A school in Bangalore discriminated against a genderqueer writer who was to be a speaker at a children’s literature fest. What went wrong, and how can we change our attitudes towards the LGBT+ community?
When the Neev Literature Festival for children was announced in my city, Bangalore, I was thrilled about it. It was even better as it was being arranged by a school at an easy distance from my home, and not at the other end of town as most book related events have a regrettable tendency to be. AND a large number of my writer friends were among the speakers and panellists, and I was looking forward to their discussions.
Until yesterday, when this article by an author I admire, Shals Mahajan, was brought to my notice.
In it, Shals speaks of the discrimination they faced from the organisers of the Neev Literature Festival. No, I am not using the wrong pronoun, and haven’t slipped up despite being an editor. They/ them are the pronouns preferred by Shals that suit them best according to the gender they identify as, and when in doubt, cis-gendered people could do well to use the preferred pronouns; we aren’t the better judges of these, they are.
It all began, says Shals, when the organisers put up a different author bio than the one they had provided, with many of the genderqueer details of their identity taken out, as well as the humorous bit about living in their head. When they got back to the organisers on this, they got very thin sounding reasons from Kavita Sabharwal, co-founder of the festival.
In her emails to Shals Mahajan, Kavita Sabharwal has made these points:
Let us keep aside the actual players in this regrettable incident, and look at what could have been done differently, and how we can, as a society, learn from it. Because the LGBT+ community is a part of our social fabric, and we need to be inclusive of them.
I am reminded of an incident I know of, where a teacher in a school in the UK was gender fluid, and talked to their children about it, explaining to them in simple terms. While explaining to the kids, they said that sometimes I feel like a boy, and sometimes like a girl, to which the kids just asked: “So what are you today?” Just pure acceptance from 7-9 year olds.
Kids this age do understand, and their ‘uncomfortable’ (to the adults) questions need the respect of answers and explanations in age appropriate terms. There are loads of excellent books for children as young as 3 years, about gender identities and sexualities, along with different ways to be and have families. The profusion of these books is proof that we don’t need to ‘protect’ kids from differing concepts.
This, is actually the crux of the issue. I have heard this excuse quite often when adults are confronted with a situation in which they have to explain things satisfactorily to their children.
A different way of saying that the adults around these children – parents, teachers – are the ones who are discomfited when kids ask these questions, as they might not be prepared to answer the inevitable questions, or may themselves have a very conservative, cis-gendered, heterosexual worldview.
We need to invest time and energy in overcoming our own discomfort about anything outside our comfort zones, and educate ourselves over this, enough to answer the inevitable questions. Kids are very open to anything that might be ‘different from the norm’, as long as you talk to them about things that they might have questions about, which are mostly due to curiosity about something that is new to them.
People usually believe that there are 2 genders – male and female – and these are ascribed to the child at birth, depending on the visible genitalia. When a child grows up feeling like the gender that has been ascribed, they are called cis-gendered. These form the majority of our population, and are hence considered the ‘norm’.
However, some individuals may grow up feeling like the opposite gender – a child growing up as a boy might feel like a girl, and vice versa. These individuals are the gender they feel they are, and since they have external genitalia and certain features of the ascribed gender, they are said to be transgender. So an individual growing up a boy but feeling like a girl is a transwoman, and prefers the pronouns for a girl, and vice versa.
Then there are those who identify either as a male or a female at different times, or those who identify as neither male nor female, or those who identify as part male and part female, or those who do not identify with either gender (agender). These are the non-binary individuals, (not identifying with the binary of male/female), who also call themselves genderqueer, which is the category in which Shals Mahajan falls, and they often prefer the pronouns they/them.
These are valid, bonafide gender identities, and the respectful thing to do when a person says they are of a particular gender, is to treat them accordingly, and use their preferred pronouns while speaking of them. These gender identities in no way take away from their talents and achievements as human beings.
As I write, a few of the authors who are speakers at the said event have taken it upon themselves to write to the founders of the literature festival, and there is some dialogue going on that will hopefully go towards including a conversation with children and adults about gender identities, sexualities, and inclusion. The best way to educate kids about other possible normals, which are everywhere around them.
And possibly a child who might be struggling with their gender identity or orientation might be reassured by the representation they find.
Image source: By Vinayak Das from Bangalore, India (Bengaluru Pride 2009Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
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