On 29th May, 2019, the WHO finally declared that being a transgender is no longer a mental illness. And while it comes as welcome news, it’s appalling to know that for so long, the moribund practice of classifying one’s gender identity or sexual identity could classify as a mental illness.
Look at the paradox. Quintessential Indian parents brandish their child’s continuous spells of sadness and inability to even get out of the bed, as mere laziness; but think of a different sexual orientation as an illness.
In a country where seeking psychological support is just slowly creeping out of the towering mountain of stigma, being mentally ill and belonging to the LGBTQ community, just exacerbates the situation. For one, they don’t have the kind of social support that heterosexuals in this country have. Second, despite being against the ethics of the profession of mental health support, a lot of practitioners tend to judge. In the case of transgenders, there is a searingly high rate of unemployment and are therefore, more likely to be susceptible to mental illnesses. And most importantly, there’s a sense of guilt because of the fear of non-conformity of what the society thinks is normal. Ironically, the American Psychiatric Association claims that members of the LGBTQ community are twice as susceptible as heterosexual people to falling mentally ill.
A young girl who is currently seeking mental health support, and also identifies herself as a queer confesses, that she hasn’t told her therapist about her sexuality yet. When asked why, she says that she fears that the therapist will disclose it to her parents.
Another young woman (name withheld to protect her identity), a medical student says that she felt okay discussing her sexuality with her peers while she was still in Bombay. But after moving to a smaller town to pursue her course; her openness proved to be detrimental. Her peers began to accuse her and her best friend of being sexual predators. And while the woman was willing to still ignore it, it got worse when she started having panic attacks, because she’d live under the constant dread of her teachers coming to know of this, or even worse, her parents coming to know of it.
She tried discussing it with a therapist, but could not maintain complete honesty because the fear of a breach of confidentiality haunted her.
Dr. Ankit Patel, a psychiatrist based in Pune, believes that at the heart of this problem lies the lack of acceptance. Most families think of homosexuality as a mental illness, what they don’t realise, is that it’s a choice. Just the way one might like mangoes over apples, or apples over peaches, it’s a matter of one’s own personal taste and liking.
But families seldom get it. One of his clients, was asked by his/her family to ‘go do suicide’. When one faces this level of repudiation from their own family, it pushes them into depression and anxiety quite often.
Sometimes, in the name of therapy, people are administered ‘gay conversion therapy’ which Dr. Patel believes never works and quite often worsens the case. While none of this is permitted by the law, there are places where this happens fraudulently. Non-heterosexuals are subjected to Electro Convulsive Therapy (Shock treatment), antipsychotic drugs, ovariectomy, clitoridectomy, vasectomy and physical castration.
When medical help yields no results, families also resort to godmen and magic to seek a ‘cure’. Even worse, exorcisms are also carried out.
However, proper psychological counseling (the one that is driven towards acceptance and restoring normalcy), sometimes coupled with medication can help.
When asked how others can help them, he reiterates that acceptance is at the crux of it. When family, friends, colleagues, mentors and others start recognizing them as normal, instead of an aberration, and when they are made to feel safe and no less incompetent than they already are, that is when they will feel more comfortable under their skin.
A common belief that floats around is that people belonging to this group are somehow ‘unnatural’. It is interesting to note that this is a phenomenon that has existed since the ancient times, among not just humans, but animals too: Laysan albatross, Japanese Macaques and some variants of beetles as well. For the record, anal sex too, can be classified as ‘unnatural’, but that doesn’t deter most heterosexuals from indulging it in.
What’s peculiar is that it isn’t unnatural when Gods or mythical heroes do it. Agni (from the Hindu mythology) is known to have had same-sex relationships, Ardhanarisvara (Shiva & Parvati together) would classify as a ‘transgender’ in modern terms; but these ‘deities’ are worshipped, and when normal people around us turn out to be like them, we simply ostracize them.
As Taiwan becomes the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriages, one can’t help but wonder, does this mean the battle for the LGBTQ community ends there? Does it mean that it’s all rainbows and smiles for them? Ironically, a young Indian man who lives in the US and is gay, says that while homosexual marriages are legal in his state, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is societal acceptance. His parents haven’t spoken to him in years and once in a while, he does come across people around him, who sneer and mock him over his sexuality.
While legal reform is certainly very imperative in winning the battle against homophobia, it is only when the society in its entirety accepts them as one of their own, can they feel more at ease.
Behind most colorfully painted, multicolor faces walking through the pride parade every year, lies a dark story of rejection, discrimination, angst and unnecessary guilt, but one can hope, that after the storm, the rainbow should continue to shine.
Milana Prakash is an Editorial Assistant at One Future Collective.
Featured image source: Fiveprime
Indigenous Climate Activist in India / South Asia | Earth Day 2022
Feminist Justice and Trauma-Informed Support in Institutions
Human Rights and the Role of Civil Society