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Exploring The Bylanes Of Gender And Sexuality In Indian Culture

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It was a typical Sunday afternoon and Akash, an 18-year-old, was watching television along with his family. His immediate family consisted of his parents and a younger sister aged 15 years. While watching a movie that was very entertaining, there appeared a trailer for the new season of a TV show which dealt with the concept of same-sex relationships. Watching the trailer gave Akash a certain sense of comfort. A flurry of thoughts arose on the lines of “maybe these kinds of relationships exist, maybe I am ‘normal’, maybe I stand the chance of finding someone for myself”.

Akash was lost in a daydream, imagining himself in the characters portrayed on the screen until he suddenly heard his name being called out in an angry voice. His father’s sharp voice broke his daydream and he was forced into the present. “Where are you lost?” said his father. God knows what is wrong with this generation, they always seem to be so lost. I suppose it is to be expected when such type of things become commonplace, almost like it’s ‘normal’. Akash, you please stay away from ‘such’ people. They are the reason for the demise of our cultural values.”

Hearing these words broke Akash’s heart, although he did not say a word. He was used to silencing his voice and his needs. 

The above example attempts to illustrate one possible experience of someone who may be struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, pretending to be someone they are not. Unfortunately, this is the reality of many today. 

Sex, Sexuality and Gender are taboo subjects, especially in India. 

Sexuality And Gender In Indian Socio-Cultural Context

As if navigating the bylanes of sexuality and gender was not hard enough already, it is even more so given the Indian socio-cultural context. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

As if navigating the bylanes of sexuality and gender was not hard enough already, the Indian socio-cultural context makes it worse.

Growing up within a heteronormative, patriarchal society may often be extremely distressing and confusing for non-conforming individuals. Certain points need to be clarified before these issues can be further discussed.

It is important to understand what is meant by terms such as Heteronormativity, Patriarchy, Sex, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation:

Heteronormativity

It is the assumption by individuals as well as institutions that everyone is heterosexual.

Patriarchy

It may be defined as a societal or government system which places men over women. Men are the heads of families or states and the family name is carried forward by the male line. Men possess most of the power.

Sex

It broadly has two main definitions: 

  1. Sex assigned at birth (or before, during ultrasound) based on the appearance of external genitalia. When the external genitalia is ambiguous, other indicators (e.g., internal genitalia, chromosomal and hormonal sex) are considered to assign sex with the aim of assigning sex that is most likely to be congruent with the child’s gender identity (MacLaughlin & Donahoe, 2004). For some people, gender identity is congruent with sex assigned at birth; for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, gender identity differs in varying degrees from the sex assigned at birth.
  2. The physical act of sex which includes but is not limited to penetrative sex (peno vaginal, Oral and Anal sex), kissing, rubbing, fondling and other acts of physical intimacy.

Gender Identity

A person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender non conforming, gender-neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.

“Affirmed gender identity” refers to a person’s gender identity after coming out as Transgender/gender-nonconforming or undergoing a social and/or medical transition process. A person whose gender identity is congruent with their sex assigned at birth is cis-gendered; this means that people who are assigned the male gender at birth go on to identify as male or people assigned female at birth goes on to identify as female.

Sexual Orientation

A component of identity that includes a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behaviour and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction. A person may be attracted to men, women, both, neither, or to people who are genderqueer, androgynous, or have other gender identities. Individuals may identify as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, queer, pansexual, or asexual, among others.

It needs to be stated in explicitly clear terms that having a non-hetero, a non-cis-gendered identity or both is absolutely okay. This, in and of itself is NOT a disorder or disease and does NOT require any treatment or intervention. 

According to current research, sexuality and gender identity are both on a spectrum and are believed to be fluid; they are not a binary as is commonly believed. This means that everyone lies somewhere on this spectrum, we all may have differences in who we are attracted to and how we feel about our own gender identity and expression over time. We may lean more towards one over the other or be attracted to men as well as women or not be sexually attracted to anyone at all, whatever the case be, it is absolutely natural.

How Deeply Does The Society And Its Conditioning Affect Gender And Sexuality?

There are, however, factors that may come to the surface as a result of these identifications which may require attention and professional support. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth are at a greater risk for depression, suicide, substance use, and sexual behaviours that can place them at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). (Kann L, Olsen EO, McManus T, et al., 2015)

For e.g. A person, who identifies as non-heterosexual or is gender-nonconforming may feel hopeless, helpless and worthless given the socio-cultural context they find themselves in. They may not be accepted by their loved ones or significant others and may have to actively hide who they are, being forced to wear a very uncomfortable mask. Consequently, this may give rise to anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation or other mental health concerns. 

Substance use is common to help cope with the discrimination and prejudice faced, which may lead to substance abuse and addiction. It is extremely important to address these concerns and seeking appropriate, timely help is essential. It is vital to seek help from well trained, queer affirmative mental health professionals, as they will be able to identify and address these concerns effectively, in a supportive way. Also, in case any medication is required to alleviate symptoms they will be able to provide appropriate guidance.

Away From Society, Towards Acceptance

Sex, Sexuality and Gender are taboo subjects, especially in India.

Having cleared these concepts, let’s address the experience of someone who might find themselves struggling to accept themselves for who they are. 

It is extremely difficult, firstly to acknowledge to oneself that one does not fit into the socio-cultural norms and then even more difficult to communicate this to others, be it friends, family or even complete strangers. This may be a long or short process and each person’s journey to find acceptance within and without may be completely different.

Some may choose to deny these thoughts and feelings whereas, some may accept these thoughts and feelings, one person may find their family and friends to be very accepting, loving and supportive another may find them to be violently aggressive and rejecting. Yet, some others may find a mixture of reactions ranging from wholehearted acceptance to violent rejection.

The decision to come out, to acknowledge one’s sexual orientation or gender identity whether to oneself or to anyone else is a very personal one and should be taken only when one feels adequately equipped and ready to deal with the consequences of doing so, whether they be positive or negative.

It is important to know that if you are going through this struggle, you are NOT alone. There are many people who have faced similar circumstances in the past and many others still, who may be experiencing similar thoughts and feelings at this very moment.

Additionally, you can find below a list of resources that you may utilize to better inform yourself and also reach out to others who are going through similar challenges. There are also helpline numbers for availing queer affirmative counselling services as well as crisis intervention services.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ruzbeh Bharucha

    The real us, the true self, is beyond gender. Who are we to judge or pass comment on somebody’s reality and way of life. Well written.

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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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