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Should we encourage the LGBTQIA+ among school teachers in India to come out?

The Innerkern Dialogue with Patruni Sastry

At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyze their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue.

Here are the highlights from the Innerkern Dialogue with Patruni Sastry, an expressionist dancer, model, and drag queen. In 2018, Patruni came out as a gender-fluid person. In 2020, they published 'My Experiments with Drag,' a collection of photographic performance essays about their drag expression. We spoke to Patruni to understand what they think schools must do to be gender-sensitive and sexuality-sensitive and help children develop an inclusive mindset. You can connect with Patruni here. 

Question: How did you come to figure out that you can express complex emotions through dance?

Answer: I started dancing at the age of five, basically inspired by the movie star, Rajinikanth, in a movie where Ramya Krishna was the female lead, And she was rejected by the hero. She dances to vent her anger. So the very first thing I made sense of was that when you are angry, you have to dance and that became the pattern in my life. So it all started there, from childhood, I was having this entire, you know, situation of my dance that became an expression for me. I stopped it when I hit puberty and felt it was not appropriate and the bullying was getting to my head. Things definitely changed after my 11th and 12th grade because I was basically focused on studying in my 11th and 12th. I was studying in a boarding school, and the school was all about Maths, Physics and Chemistry, without any kind of extracurricular activities. I realized that the endless classes of Maths, Physics and Chemistry and the mad rush to crack IIT and triple JEE was so daunting. That kind of shut all the art in me. This was a dark phase for me because I couldn't emote in a proper way. Thankfully I didn't crack any of these competitive exams. Yet I ended up with engineering in a college which was located in West Bengal. So there was not much emphasis on the subjects. The major focus was on how actively you are involved in either college administration, politics or the cultural activities. So, that helped me and it gave me a lot of political understanding. I still remember the first year when I was new at the college. On my very first day, there was ragging. So late in the night at around two o'clock, seniors would drag us out and ask us to perform. Whenever it was my turn, I felt like I had an audience, which was not the case earlier. I enjoyed the process, but at some point, I felt it was going too far.

Soon, I was invited to perform at a fest for the seniors and I decided to tell them the same story about how I feel and entertain them. I decided to present a performance which was about ragging and how it affects a person's mental health. It had an impact and I still remember, from the very next day, there were people who were putting posters of anti ragging all across the college, and then the conversation started. However nothing much changed in the system. From thereon, I used dance to talk about subjects which were interesting, about the future and how exactly you can change the idea of future with the art of dance. So I think my college was a little bit of a turning point for me at that point in time, to rethink about what I needed to do as a part of my art, like what direction I need to take from there on.

Question: You mentioned that, you know, when you were in school, and you were in 11th, and 12th, you realized you couldn't emote properly. So, what is your idea about the whole education system in our country (India) that kind of shuts down all art forms? What do you think happens to children, their distancing from their emotion, inability to express and think and feel?

Answer: I think it is really important because while growing up free thinking is essential to develop as a person . When it comes to our current age, I still remember there were some instances where school was kind of dysphoric for me. I still remember, I think in seventh or eighth grade, they asked us to wear short pants, which was not comfortable, because it was exposing half of my legs. My music teacher deliberately kept me out of dance class, even though I was interested and had the talent at that point in time. It was decided back then that only girls should be in dance performances, and boys should go to sports. So, I was put away from dance class for at least two to three years which only changed when one of the principals who saw me perform at a different event. My principal had just joined the school and he brought me back and introduced me to the dance class. He introduced me to the cultural space. If that person was not there, I would have left dance in the school itself. A lot of schools that don't pay attention to individual children's interests and have blanket rules for student participation, go on to damage children as they grow up. There are schools where sports classes are divided between boys and girls, there are classes on menstruation, which are only being given to girls and not given to boys as well. So I think these are the things which create gender bias from schooling itself. I think that is what creates the entire, gender bias problem of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny as an individual grows. I was lucky enough to have some of the anchor teachers, who were able to pull me out from a certain space and give me the platform to be myself. I think that is what I think has worked out for me.

