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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.