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Reflecting on LGBTIQ+ Awareness & Schools in Colombo

7 December 2018 Posted by No Comment

Friday, 07th December 2018

By Iman Saleem 

In early October, Saakya Rajawasan, a Grade 13 student at Colombo International School, was banned from the school’s annual fashion show for attempting to wear a rainbow flag on stage. She was later sent a letter home citing ‘unacceptable and irresponsible behaviour’ for draping the cape around her bag, offstage. Her bag was confiscated; she was banned from extra-curricular activities (including community service) and threatened with suspension. CIS’s treatment of Saakya was widely denounced by Sri Lankan activists, who called the school’s response ‘inhumane’, ‘derogatory’ and ‘a violation of fundamental rights of a student’ (Thiagaraja Warathas to The Colombo Telegraph). The school’s initial reasoning, according to Saakya’s statement to Bakamoono, was that they ‘couldn’t endorse a political statement’ because ‘people might get offended’. But what’s so offensive about inclusivity? And why are schools and other educational institutes in Sri Lanka trusted to cultivate minds that will lead our futures while their fundamental values remain stubbornly attached to policies of gender, sexuality and identity that are thoroughly archaic?

Commenters on social media seem to have the answers to these questions. Among them, ‘rules must be obeyed’, ‘there is a time and place for these things, and this is not it’, ‘no other school would allow this’ – you get the gist. That last one, at least, is partly true. Awareness and tolerance of LGBTQ+ issues in Sri Lankan schools is minimal. Regardless of how academically progressive they have proven to be, barely any of Colombo’s international schools will accommodate or tolerate any behaviour or public display that defies cis-heteronormative gender standards. Having asked students from the British School in Colombo, Elizabeth Moir School, Stafford International School, the Overseas School of Colombo and CIS, the general consensus is that these schools very rarely prioritise SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Expression/Identity & Sex Characteristics) education or awareness, leading to an environment that is hostile and unwelcoming to students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. It’s time for school administrations to disregard how things are and to recognise how they should be, and why.

Sri Lankan schools are not known for their progressive ideals. Only two years ago, the St. Joseph’s school board made international headlines for putting up posters dictating what women could and could not wear when entering school premises. St. Peter’s later confirmed that it had a similar notice outside its gates. The reasoning behind the notice was, of course, to prevent young boys and men – impressionable as they are – from falling victim to the hormonal rollercoaster that seeing a bare shoulder may trigger. Or, as a former student of a boy’s school said to the BBC, ‘you shouldn’t underestimate the power of repressed, raging hormones’. That underestimation seems unlikely in a country where 33% of men admitted to committing at least one instance of sexual or physical violence towards their partners, having been fed the very same rhetoric: that they will not be held responsible for their actions.

Earlier in 2016, a child in Kulapitiya was denied admission into school because his mother was HIV-positive and his father had died from the disease, despite it being medically confirmed that the child was not HIV-positive. That Sri Lankan educators allowed social stigma and pure speculation to overpower a child’s constitutional right to education is disgraceful, but not shocking. Not after Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam bizarrely and ignorantly claimed that the child could be HIV-positive because he slept under the protection of his mother, and called for the two to be separated.

Clearly our educational institutes are nowhere near as tolerant and open-minded as they need to be in order to truly help and nurture all students, without discrimination. Events in recent months have taught us to be hopeful, however. A dialogue has been opened up with regards to LGBTQ+ rights in Sri Lanka, bolstered by the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark – and long overdue – move to decriminalise homosexuality. Sri Lankans are now calling for authorities to repeal sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, frequently used to violate the fundamental rights of citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation. We can only hope that the education sector commits to reflecting this move towards equality and awareness so that schools can become safer, more inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

A UNESCO report from 2015 reveals that majority of LGBT students in the Asia-Pacific region have experienced some form of bullying or violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The same report cites anxiety, depression and substance abuse as a result of this discrimination. While there is a lack of data specific to Sri Lanka, data from other Asian countries show the drastic impact such a hostile school environment can have – in Thailand, 7% of sexuality or gender-diverse students reported attempting suicide, while in Indonesia this number rose to 17%. There are also educational impacts of this bullying – young people bullied as a result of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity had lower grade point averages and more frequent unauthorised absences than those who weren’t

Schools have a responsibility, therefore, to create a safe and open environment for all of its students. As spaces of learning, they have the potential to raise awareness and educate youth to interact in a more positive, progressive manner. Very few of Colombo’s international schools are taking these steps, however. In a survey, most students said that their schools have not made an attempt to educate or raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, although those from Elizabeth Moir School said they had had assemblies and speeches addressing the topic. School attitudes towards the subject  – as perceived by students – seem to be varied. Few said their schools were ‘close-minded’, and saw the subject as ‘taboo’, and fewer still said their schools had a positive attitude. The general consensus was that schools are ‘neutral’, or as one student said, ‘I don’t think they have anything against the community, but they’re not very supportive of them either’.

