Kolkata school that forced students to 'confess' to lesbianism exemplifies how not to treat queer children
By stigmatising even the suggestion of lesbianism, the Kamala Girls School shows that most adults have no idea about how to deal with the sexuality of young people | #FirstCulture
"No lesbians please, we are Bengali," seems to be the message coming from all quarters as a “lesbian scandal” engulfs a south Kolkata school.
The basic facts are these: On 8 March, 10 students of the Kamala Girls School said they were forced to sign a “confession letter” admitting they were lesbians. The angry parents claimed the girls were arm-twisted into signing the letter. They said that if two persons hold hands or put their arms around each other, it does not mean they are lesbians. The acting headmistress Sikha Sarkar said some students had complained about other students engaging in “such behaviour”. So she called them in and considering “the sensitive nature of the issue”, she asked them to admit it in writing and then called in their guardians to discuss the matter, “so we can bring these girls on the right course”.
Whatever might have been demonstrated in this whole sorry episode, it’s certainly not sensitivity. “Sadly our teachers are being trained to teach different subjects,” says Paro Anand, award-winning author of books for young adults. “But they are not taught to handle issues that confront young people.”
First off, why does anyone have to “confess”, and that too in writing, to being a lesbian? In an official statement, the Indian Psychiatric Society has declared there is “no evidence to substantiate the belief that homosexuality is a mental illness or a disease.” “Are students in co-ed schools asked to write a confession about their heterosexuality when they are seen spending time together?” wonders Malobika, co-founder of Sappho for Equality — The Activist Forum for Lesbian, Bisexual Woman and Transman Rights, in a report by Indian Express.
And what is the “right course” anyway? It’s one thing for a school not to promote homosexuality, or even approve of it, it’s another thing to extract letters of confession.
The parents are right in saying two girls holding hands does not mean they are lesbians. But even if they are, does it mean the school can make them sign a “confession”? “In this kind of public name-and-shame game, what space do we leave for honesty?” wonders Anand.
The issue is not whether some girls in Kamala Girls School are lesbians or have romantic crushes on each other, or play pranks. The issue is that schools and authorities seem to have no idea about how to deal with the sexuality of young people. “Adolescent sexuality is a problem for schools and parents,” says YA author Himanjali Sankar. She points to the Delhi Public School scandal from some years ago where two students recorded a sexual act which someone tried to sell on baazee.com (now acquired by eBay). "The discourse is particularly skewed when it comes to homosexuality. One doesn’t need video recordings. Just the suggestion of homosexuality is condemnation enough,” she says.
Sankar is the author of Talking of Muskaan, a book which deals with a 15-year-old girl and homosexuality, among other things. Talking of Muskaan, along with Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt where a teenaged girl grapples with the knowledge that her friend is gay, is one of the few YA books that deals with the subject in an Indian context. Sankar says her previous books about the Superdog Rousseau resulted in many interactions at schools. But when Talking of Muskaan came out, her publisher found that schools were reluctant to invite her. “Some got back saying they liked the book but are afraid parents will complain if they have a session around it,” she says.
“Through my work with over 3 lakh young people and their guardians, I have discovered that we as a people are less queasy about violence than about sex and sexualities,” says Anand. “So we can watch, read and witness violent acts, but an act of affection, between opposite, or worse, same-sex people, is too ‘hot to handle’.”
But not wanting to talk about it can backfire, as the incident at Kamala Girls School shows. The state’s education minister Partha Chatterjee says the government does not approve of the fact that the school extracted “the statement under duress” and has not handled the matter with maturity. But Chatterjee also tells The Quint he does not approve of inculcating the idea of lesbianism in schools because it “can influence others” and that this “is not the culture of Bengal”.
Adolescent sexuality can be confusing and complicated enough, without dragging the “culture of Bengal” into it. Schools obviously have to maintain discipline and they are well within their rights to reprimand, rebuke and even punish students who violate their rules. But stigmatising sexuality or the suggestion of it is treading into dangerous territory.
The students say they were told to write they had put their hands in their friend’s blouses and tickled them under their skirts. They were asked why they held hands. Whether minister Chatterjee or the school headmistress likes it or not, teenagers are curious about sex and sexuality. But the very idea of homosexuality lays bare an “underlying outrage” says Sankar. An overt exhibition of heterosexual romance could also draw rebukes, but in that case, the more likely outcome is of a student being counseled about how this is not the "right age" and that their studies must not suffer. But even a mention of lesbianism brings forward threats of transfer certificates and signed statements.
What is tragic is that in its effort to bring girls on the “right course”, school authorities miss how vulnerable homosexual children are in a school. A school is a place where fitting in is all-important and a child who seems different from her peers risks bullying, or worse. They are called names, teased, and ostracised. A survey by Mental Health America says LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit suicide and two-and-half times more likely to harm themselves with each instance of verbal or physical harassment. The fact that we do not conduct such studies in India does not mean we do not face these issues.
In Talking of Muskaan, Muskaan is comfortable with her sexuality but some of those around her are not, and she attempts to kill herself. That’s fiction. But in real life, by stigmatising even the suggestion of lesbianism, a school sends out a terrible message. Students will often bully a student who seems different, who seems gay. That is sad, but not unusual. It is much more disheartening when the school itself comes across as the bully.
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