I was recently interviewed by a college student for her class project on queer mental health. Her first question to me was “What was the thinking behind calling your counselling center a queer friendly space?” During a LGBTQIA+ ally training workshop that I conducted in the past, a participant asked me a similar question, “Why would you want to have queer symbols like the LGBTQ flag in your counselling clinic?”
I am slightly taken aback by these questions, and my immediate defensive reaction is “Why not?” I also understand that when we have archaic laws like Sec 377 in India, these questions will arise.
Queer individuals have been disenfranchised by the mental health fraternity itself, primarily because homosexuality and Gender Identity Disorder were deemed as abnormal behaviours in the past by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Transexualism is still considered a mental health condition according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, although it is going to be revised in its 11th edition.
But outlook on mental health needs of queer individuals has been changing recently. For example, today it is understood that the counselling support that transgender individuals need is not just because they are transgender, but because of societal rejection of their difference.
In a heterosexist culture, queer individuals internalize negative cultural biases and perceive themselves negatively. This impairs their self-esteem and also interferes with healthy development of sexual identity. Research conducted abroad has shown that, LGBTQ individuals are at a higher risk for substance use, self-harm and suicide due to negative stereotypes, prejudices, and blatant discrimination. To face implicit or explicit negative prejudices on a daily basis impacts the psychological and physical health of any individual.
Therefore, it is important for college counsellors and faculty to take a more proactive approach to support LGBTQIA+ college students.
I have worked as a college counsellor in the U.S. for a few years and have been part of various diversity programs. I would like to share a few examples of such programs that colleges abroad organize regularly, hoping that the administration in school and college campuses in India can take inspiration from them:
According to Intergroup Contact Theory, one can reduce intergroup conflict by increasing contact between different group members that are in conflict. Increasing contact helps in increasing empathy, realizing similarities that exist, and helps in reducing prejudices. Therefore, increasing contact between students who identify as queer with students that do not, can be one way of reducing stereotypes and prejudices. Colleges can offer a safe space for structured interactive activities such as book clubs on queer literature or watching queer films followed by discussions moderated by counsellors/faculty.
To create supportive and inclusive college community requires sensitivity training workshops for students to learn how to reach out to people on the margins of our society. Ally training workshops entail educating students on terminology, using appropriate pronouns and language, historical and legal issues, negative impact of bullying, coming out process, and understanding societal/legal privilege and oppression.
Hosting a LGBTQIA+ panel of speakers, activists, writers, student leaders and celebrities to engage with college students in a discussion about their lived experiences and challenges that queer individuals face in our society is also a good idea. It provides an avenue for queer individuals to look at positive role models to relate with and be inspired by. Aamir Khan’s TV show, Satyamev Jayate, once featured an episode on LGBTQ Indians which provided an inspirational message nationally.
Exploring one’s sexuality is a normative process for most college students. This is the right age to educate and inform youngsters about safe sex practices, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and the importance of consent in intimate relationships. queer individuals are especially vulnerable to STDs, if they don’t get access to proper sex-ed. programs.
Now, sex ed. programs that are affirming and supportive of different sexual orientations are rare in India because the understanding of human sexuality in our culture is narrow, often thought of only as coital sex. Similarly, sexual orientation and terms like ‘homosexual’ are viewed quite narrowly as well. Sexuality is broader than that and includes a combination of sexual behaviour, attraction, fantasies, emotional preference and a lifestyle (Klein, 1980). Hence, comprehensive and inclusive sex-ed programs are needed for college students.
Indians pride themselves, as a diverse country that respects differences, and has recently taken a huge step forward on legally recognizing the third gender. However, the social and cultural inclusion of gender variant individuals in our society, schools, colleges, and workplaces is still fraught with challenges. There are cultural constraints, lack of funding for such programs, and a lack of teacher and counsellor training on facilitating diversity discussions. Above all, the process of forming a clear sense of sexual orientation is marred by homophobic attitudes and legal implications in India.
Colleges, as institutions of higher learning, must provide sensitivity trainings, to inform students about how gender and sexuality are rigid societal constructions that negatively impact individuals living on the margins of our society.
Currently, student-run organizations at various colleges are doing a great job at spreading awareness on rights of queer people. However, such initiatives are rarely helped along by contributions from faculty, staff, and counsellors. Our colleges can do a better job of offering support to queer students by organizing such diversity awareness programs.