My Story: 'Being Queer, I Was Asked If I Liked Floral Prints, & The Class Laughed Along'
"I was asked to man up so that I get to attract girls, brushing aside the way I sat as unmanly, and the prescribed way out was to balance my femininity with masculinity."
Only recently, Facebook was overflowing with a number of enraged posts regarding institutionalized malpractices in several schools in Kolkata, the prominent highlights being on rape culture, misogyny and pervasive patriarchal underpinnings.
The name of my school, South Point High School or S.P.H.S as we would abbreviate it, was doing the rounds too.
In this social media engagement, I have noticed two very overt patterns of responding. On one hand, there were people pouring out their grievances and seeking collective solidarity. They were counteracted by a sizable population of others who valorized the institution at the expense of invalidating these narratives, blocking dialogue and critical reflection.
I can only vouch for myself when I say that I have not been a fan (read: fanatic) of any institution that I have been affiliated with. South Point School is no exception either.
To me, an institution is always fallible and can be critiqued, countered and engaged with. My attempt here is merely to open up dialogue about the toxicity of school culture in general. I am halfway convinced that what I write now bears semblance to environments in many elite and non-elite schools of the country, so this is not a self-proclaimed saga of vilifying my school in particular.
Being visibly effeminate and queer, I have faced countless instances of casual and rampant queerphobia in school that is systemically normalized. What is perhaps more worrisome is that I have never felt safe to open up to a teacher about what was going on with me.
Queerness was never affirmatively talked about; sex, pleasure, consent were never institutionally talked about, and gender was out of the plate.
Visible to me however was the sorry plight (that is how I read into it) of a male Bengali teacher who was named 'Boudi Sir' for 'gender nonconformity' ('Boudi" is the Bengali equivalent for sister-in-law, who is often eroticized unequivocally in popular culture): this evidently reeks of homophobia and more precisely, transphobia.
I remember how the students used to mimic this person's voice, mannerisms out of mockery and derision so that classes became a site of distress for him. The nonchalance of other teachers towards this issue was even more haunting. They never batted an eyelid about it, were silent or joined the bandwagon in a snide smirk of affirmation.
The same was true for another Biology teacher, who used to be subjected to open taunts from students for his 'non-masculine' demeanor. To witness this was of paramount helplessness for someone like me and I internalized a lot of negativity regarding my identity.
I remember a casual classroom conversation with a teacher about how I disliked my mother buying striped shirts for me and do not trust her with shopping. In a full-strength class, she mocked me saying if I wanted to wear floral prints. Countering her was even out of question as classmates laughed along. I want to tell her now: 'Yes Ma'am, I love florals and they flatter my trans identity'.
I remember this other junior of mine, who used to walk to school amid students clapping at her from school buses in a collective stance of sorts (meant to culturally mimic the Hijra taali or thikri). She identifies as a trans-woman and lamented once about how the school administration was particularly uncooperative in her allegation of facing sexual harassment, the cherry on the cake being the school counselor out to invalidate her claim as misinterpretation.
I have managed to visit this same counselor for a career-related concern and the conversation was very ethically unpromising if I were to look at it in retrospect. Also, being a student of Clinical Psychology, I now realize how blatantly queerphobic she had been.
She had asked me to man up so that I get to attract girls, brushing aside the way I sat as unmanly. She appreciated my femininity but warned me that I would always fall short of the alpha males in the class in getting female attention. The prescribed way out was to balance my femininity with masculinity. She literally demonstrated to me how to sit like a man.
When I was visibly distressed, she poked into it further asking if I have been told this earlier as well. I steered my way out of that conversation and did not visit her again.
Physical assault (slapping students, boxing their ears), parent-shaming was part and parcel of school culture in ways that I seldom saw it as problematic. Slut-shaming women for not maintaining dress code was the order of the day.
Moreover, an academic hierarchization of the Science subjects was so gravely legitimized that when I wanted to take up Humanities in +2, my class-teacher (who happens to teach history) dissuaded my mother from allowing me to take it up.
I often feel that teachers were seldom consciously aware of the developmental realities of childhood and adolescence, which is where I expect a B.Ed. training to come into use. We were in Class IX, when a class-teacher confiscated a book by Sidney Sheldon from a girl in our class, holding her accountable for reading 'obscene content'.
I do not know what she expects a 14-15 year old teenager to be drawn to, given the evident physiology of adolescent development. Thankfully, the girl's mother defended her child, which was much to the teacher's surprise.
The list goes on, but I think I have made my point and it honestly does not get any better by chance. Systemic reforms need to be re-instituted and that an online petition is doing the rounds in favor of it gives me some hope.