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Haircut battleground

FACT: A number of trans students fail to complete schooling because of strict implementation of uniform policies that affect their gender identity and expression. School officials claim they’re simply implementing (discriminatory) policies; while activists claim human rights violation. And while the discussions happen, the students are caught in the middle, who – in the end – really just want to finish schooling while being true to oneself.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi from Unsplash.com

In July 2018, Jenny* (not her real name), a transgender Senior High School (SHS) student from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) was allegedly told to report to the principal’s office for the first time.

Pinatawag ako nung principal, tapos she told me that ano… kapag hindi ako nagpagupit until tomorrow morning, ganon, papalabasin niya ako ng PUP (I was told to report to the principal’s office, and there, she told me to get a haircut the next day, or risk getting asked to leave PUP),” she recalled to Outrage Magazine.

Jenny got a haircut this January. This had to be done as a prerequisite when she applied for graduation. But she said that she was promised that “after that, (I) won’t have to cut my hair again when I process my papers in the future.”

Jenny said that the experience affected her psychologically; because of this, she wasn’t able to go to school for two days. And with the eventual haircut, Jenny’s gender expression was also dictated by another, affecting her sense of self.

But in an interview with Dr. Minna L. Comuyog, PUP-SHS principal, she denied that she threatened any student, and that neither her office nor PUP-SHS’s registrar’s office denied any student of transaction or that their documents will be held if they won’t cut their hair.

Comuyog said that, in fact, PUP-SHS has a “No Discrimination Policy”, which is implemented in the entire PUP system (which includes SHS).

Hindi namin ina-identify ‘yung mga estudyante namin na bading ‘to, tomboy ‘to. Basta when they come here, estudyante namin sila (We don’t separately identify students as ‘He’s gay, she’s a lesbian’. For us, when they come here, they’re all students),” she said.

Comuyog added: “As a teacher, ang aking training ay students sila (They are students). They have their unique personalit(ies) and we adjust our lessons to their needs. So kahit anong mga bata ang dumating sa amin (So no matter what kind of student they are), we accept them for who they are.”

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But notwithstanding the “No Discrimination Policy”, Comuyog believes that the haircut policy should be implemented and be observed by all students (in this case, particularly those under her care; i.e. PUP-SHS).

Comuyog claimed that she is unaware of the existence of transgender students in PUP-SHS; thus of transgender students being forced to cut their hair due to the school’s haircut policy. “It’s something na (that is) not known to me,” she said.

But Comuyog added that she looks at the students using the gender binary dictated by the assigned sex at birth – i.e. “I look at them as male, female, ganon ang classification nila (that’s how I classify them).” And so she believes that even if a student is a transgender woman, this student will still be mandated to get a haircut befitting those assigned male at birth (that is, she still won’t be allowed to have long hair, which is deemed socially acceptable only for those assigned female at birth).

On the handling of students who are transgender women (or those assigned male at birth) and with long hair, Comuyog said that she “normally asks” these students “what they needed to change or do.” As part of her training as a teacher, she lets the students think. And in this case, it is the students who often end up saying that it is their hair that they should change.

NON-DISCRIMINATION AS A POLICY

The Department of Education (DepEd) actually has pro-LGBTQIA policies, which – in December 2018 – it reiterated via a statement reminding “all public and private Kindergarten, elementary, and secondary schools of the necessity and importance of adopting and enforcing anti-bullying policies in their respective institutions.”

Various (specific) policies particularly touch on non-discrimination (including of LGBTQIA students).

DepEd Order No. 40, series 2012, or the “DepEd Child Protection Policy,” institutionalized zero tolerance against any form of violence against the child and provided for the establishment of a Child Protection Committee (CPC) in all public and private schools.

DepEd Order No. 55, series 2013 (DO 55 s. 2013), or the “Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of Republic Act No. 10627 (R.A. 10627) Otherwise Known as the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013,” requires all public and private schools to submit a copy of their child protection or anti-bullying policy to the Division Office.

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Meanwhile, Rule IV of DO 55 s. 2013 underscores that “the bullying prevention program in schools shall be comprehensive and multifaceted, and shall involve all education stakeholders and personnel. Schools shall develop intervention strategies like counseling, life skills training, education and other activities that will enhance the psychological, emotional and psychosocial well-being of victims, bullies, and other parties who may be affected by the bullying incident.”

Particularly pertaining the uniform policy (which touches on the haircut policy), DepEd released in 2008 DepEd Order No. 46, s. 2008, guidelines on “proper school attire”. It stated that “while the general policy is that the wearing of a school uniform shall not be required in public schools (as embodied in DepEd Order No. 45 s. 2008), it is necessary to provide guidance on what constitutes proper school attire.”

