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Why Colleges CANNOT Ensure Equal Education Without Queer-affirmative Therapists

This is the fourth article in the user series by Jhatkaa on YKA called ‘Gender in the Classroom’, where we aim to have conversations that push for an equal and consensual classroom. You can read the rest of the articles here

Therapists and counsellors play a critical role in creating a safe space for marginalised genders. Queer affirmative therapists are crucial in the process of providing affirmation for their gender identity as well as sexual identities. Often, a lack of understanding stemming from ignorance creates a gap between clients and therapists. For example, therapy can trigger trauma in a client if the therapist does not understand their gender identity or sexuality and invalidates their experience.

Some triggers — like homomisic (otherwise known as homophobic) encounters, invalidation of gender identity or bullying for their gender expression — can cause mental, physical and emotional distress.

Concerning marginalised gender groups’ experiences in colleges, Ipsa James, a certified therapist, says, “For somebody who is coming from a gender minority [sic], it’s a lot of effort, a lot of labour, to be concentrating in class, as well as not making other people “uncomfortable” because they want to be authentic. This labour is not done by [cis-heterosexual] allies.”

But is queer-affirmative therapy only beneficial for gender and sexual minorities? “I would say that it [a gender-sensitive classroom] would help other people think outside the box, create spaces which will not just help students from gender minorities, but also students from gender majorities. It would be beneficial for both because we wish to have a more inclusive, empathetic and compassionate world,” says Ipsa.

A girl and professor sitting and girl says ways to make classroom gender sensitive
Schools are a starting point for children to learn about gender sensitisation.

What Is Gender-Sensitive Counselling?

A gender-sensitive approach to counselling identifies the unique struggles of all gender groups and addresses them in an empathetic manner. Various communities face threats to their mental and emotional well-being in India due to systemic inequities. Thus, gender-sensitive therapists adopt a method that is not hyperfocused on cis-heteronormative experiences and provide therapy suitable for all genders and sexualities.

On being asked what makes Ipsa a queer-affirmative and gender-sensitive therapist, they say, “I keep myself up to date about the kind of research going on by queer people for queer people. Not just white queer people but also people of colour. Being in touch with the community and prioritising lived experiences is important.”

A photo of a person in a therapy session
A gender-sensitive approach to counselling identifies the unique struggles of all gender groups and addresses them in an empathetic manner. Representational image.

Why Should Colleges Have Gender-Sensitive Counsellors On Board?

Gender-sensitive therapy is a safe space for affirming various experiences of queer people, like questioning gender or sexual identity, becoming comfortable with their gender expression, and generally navigating a life that does not fit cis-heteronormative rules.

When it comes to patterns for marginalised genders accessing therapy, Ipsa says, “I think to a certain extent, the most common pattern was that they figured out that they were queer first, and then they were like, oh! Gender identity is also a thing. It was easier for them to question sexuality than to question gender. They also had a similar experience of not having a lot of literature available on gender.

When I’m talking about my clients, I’m talking about young adults around the age of 25. And the experience of young adults or even teen queers is very different. They have much more information given that queerness is, to a very, very small extent, mainstream now.”

Moreover, it is essential to understand that mental health struggles faced by marginalised gender groups are diverse and unique. It is critical for counsellors to constantly educate themselves about the same to provide a safe space in therapy for them.

 

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Finding Safe Spaces On Campuses

It is also important to acknowledge that gender is an essential indicator of power dynamics within relationships on campus. An example of the same is when women or other marginalised genders are afraid to speak about their experiences of harassment or bullying due to a lack of understanding from stakeholders like teachers or counsellors.

Furthermore, a lack of awareness stemming from the dominant binary that gender is perceived in leads to other marginalised genders being unable to access mental health care that takes their lived experiences into account. For example, a non-binary person may face triggers due to deadnaming or misgendering within their classrooms that only a gender-sensitive counsellor will be able to address.

 

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Ipsa says, “I think just as a queer person, the entire world has been telling you that something’s wrong with you. And then the one thing [therapy] that was supposed to help you kind of come into yourself and be your best self is also discriminating.

It’s a very hopeless space, something that we queer people experience often. And then, another institution [mental healthcare], ensuring that this happens to us is also quite, quite unfriendly, to be honest.”

Colleges must focus on students’ mental health as much as they focus on their educational development. Classrooms have a significant impact on how students perform academically and how they perceive their immediate surroundings.

A college campus that cannot provide a safe environment for students inherently fails to provide equal access to education to all students.

Counsellors play an essential role in maintaining a healthy campus environment for students.

On the importance of gender-sensitive therapy, Ipsa says, “With my own experience of being a queer person, what I’ve understood is that it’s very difficult to find places where you belong. And belongingness brings in the sense of safety – psychological safety, emotional safety, physical safety.

It’s a basic right for everybody to feel safe and secure in their surroundings, and queer affirmative therapy provides that, whereas non-queer affirmative therapy is discriminatory or exclusionary.”

Mental health care can be inaccessible to students who depend on their parents for finances.

Queer students or students of marginalised genders who have not come out to their parents cannot afford therapy because of the same. Colleges are a safe space that can also provide therapy at minimal costs or even free services. Hence, if these spaces are gender-sensitive, they can provide mental health care to those in need.

 

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Ensuring Sensitisation For All

Ipsa also talks about how gender-sensitive therapy helps the ecosystem understand marginalised groups more holistically. They say, “I think it does bring out a certain sort of sensitisation. Having somebody who’s queer affirmative will look or think beyond the binary of gender and sexuality. They can also help somebody figure out that their queerness doesn’t have to be in the sense of how we generally understand queerness.

I think it also helps them [students/stakeholders] prepare for the world that is about to come. And obviously, the world that we live in is constantly changing, constantly evolving, [in terms of] just being aware and sensitised that queer people exist. You might even have queer people in your family. You can be a decent human being by being an ally to them, I think; this is also a space that queer affirmative therapists provide for others.”

Through workshops, manuals or training programs, gender-sensitive interventions can ensure that colleges have counsellors on board who are equipped to tackle gender-sensitive issues in a meaningful manner.

Ipsa says, “I think it’s a must to have gender-sensitive counsellors as part of college campuses because there’s a lot of straight people who can find straight therapists, period. And I’m not saying that straight people don’t have issues. But there are a lot more people for [them]. To a certain extent, queer affirmative-ness right now is still a niche. And it’s not like queer affirmative therapists can’t give therapy to cis-het clients. So, why not?

Just because people don’t know that there are queer people on the campuses doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”

 

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How Can Stakeholders Be Instrumental In Building A Gender-Sensitive Campus?

Stakeholders like counsellors and faculty members are essential in maintaining a system that is beneficial to marginalised gender groups. They also hold power to bring about administrative procedures that benefit marginalised gender groups. They can be instrumental in bringing change at a systemic level by encouraging conversations on gender and sexual identity and training faculty.

On the importance of stakeholders facilitating change, Ipsa says, “If you start at the top, it will seep down to the bottom. It’s not like we don’t start at the bottom and do individual work, for example, NCERT, right?… But we also need to make changes so that it [the top-level] facilitates the work on the ground level [individual efforts].”

Conclusion

Gender-sensitive counsellors can help minimise the othering that students have faced. They can also help stakeholders unlearn harmful prejudices and create an inclusive educational environment for marginalised gender and sexuality groups.

Ipsa James is a gender-sensitive and queer affirmative therapist based out of Delhi. They can be reached at ipsa.james@gmail.com.

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