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My Experience Of Being A Queer Therapist In A Society Full Of Stigma

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“If Homosexuality is a disease, let’s all call in queer to work: ‘Hello. Can’t work today, still queer.’” — Robin Tyler, American Activist.

When you come from a cisgender cissexual heteronormative background, queerness is treated as a disease or mental illness. As someone who is both queer and a mental health professional, I regularly engage with two of the biggest taboos in India. Being queer has its own issues, such as not being accepted in the mainstream society and being considered an outcast. On the other hand, for many Indians, mental health professionals are as good or bad as babas who tell you that there is “some evil spirit in you or influencing you that this why one is acting this way”, or “giving a certain commodity to a certain person or place will alleviate your issues in life”. But there are so many important ways in which queerness and mental health intersect, and we need to talk about it.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 27: A boy dances as he and others participate during the 4th Delhi Queer Pride 2011 March on November 27, 2011 in New Delhi, India. India's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community celebrated the 4th Delhi Queer Pride March with a parade through the streets of Delhi. People gathered to protest violence, harassment and discrimination faced by the LGBT community in India

What Do Mental Health Professionals Think About Queer People?

Ever since the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality as a disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), mental health professionals across the world have become more queer friendly. In India, the story is a bit different.

Majorly due to social influences, it has been seen that most mental health professionals are not queer-friendly. Psychiatrists usually have been quite biased towards queer people. An article published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry states: “There have been anecdotal revelations by patients of being given treatment and therapies for getting ‘rid’ of their homosexuality or any alternate sexuality for that matter.” The fact is that the major viewpoint of most mental health professionals is cisgender cissexual heteronormative. Dealing with queer people with such a biased has proven to be unfruitful. Personally I have come across only one queer friendly clinic in Delhi – the Karma Centre for Counselling and Wellbeing in Vasant Vihar.

What Do Mental Health Professionals Know About ‘Alternative Sexualities Or Genders’?

Mental health professionals aren’t taught about sexuality or gender in detail but are taught to be more open minded and sensitive towards people. In my professional opinion, sensitivity workshops and importance of reading about different sexualities and gender identities is a must. A country which has about 2.5 million queer people (and counting), most mental health professionals do not have the required skill set to deal with mental health issues faced by this section of the population. As for psychometric testing, there are barely any tests which have been standardized according to Indian norms. Despite this shortcoming, these tests play an important role in deciding if a trans person can go for surgery or not. In my own experience, I have come across a trans couple who wanted to go through surgery together but couldn’t. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II was used on both the partners, but while one partner was psychologically determined as trans, the other was not. Because of this, only one of them was able to take the necessary steps to fight their gender dysphoria

How Does Being Queer Affect My Approach To Work?

Due to ostracism, queer people go through various mental health issues and are very vulnerable. Being queer gives me the opportunity to understand this reality in a totally different perspective than most therapists. In three years of clinical experience, I have come across many therapists who, instead of creating a safe space, re-create another stereotypical heteronormative space where one is made to feel like they are “disturbed” and “not normal”. This, in fact, pushes people to hide themselves from everyone and that adds to their stress. As humans we all want to be accepted by our families and our peers, or at least understood by mental health professionals, and when one doesn’t get that support, its lays the foundation for mental illnesses to get worse.

We Need More ‘Out’ Queer Mental Health Professionals?

I know of a fellow therapist who was seeing a client with a gay son. The son had come out to his father while he was pursuing his studies in the US. The client tricked his son in coming back to India so that the client could put him in conversion therapy. This is not an isolated incident.

Ever since I came into this field, I came to the realisation that most places were not accepting of queer people, and didn’t have enough knowledge about the LGBTQAI+ community. That’s why having queer therapists will do wonders for the field. We all live in a heteronormative society which has a certain perception of the world, which is again decided by the patriarchal socialization we undergo throughout our lives. Queer folks make the society question what is thought to be “normal” and help us deconstruct many issues we face in a misogynistic cissexual cisgender world.

Queer mental health professionals will ensure a certain level of sensitivity which might not be present with cisgender cissexual mental health professionals. Most importantly it will sensitise the majority of the heterosexual people by showing that the sexuality or gender we identify with (or don’t) is not because of mental health issues but because we are born this way. We have not ‘chosen’ this ‘lifestyle’. The more queer representation there is in different fields, the more people will normalize our presence in the mainstream society.

There are therapists who are not biased, not judgmental and will definitely not tell you that your issues are arising due to the fact that you are queer. We are here to create a safe space for everyone to talk about their issues. We’re here to do away with taboos related to queerness and mental health.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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