Viet Nam transman: ‘Even using the toilet at school was a nightmare’
‘Gender is Not Uniform’ was a youth-led awareness-raising campaign advocating for flexible uniform policies. Learn more @mybodymyrightsVN
“Being a transgender student, I was forced to change my uniform, hairstyle and gestures at school, even though they were part of my identity,” says Chu Thanh Ha, a 26-year-old transman in Viet Nam. “By not respecting my choice and gender expression, they made me feel totally left behind and ashamed.”
Ha, now a National Research Assistant working for the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, shared his school experiences with UNESCO recently, bringing to life some of the key findings of two recent reports the organization has plans to publish regarding violence and discrimination in schools on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE).
Findings from the soon-to-be released “Reaching Out: Preventing and Addressing School-related Gender-based Violence in Viet Nam” and “Reaching Out: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE)-related School Violence in Viet Nam” were presented at the recent Policy Dialogue on Ensuring Safe and Inclusive Education Environments in Viet Nam.
The event was organized by UNESCO on 28 July in Ha Noi in coordination with the Department of Teachers and Educational Administrators of the Ministry of Education and Training, ICS Center and UNDP.
The dialogue aimed to promote coordinated and evidence-based actions among a wide range of government, civil society and development partners.
Participants of the Policy Dialogue supported by UNESCO, UNDP’s Being LGBTI in Asia initiative, ICS, Ministry of Education and Training, and the Embassy of the Netherlands
The findings shared during the dialogue spoke to the challenges that students such as Ha continue to face in schools that have yet to promote safe and inclusive spaces for all learners.
Toilets and changing rooms are considered the most unsafe places in schools for many transgender students, and Ha’s experience was no exception.
“Using the toilet at school was a nightmare for me, a place where I suffered rejection, mockery and verbal insults,” he recalls. “When I entered a stall, I was teased by a cis-male* student, who said, ‘Why did you go in there? Do you have something you need to hide?’”
Using the women’s toilet did not help. “Female students started shouting and laughing at me, staring at me like a pervert trying to invade their toilets,” Ha said.
“Finally, I decided to use the toilets at times when there are fewer students or simply stop using it.’”
UNESCO’s reports and the policy dialogue suggested that schools provide at least some unisex toilet options on campus to prevent situations like this, which, along with a heavy emotional toll, could result in health complications.
Ha’s daily school challenges began before he even left home.
“Every Monday, I was afraid of going to school and having to wear a female uniform in front of everyone, a feeling that stayed with me throughout my school years,” he said. “I am sure that I would have been more comfortable and participated more in class if they had allowed me to wear a male uniform.”
This is a common concern among Viet Nam’s young transgender community, with UNESCO recommending that schools adopt more flexible regulations regarding uniforms.
Ha echoes a sentiment found in the UNESCO research that LGBTI youth have dedicated support services and that schools take the initiative to establish LGBTI friendly and privacy-focused social affairs units, psychological or student counselling services operated by professionally trained staff. He also suggests that schools work with students to create opportunities where open, non-judgmental dialogue can take place.
Ha says it is essential for the affected students themselves to have a voice in the process when schools are being transformed into more inclusive, safe and friendly spaces for LGBTI youth,
“Meetings could be held or surveys conducted to collect opinions and questions from students on how to integrate gender and sexual diversity into curricular and extracurricular activities, including clearly addressing LGBTI issues,” he said.
Clear guidelines on reporting bullying or other discriminatory acts that protect the identity and ensure the protection of the bullied student would be key in this regard.
“Teachers and all school staff need to be trained on LGBTI and SOGIE-related issues to avoid stigmatizing and stereotyping LGBTI students,” he said. “Leaders in national education and schools need to conduct professional trainings on these issues and incorporate gender equality and gender and sexual diversity into teacher training curricula.”
By doing so, Ha says that teachers will be better able to understand these issues and will have the skills needed to address them – helping to ensure that future generations of LGBTI learners do not face the same torment he did.
* Cis-male: A term used to describe people whose gender identity and/or gender expression is aligned with the assigned sex at birth. May also be called cissexual.
Main photo credit: Huynh Tri Vien and Tammy Cao
Bottom photo credit: Chu Thanh Ha