Pride matters | The quest for gender-inclusive educational spaces
Practising diversity in the classroom is a slow evolution to unlearn and move away from binaries, stigmas, and preconceived constructs to arrive at a common ground of shared realities, where differences are understood, accepted, and then etched into one's understanding of diverse ways of life.
First, I present you with two conversations:
Student: During my admission, when I learned that the campus had a pride walk, I knew this was where I wanted to study.
Part-time student: My 12-year-old daughter is passionate about LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) issues, and she identifies as an ally. I’m an ally too. While I’m happy for her, her grandmother disapproves. I’ve told my daughter that she’ll have to speak up for what she believes in.
While these were snippets of two separate conversations with students who demonstrated their enthusiasm, foresight, and care, they also reflect the effect of having conversations around gender and sexual diversity in educational spaces.
When our personal lives merge into our digital lives through social media, anecdotes from different lived realities are shared, and varied life stories become public. The private-versus-public seems to merge, allowing for more nuanced ways of understanding people. Over the years, people of different genders, sexualities, castes, and classes become comfortable with themselves and visibly navigate and negotiate their identities. Moreover, there is an expectation in several studies and work cultures to bring our “whole selves” to study and work.
While focusing on diversity, foregrounding specific diversities to the exclusion of others can be a slippery path. For example, as gender equality attains critical attention through Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in several educational campuses, particularly management institutions, our inquiries into (the performance of) genders and sexual orientations need critical introspection. There seems to be resistance towards acknowledging a plethora of genders that exist.
Often transgender, non-binary or cis-gender folks who transgress gender norms are more likely to be at the receiving end of bullying, stigma, policing, and shame — as they do not conform to stereotypical expectations. Having conversations in our institutions is a way of bringing about awareness and support.
Additionally, identities are mostly viewed from a singular lens, while in reality, we inhabit different intersectional identities. For example, while a woman from a non-English speaking tribal community studies along with a non-binary bisexual student from a low caste community, both of them, in their ways, negotiate each of their identities differently. If SDGs are to be truly meaningful, they need to be inclusive, non-binary, and holistic of the different dimensions of being human.
To work towards gender diversity, all people need to voice their differences, vulnerabilities, and marginalisation because it brings a different perspective to the fore. We often navigate social spaces assuming we have a shared reality, but that is not the case.
For instance, some of us might not, a) be interested in being partnered; b) feel comfortable wearing particular clothes; c) have an emotional or financial support system in times of necessity; d) be able to present ourselves or perform in ways that are expected of us.
Sharing different perspectives enables us to envision multiple alternatives for different people. The focus is not reiterating this difference in everything we do, but disrupting categories for understanding or boxing people, thereby ridding society of stigmas. Pedagogically, by sharing different narratives from multiple vantage points, we allow for commonly held beliefs or stereotypes to be broken down.
Fostering a spirit of empathy by engaging with multiple viewpoints is a process involving time, effort, patience, and care. Yet, it also builds confidence in people and brings about greater social cohesivity. Eventually, we are expected to be mindful of our language, our choice of words, our tone, and the impact of our words. For example, while it might seem quite common to suggest another person start dating or get married or groom themselves, it can be discomforting for the other. A world with fewer clones of ourselves is undoubtedly a more colourful one to inhabit.
Creating diverse environments is a commitment, a slow evolution, and not a pet project. It does not happen merely by comprising classes or teams with different backgrounds. We also need to make people feel included and comfortable in their skin. This entails acting when needed and respecting people and their needs to thrive in their work or educational space.
Some ways of practising gender and sexual diversity in the classroom are:
Using inclusive language: It is preferable to use words like team, folks, colleagues, people (Not: Ladies and gentlemen, guys and girls); Partner, spouse, significant other (Not: husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend); Asking: What pronouns do you use? (Not: What are your preferred pronouns?); Using police officer, chairperson (Not: policeman, chairman); Using first names (instead of Mr, Ms, Mrs).
Implementing fair practices: Everyone likes to be treated fairly and valued for who they are. Allowing everyone to share their points of view and speak from their vantage point allows different positions to be voiced and critiqued. Most importantly, making people feel safe to make errors without judgment creates a healthy growth space.
Learning from different sources: There are constantly newer stories through articles, films, documentaries, and television series. Series like Sex Education (2019), Transparent (2014), and Made in Heaven (2019) have depicted different genders and sexual identities. Articles on In Plainspeak — Tarshi and Agents of Ishq depict myriad perspectives on sex and gender.
Form LGBTQ+ alliances: There is power and solidarity among groups of people coming together and committing towards a single cause. This commitment allows for empathy through conversations that make others walk in the shoes of people who are different from themselves. It also demonstrates conviction by bringing a point of view that is singular and unvoiced. And it creates candour by voicing points of view that no one else will.
Being an ally: It helps show our support to different people and causes through our presence, speaking up for a cause that affects people’s lives, or letting others figure out how to be in this world. It might mean amplifying the voices of those in difficult situations — or standing up for others, even when we feel scared.
Through all our efforts in enhancing an inclusive and diverse culture, we can perhaps take tiny steps of significant change versus bringing about an absolute change. As much as we would like to be superhumans championing change for a better world, we could begin being those agents of change ourselves.
Andy Silveira is an assistant professor at the Goa Institute of Management and a member of the Centre of Creativity, Innovation and Design Thinking
This is part of a special HT Premium series, spanning personal essays, reportage and analyses, to mark Pride Month
The views expressed are personal