Question: Today, you have reached that political maturity, of course, to talk about your experiences at a certain level to help other people come into terms with how they are. But as a teenager, I'm sure you were still exploring, you were also confused and wondering whether this is the right thing to do. How did the system contribute to this entire process through bullying? How did you manage to survive it?

Answer: I think, the system contributed definitely because, at times I was a visible body, who was not doing a certain thing, which is ascribed to a gender role assigned only with a certain kind of agenda. Some of the teachers saw me as a boy, So I was supposed to go for the sports class, not the dance class. And the other aspect to this rule is, if I am allowed then other boys would be coming into the dance class, and that would not be a safe space for the girls. There was a time when I understood I had no interest in sports. I can't play football even now. I was not interested in sports so what I ended up doing was, to go on the rooftop of the school, and dance by myself.

Having said that, you know, for me, what exactly changed the perspective was that there were a couple of teachers who helped me in being who I am as a person. Like, I said, the first person was definitely my school principal, who kind of joined at the right time in my life, and he was the one who used to sneak me away from these English classes, and put me into competitions, without even asking my parents, just to ensure they don't come and stop me. During my 11th and 12th grade, where I didn't have any practice as a dancer, there was one particular chemistry teacher, who never used a chalk or a duster, or anything to kind of explain the concepts. He used to do all the explanations with bodily movements, like how the atoms would move etc., using his body, which for me was dance. You know, if one teacher helped me in being myself, the other gave me that kind of a source of what I can do, because whatever this teacher was doing with his body, I felt that I can do with my body as well, but for a different context. That is how the system contributed for me, without knowing that they were contributing to sustain my passion, But not everybody is lucky like me.

Question: We understand, as educators who worked in the field for quite a long time, that most of our schools are, like you said, transphobic, homophobic. If you don't function within these gender stereotypes, you will be treated as an outcast in many schools. So what do you think, from your experience in the school, are some of the things that should change? There is a lot of debate about what is the right age to talk about gender and sexuality. What is the right age to talk about gender? What do you think is the right age?

Answer: I think I started understanding aspects of sexuality when I was in grade three. During secondary education, I realized we just use the words about gender and sexuality very casually and even the textbooks had stereotyped gender roles. Like women should be working in the kitchen and men should be driving outside. Those things need to be changed and why can't we introduce images of trans people as part of the society? We can introduce the terms asexual and bisexual, when they are coming around fifth or sixth standard. Just the words! You don't have to explain anything. So I think those are some of the things which can be done in an organic way.

Secondly, when it comes to sex education for kids, they need to kind of explain it. And the funny thing is they take the girls, separate from boys, in a separate room, and they don't talk about the situation, or they don't talk about the actual facts. They discuss random things like what will you do when a girl writes a love letter to you? So those are some things which need to be changed. And the funny part was it was just two days of class.

I learned about my sexuality through my dance, so it was literally my dance teacher who explained the expressions etc., when somebody's touching you. Good touch, bad touch and emotions were involved. So I feel even art induced education is something which can be a brilliant way to approach the topic. I think that, you don't have to make the effort of using language, you can directly go and show them using actions, emotions etc. So, I think that is something which needs to be done in schools specifically.

Even before sensitizing the children, I think the first thing is to sensitize the teachers, because, you know, teachers are the ones who kind of affect you know, who can leave a mark on 100 students at once. Teachers can help students not become dysphoric their entire life. Some of the worst experiences I have had, which I still carry with me in my life, is because some teacher might have told me something not appropriate. I think this is something that needs to happen visibly, something that you don't have to explain, when the kid is growing up. They can watch and learn. So the important fact is, to make things visible around them, so that they can understand that they can figure it out for themselves. Inviting a drag queen to generate curiosity towards a particular image of a transgender person, will generally develop the curiosity and learning for themselves.

Question: Why do you think a visual way of normalizing expression would work better than directly teaching children about sexuality and gender?

Answer: I think expression is something which helps us in building our society and our expressions of anger, happiness and sexuality are what form our culture. Imagine if all the teachers teaching in a particular school dress the way they like, express themselves how they choose and if the school also had trans people among their staff. This is so important because, unless children are acquainted with transgenders and people whose sense of personal identity and gender don’t match their birth sex, how can they learn to respect people with different identities at all? It is essential that children see and learn from different kinds of pe