean or Chairman and make it official, and only then would they use my real name. Otherwise, they’ll keep using my dead name,” she added.

This causes discomfort for trans students and is massively derogatory to their identities. “I’ve discovered that I have difficulty concentrating in class because I end up fixating on getting deadnamed and convincing myself that it’s because I’m not trans enough. And I don’t always respond right away when my teacher addresses me by my deadname,” Keith continues.

How Deadnaming Affects Interactions And Violates Mental Health In Classrooms

Concerns and consciousness regarding mental health are something that everyone seems to be talking about these days, yet its value is limited to the affluent. Misgendering somebody’s identification, for instance, has a negative impact on one’s emotional and physiological well-being.

“It has a negative impact on my mental health. I don’t feel like speaking up in class because I’d be misgendered every time because of my voice, and I’d have to come out every time I wanted to say something,” says Nick, a trans person presently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication. “I am aware that I am a smart individual. And I’d like to express my thoughts in class. But I can’t, which frustrates me greatly,” he adds.

Misgendering negatively affects the mental and physical health of trans and gender non-conforming individuals and may impact their future engagement with the health care system, according to a study published by the Medical Journal of Australia.

“The professors generally refer to us as young women, though one did say: ‘women and those who don’t identify as such’, which was nice. I use my pronouns in class and all the professors I’ve interacted with have referred to me as ‘she’ anyway,” says a non-binary student currently pursuing their Bachelors from a Women’s College, associated with Bangalore City University.

These interactions are stressful.

Gender-based discrimination is the most prevalent sort of hostility faced by trans women, with the largest impact on mental health, according to a statistical analysis published in 2016 by PubMed Central. More than 40% of the sample reported that this prevalent transphobia was linked to a threefold rise in the odds of PTSD, a double increase in the odds of depression, and an eightfold increase in the odds of the stress connected to suicide ideation.

zoom class
“When things went online, I made it clear that I didn’t want my deadname on the list. My professor said that for something like this, they would have to contact the Dean or Chairman and make it official. Else, they’ll keep using my dead name.” Representational image.

How Can We Make Online Classes Safer… For Everyone?

A safe environment, for learning as such, can only be successful when efforts are made by those in power. In this case, the university staff, teachers, administrators, and others, have to take on the responsibility to be conscious of people’s identities. The existence of trans and enby students is consistently neglected by staff members, and it all begins at the school level. The staff have to be more sensitized, and it should be in the form of additional training from the university.

“Everything starts with sensitizing the staff and faculty members. And letting them know that trans people exist and they are studying in your classrooms. They have to change their views to make them comfortable,” adds Valerie.

While certain institutions, like the University of Delhi, have taken steps to acknowledge different gender identities across the spectrum, it’s still an unsafe space. Mere acknowledgement is not enough, it never is. It is demeaning to folks with trans and enby identities.

A Google Form Is A Good Place To Start

Certain internet portals and systems generally linked to creating user accounts, like that of The University of Mississippi and University of Arizona, allow us to enter our preferred names and pronouns. But, how helpful are these platforms when used in a classroom setting?

“I feel like a google form about pronouns and gender which students can fill up on the first day of the class and only the teacher can access is a good start,” remarks Keith.

“Most of the students don’t have the option to legally change their names until they’re adults or until they move out from their homes or toxic families. Therefore, giving the students an option to add their preferred names and pronouns to be used in virtual classrooms while using their birth name for legal purposes can be useful,” says Valerie on the technical additions that can help make these spaces safer.

Along with preferred names, having the option to add preferred pronouns is a modification that these classrooms require.

According to Medical News Today, it is among the utmost essential ways for trans and enby individuals to feel safe and secure, and it is a good way to demonstrate your allyship.

However, these additions have to be implemented with utmost care and responsibility. Keith adds to the conversation by saying, “I think they can be useful but they cannot be used on their own. For a lot of trans students, it might be harmful if their classmates/teachers used their pronouns in front of their transphobic families. Teachers need to ask students what pronouns and names to use in what situations.”

Along with preferred names, having the option to add preferred pronouns is a modification that these classrooms require. Photo: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

First Steps

Our institutions, both public and private, are currently clueless (or careless) about how to make this educational atmosphere less prejudiced and more inclusive.

“Beta, this is not in our hands,” remarked a departmental administrator at a private institution in New Delhi. “We have never been worried about gender identities. We adhere to the established rules. Whenever the authorities present us with any such adjustments, I would be more than delighted to adopt them. Baaki toh hum abhi kya hi kare (what can we do in this situation),” they add.

If anything, the extended isolation and agony of the past few months should all the more propel us towards taking action. Educational institutions should be taking steps to free themselves from the constraints of decades-old administrative structures. Appeals from faculty, administrative staff, student unions, and other sectors will make it difficult for regulators and decision-makers to overlook trans, enby, and other queer identities.

“It is clear that we need to re-emphasize the importance of acknowledging trans and enby (non-binary) identities in the academic space, as well as the fact that the virtual experience does offer incredible opportunities to connect with queer and gender non-conforming students,” says the student from Bangalore City University. “I’d like to see colleges in general, and especially colleges like mine that are gender exclusionary, working to create a healthier atmosphere for all queer and non-queer students,” they add. Amen to that.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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