While neutrality is better than outright hostility, it is still an irresponsible position for a school to take when a child’s wellbeing is at risk. Many students did not believe that a student would feel comfortable coming out to their school community, citing fear of bullying and gossip, and describing the environment as ‘unsafe’ and ‘judgemental’. A few participants did, however, describe their school environment as ‘supportive’ and ‘friendly’, primarily those from Elizabeth Moir School. A large number of students described the behaviour of fellow students as being detrimental, in particular the common use of ‘gay’ as an insult, along with other homophobic slurs.

The role of a school is to educate all young people, without discrimination. Any form of hostility, bias or bullying has proven negative effects on a student’s capacity to absorb knowledge and participate actively in the classroom. When asked how international schools in Colombo could better address the needs of LGBTQ+ youths, almost all survey participants encouraged schools to ‘start talking about [these issues]’ and being ‘more open’. Among the suggestions students made were open conversation between students, teachers and parents, taking instances of homophobic bullying more seriously, offering counseling, awareness campaigns and more inclusive forms of sex education.

Young people are highly impressionable and sensitive to the messages their society and surroundings send them, both overt and subliminal. The St. Joseph’s incident taught them that how a woman dresses determines how she should be treated, and that men will not be held responsible for their actions – that ‘boys will be boys’. The Kulapitiya issue indicated that their first instict should be to humiliate and marginalise, rather than to listen and empathise. CIS insisting that Saakya choose between prefectship and wearing the uniform she felt most comfortable in told her and her peers that they are valued not on the basis of academic achievements and integrity of character, but on whether their outward appearance obeys regressive social standards.

While a number of people will attempt to defend the above schools on the basis that ‘rules are rules’, it’s important to question the purpose of rules. Rules are about setting boundaries and facing the consequences of one’s actions. Rules exist to create and maintain a secure and stable environment for all. What are St. Joseph’s teaching young men about boundaries? What is CIS telling Saakya about her right to feel comfortable with herself and her surroundings? Neutrality, or avoiding ‘controversial’ topics is not going to cut it anymore, and the sooner Sri Lankan educators decide which side of history they’d like to be on, the better.

In order to learn and to thrive, a child has to feel more than merely ‘tolerated’ – they have to feel that their identities are accepted, celebrated and worth fighting for. This is the view with which Saakya’s father, Dinesh Rajawasan, raised her, but for students whose parents aren’t as supportive, the backing of their peers and teachers can be life changing. As for schools that fear backlash from culturally conservative parents towards LGBTQ+-friendly measures, perhaps a quick reminder is due that their responsibility is first and foremost to do what is best for their students, whose response to the education they are provided with will determine all our futures.

Saakya, in her statement to Bakamoono, referenced a Huffington Post article that stated that there is an increased productivity of 25% when closeted people feel comfortable enough to come out. Research conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network shows that LGBTQ+ students feel safer and experience a more positive school environment when they are taught positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, history and events. Lessons and other resources for teachers are freely accessible online – one such example is Teaching Tolerance (www.teachingtolerance.org), which provides free resources to educators, administrators and counselors to help create more inclusive and tolerant school communities. Any statistic will show nothing but positive outcomes from attempt to make schools and educational curricula more inclusive – students feel better, do better and contribute more. We all win.

And if you’re still not fully convinced, take the actions of our own President Sirisena as proof of how necessary the de-stigmatisation of LGBTQ communities and issues is. Just last week, he referred to Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and his supporters in the Cabinet as ‘samanalayo’ or ‘butterflies’ – a derogatory Sinhala term used towards LGBTQ+ individuals. That the leader of our country feels comfortable publicly vocalizing his own ignorance is a sure sign that we as a country are doing something very wrong. Discrimination is taught, and the only way to prevent its consolidation is through conscious and consistent efforts to teach tolerance and empathy in its place.

The Human Rights Campaign website states that 92% of LGBT youth say that they hear negative messages about being LGBT, with the top sources being school, their peers and the Internet. Educators in Colombo have the power to alter the rhetoric coming from two of those sources for LGBT youth in Sri Lanka, and they need to start doing better.

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