The following principles are offered as a guide:

  1. A student’s basic right to go to school, study and learn is of paramount importance and should be respected and promoted at all times.
  2. A student’s attire should reflect respect for the school as an institution for learning.
  3. A student’s attire should not become a cause for discrimination particularly for students belonging to a lower socio-economic status.
  4. Promoting physical hygiene and proper school decorum is part of the teaching- learning process in schools, thus a student’s attire and physical appearance should manifest learnings from this process.

Nowhere in the DepEd Order No. 46, s. 2008 was “proper” haircut discussed.

According to PUP Kasarianlan’s Watson Vergara, the haircut policy implemented in schools is a form of oppression. “Not only the right of the student to express oneself was trampled, but the student’s right to education was put on line.”
Photo by Cassidy Kelley from Unsplash.com

Having policies and actually implementing them are – however, and also – two different things.

In 2015, for instance, a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report observed that only 38% of schools submitted child protection or anti-bullying policies in 2013, and the “low rate of submission has been attributed to a low level of awareness of requirements of the Act and weak monitoring of compliance.”

Releasing a report in 2017, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) also touched on the uniform policies (including forcing particularly transgender women to get haircuts) and stated that “students who are transgender or do not identify as their sex assigned at birth face especially pervasive discrimination as a result of uniform and hair-length policies and other gendered restrictions.” This is made more apparent because “right to free expression of students is violated when schools limit displays of same-sex affection or gender expression solely for LGBTQIA youth” – meaning, the policies are used differently for them to make them tow some lines.

Also, according to Watson Vergara, who heads PUP Kasarianlan, the official student organization for people with diverse SOGIE in PUP, even anti-discriminatory policies (such as DepEd’s) fail to take into consideration the power dynamics within educational institutions.

Vergara said that they know of students who asked for help from PUP Kasarianlan, claiming that they feel threatened that if they won’t cut their hair, then their names will be taken out of the list of graduating students. Non-compliance may also be seen as insubordination, which means that these students won’t be given a good moral certificate (which is needed when enrolling in college/university), or will even be kicked out of PUP.

PUP Kasarianlan also documented other cases like Jenny’s – e.g. in one case, a student claimed that she was kept in an office, prohibited to go out unless she signs a statement stipulating her to cut her hair.

Syempre (Of course), the kid, crying, shaking and afraid, signed the paper. Kasi wala siyang (Because she did not have a) choice, she wants to go out,” Vergara said.

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Vergara is aware that there are people who may see this as a non-issue – i.e. it’s “just hair.”

But PUP Kasarianlan also received stories of transgender students who refused to have their graduation photos taken, and of one transgender student who “can’t do homework or even eat properly because of this (traumatizing experience).”

For Vergara, this is a form of oppression. “Not only the right of the student to express oneself was trampled, but the student’s right to education was put on line.”

For Kate Montecarlo Cordova, if uniform is really needed, then schools should implement gender neutral school uniforms (e.g. gender neutral or unisex design and cut of school uniforms, and no prescribed length of hair for those assigned male at birth). Or, simply, “let the students wear uniforms based on their sense of being,”
Photo by Chen Feng from Unsplash.com

DETRACTING FROM SENSE OF SELF

According to Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founder of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines (ATP), “One of the identified positive benefits of school uniform is to promote a “sense of community” (which actually refers to classification or clustering). But this can be detrimental to transgender students if not properly managed/implemented for this can deprive their self-expression, their sense of identity, their authenticity.”

Cordova added that “the imposition of school uniform with strict observance to the heteronormative gender binary can be an utter threat to transgender students while serving a meaningless purpose to learning.”

There are somewhat practical efforts that can be done.

For one, Cordova suggested that if uniform is really needed, then schools should implement gender neutral school uniforms (e.g. gender neutral or unisex design and cut of school uniforms, and no prescribed length of hair for those assigned male at birth). Or, simply, “let the students wear uniforms based on their sense of being,” Cordova said.

Secondly, Cordova said that it is important for any educational institution to “undergo extensive trainings, workshops and lectures not just about gender sensitivity but also, specifically, about transgender issues to understand the complexities of transgender human rights and health needs.”

And thirdly, Cordova suggests for transgender students to “rightfully assert and claim their rights to exist and learn by standing up to what is just and righteous to their authentic self by: 1. Being knowledgeable of their rights, 2. Being vocal about their identity, and 3. Being brave to socially present their sense of self.”

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STARTING THE DISCUSSIONS

Back in PUP-SHS, the school principal Comuyog thinks that high school students are “confused” because they can see some transgender college students grow their hair, and they may also want to do the same. While she acknowledges how some of the SHS students want to “emulate” the college students, she also said that this isn’t necessarily possible because of “certain policies”.

Particularly, Comuyog noted PUP-SHS’s Code of Conduct that highlights (in Section 3) that “every student shall dress up according to the conventions of decency and proper grooming… dyan nakapaloob ang haircut for male and hairstyle for female.”

