How Being A Queer Feminist Shaped My Approach To Mental Health

Heteronormativity. It’s the dominant social norm that constructs gender as a male-female binary, and mandates that sexual relations can happen only between these two genders, within the institution of a monogamous marriage, to fulfil the a purpose of procreation. In the imagination of the ordinary Indian, the possibility of a sexuality that is not heterosexual does not even exist. And it was the same for me.

I grew up believing, like most people, that I would find a man and ‘settle down’, have kids and live the normative script. Except that my desires led me down a different path. I was 22 when I fell in love with a girl in my college. It felt so right and yet it felt so wrong that I set off on a quest to find myself. I stumbled upon two feminist groups in Mumbai – Forum Against Oppression of Women and LABIA – a queer-feminist LBT collective (then known as Stree Sangam). Through them I was introduced to progressive spaces and the queer community. Like me, I found that people are living lives that step outside the normative, but these lives and struggles are usually kept secret or hidden. The shame and silence accompanying our desire makes sure that normative sexuality remains unquestioned. Given this context, I felt that it was critical to work towards a world where all sexualities and genders are equally expressed, recognized and accepted. As a mental health practitioner, I am well positioned to do this kind of work.

For representation only

Over the years, I have worked with many clients across a spectrum of sexualities and genders. Our identities and desires are far too varied and complex to be boxed into such a narrow reality. We may be conditioned to aspire to an ideal of lifelong heterosexual marriage, monogamy and reproduction, but people’s lives are testimony to the fact that such an ideal is a carefully constructed myth. Norms are being broken daily and to my mind this is a cause for celebration! However, under the garb of morality, society often punishes people who deviate from the norm. They experience distress, isolation and shame and this is what comes up in therapy. The effects of marginalisation are often deleterious.

As a queer-feminist mental health practitioner, my way to understand realities is to examine the power relations that exist in our social locations, identities and structures. It means that being assigned gender female at birth as well as being queer, places me at some margins from which to challenge these power hierarchies. It further means that I critique my own positions of privilege. My therapeutic practice takes an affirmative stance on sexuality and sexual rights. It takes into account the oppressive nature of heteronormativity and the implications on us, also conceptualised as minority stress (Meyers 1995, 2003). A queer-feminist perspective joins the dots between our right to desire and the growing right wing agenda to consolidate power by instilling in us fear of the ‘other’. Conservative controls are put on our bodies and our feelings and these constrict the multiplicity and diversity of our sexualities and genders from being expressed. These controls on sexualities and genders continue to perpetuate and uphold hierarchical social structures of caste, class and more. A 2012 report by CREA sums it up, “In India, the control of women’s sexuality, mobility, and labour can often be traced to the historical emphasis on purity and lineage, which restricts the distribution of wealth and property across class, caste, religion, and ethnicity. Inter-caste marriages are considered transgressive, and the response to them may go as far as honour killings. Marriages between able-bodied individuals and people with disability face opposition. Lesbian relationships undercut the idea of procreation and perpetuation of the family.” An affirmative practice takes all this into account while working with clients. It helps them navigate through feelings of internalised stigma and reach a space where they can negotiate a life based on their own terms.

There is an urgent need for mental health practitioners in India to incorporate these perspectives. Some of these find mention in ‘Gay-Affirmative Counselling Practice- Resource and Training Manual’, which was published in 2013 by Saksham and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The manual points out “affirmative counselling with gay clients is not a new theoretical model of counselling or psychotherapy but instead can be applied to any of the models that counsellors may be working with. What makes a model of counselling an affirmative one is the use of modifications in practice to incorporate the issues and stressors inherent in living as a sexual minority in a heterosexually constructed world.” This manual uses case examples and case studies to provide strategies and interventions to work with queer clients in an affirmative manner.

My queerness may have led me to embrace queer-feminist politics but I do not believe that one needs to have a queer identity to do this kind of affirmative work on sexualities and genders. Any mental health practitioner who believes in social justice must have a queer-feminist perspective that they bring into every aspect of their life and work. When practitioners and their clients, engage with non-normative intimacies using affirmative approaches, they will be able to examine their own lives and privileges critically. Thus, not just in therapy but outside of it too, they will begin to articulate these non-normative realities and many more will join the process of destabilizing the dominant social constructs!

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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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