Section 3 of the Code of Conduct specifically states: “Every PUP student shall dress up according to the conventions of decency and proper grooming.

Also, to wit:

3.1 – Every PUP Senior High student is expected to demonstrate personal grooming standards of cleanliness and to wear the prescribed uniform while inside the school premises, during educational exposures or work immersion, and during official off-campus events.

3.2 – Students must observe the following provisions when wearing the prescribed school uniform:

3.2.1 – Uniforms should be kept buttoned and properly worn;
3.2.2 – School ID must be worn at all times within the school premises;
3.2.3 – The hairstyle for female should be simple and well kept, while the acceptable haircut for male must be off the eyebrows and above the collar line (EMPHASIS OURS);
3.2.4 – Moustache and side beards are not allowed;
3.2.5 – Hair color may be allowed provided that it is not vulgar.

The Code of Conduct does not discuss SOGIE (and implications to the uniform policy), but enforce these requirements based on assigned sex at birth.

Comuyog quipped that it is only now that the said (haircut) policy is becoming an issue. And here, she also holds accountable some educators.

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Yun namang teacher nila, napapabayaan sila kaya if there is a person na mas liable, itong mga teacher kasi ina-allow nila. Kasi may teacher din tayong mahaba ang buhok, may teacher tayong nakatali ang buhok. ‘Yun ang nakikita nitong mga bata (There are teachers who just let their students be, so if there’s someone liable, it’s the teacher who allows this. This may also be because some teachers assigned male at birth grow their hair long. And this is what these students see),” Comuyog said.

But – again – since there aren’t any students who talked to her and said that she is a transgender person, Comuyog said that she remains “unaware of this.” And that “just in case that she will be aware” of this, then she will have to consider the individual student’s situation.

For Professor Earl Guzman, SHS and college professor, and an open member of the LGBTQIA community, forcing the students to cut their hair, especially if they identify as gay or transgender, is abuse. “Kasi itong mga taong ‘to, itong mga kabataang ito, yung buhok nila (These kids’ hair) and how they present themselves are part of their gender identity,” he said.

Guzman added that teaching the students how to be gender sensitive yet confining them in the same heteronormative stereotypes, same heteronormative ways of expressing themselves, “kind of defeats its purpose.”

Tayo as PUPians (Products of PUP), we’re so proud of being at the frontier of fighting for sexual equality. Eh eto nga, ginigipit natin ngayon (And now we’re pressuring these students to conform). It all makes us look like hypocrites,” Guzman said.

For Guzman, the principal should listen to the students as well because what is happening most of the time is that teachers become just enforcers of rules or policies, and teachers owe it to the students to listen to them.

Anong klaseng lesson kasi ‘yung tinuturo natin sa students kapag ganon (What kind of lesson are we teaching the students), when we refuse to hear them out? Are we telling them that we know better than them? May mga pagkakataon na (There are times when) we know better than them pero kasi (but also) we’re not the ones living their lives right now, it’s them,” he said. “Maybe we should take their experiences into account; maybe we should listen to what they have to say. Kasi hindi puwedeng ano (Because the case shouldn’t be)… in our desire to enforce obedience, ang nangyayari ay (what happens is we create) blind obedience.”

For his part, PUP Kasarianlan head Vergara said that this kind of discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA community also happens in other schools – i.e. this goes beyond PUP-SHS.

In “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippines Country Report” – written by Michael David C. Tan for USAID and UNDP – it was reported that forcing transgender women to get haircuts before allowing them to access education is one of the common anti-LGBTQIA policies still common in the Philippines, along with: the conduct of “masculinity tests” (where effeminate students had to “prove” they were “man enough” to be allowed to enroll, or stay in school) conducted by some schools, and instances when LGBTQIA students were made to sign “contracts” to ensure they did not express their sexual orientation or gender identity while going to school.

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But Watson also acknowledges that – sadly – they can only do what little help they can.

In 2017, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that “students who are transgender or do not identify as their sex assigned at birth face experience especially pervasive discrimination as a result of uniform and hair-length policies and other gendered restrictions.”
Photo by Ryan Tauss from Unsplash.com

In the end, Guzman hopes that this will be settled, with all parties involved discussing this. “Let’s be civilized. Let’s add something positive to the discourse. ‘Wag nating gawing (Let’s not turn the issue into an) excuse para siraan ‘yung mga bagay, tao, o policy na hindi naman natin dapat siraan (to destroy people or policies that need not be destroyed). And then, let’s come to an agreement. I think we should all try to understand where everyone is coming from,” Guzman said.

And while the discussions happen, the likes of Jenny are caught in the middle, who – in the end – really just want to finish schooling while being true to oneself.

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