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Podcast: “There Is Nothing ‘Therapeutic’ About Conversion Therapy”

More from Aarambh India

Trigger Warning: Suicide, Queer/Trans-Negativity

Listen to the podcast here.

On the 12th of May, 2020, 21-year-old queer student Anjana Harish died by suicide in Goa, India. In a video testimony recorded prior to her death, she described the violations she had to suffer in ‘conversion therapy’ centers that her parents admitted her into in misguided hopes of changing her sexual orientation.

In the first episode of ‘The Due Normal’, Uma and Sudipta from Aarambh India are joined by queer affirmative therapists and researchers Shruti Chakravarty and Pooja Nair who are both associated with the Mariwala Health Initiative. They discuss how there is nothing ‘therapeutic’ about conversion therapy, the socio-cultural contexts that give such ‘therapies’ legitimacy and how Indian families and systems are unable to reckon with the needs of a ‘non-conforming’ child. And finally, what you can do, and you should do about it.

Click here for a comprehensive list of queer-friendly and queer affirmative resources put together by the Mariwala Health Initiative.

A (Slightly Edited for Reading Clarity) transcript of the Conversation is produced below:

The Due Normal  (Podcast 1: On Conversion Therapy)

In conversation with Shruti Chakravarty and Pooja Nair

Pooja

This this this cycle of one wanting conversion and then being offered it—all this has to end somewhere. It has to break somewhere, and you can only break if we know and believe and talk about how every sexuality and gender is normal.

Shruti

Gender-sexuality is not a topic, ok, that exists in isolation. These are people we are talking about— people amongst us.

Uma

Hello and welcome to this podcast series that we are calling The Due Normal- conversations that are not new, but are definitely due. I am Uma Subramanian, and I work at the Aarambh India initiative in Mumbai. And today, we are absolutely excited to have with us: two amazing speakers Shruti Chakravarti and Pooja Nair. Before we move on to listening to our amazing speakers, just wanted to quickly introduce who these amazing women are.

Shruti has more than 17 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, is a mental health practitioner, researcher, trainer and social worker. She has an independent therapeutic practice based in Mumbai and has immense, in-depth experience of working with LGBTQAI clients in her therapeutic setup. She is currently pursuing her PhD on queer intimacies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. And she’s also a chief adviser at the Mariwala Health Initiative, and a faculty at Mariwala Health Initiative’s Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice Certificate Course. Shruti excited to have you. Welcome to our podcast.

Shruti

Excited to be here. Thank you so much.

Uma

And our second speaker is Pooja Nair. She has been a part of the nonprofit sector for more than a decade now. She’s worked previously as researcher, documentation consultant, trainer, and now she works as an independent therapist. She has an M.Phil in social work, and she’s worked in areas of life skills, gender, sexuality, violence, and child sexual abuse. She’s also faculty at the Mariwala Health Initiative’s Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice Certificate Course. Pooja, thank you for accepting our invitation and being here.

Pooja

Thank you so much. The way you read that out, I just felt so good about myself.

Uma

This is all your work. So absolutely a pleasure to read that out for you. And I’m also joined by my very, very dear colleague Sudipta Das, who is our communications manager and a firebrand in Aarambh who takes forward all our communication related to the intersections of child rights and different issues, especially LGBTQAI. Sudpita…

Sudipta

Yes Uma, thank you so much for the introduction. Thank you to Pooja and Shruti for joining us today for this very important conversation. Today we are going to talk about a very pressing issue, that is conversion therapy. Before we get into that, I wanted to flag the trigger warning for all the listeners that today we are going to talk about suicide, conversion therapy and queer phobia and negativity.

So a lot of you might have come across the recent news of the suicide of Anjana Harish. She was a 21-year-old student from Kannur and also an openly queer person. It has been reported that she had a very difficult relationship with her parents and also forcibly been taken to multiple deaddiction centers and mental health centers to “cure her bisexuality”. On 17th of March, she went to Goa with a couple of her friends, but due to the commencement of nationwide lockdown, they got stuck there. Last month, on 12th of May, her friends found her hanging from a tree.

Representational image. Image Source: Pexels

In this whole series of events, what is important to point out is this one live video from the personal Facebook account of Anjana that she posted on 13th of March. In that video, she openly accused her parents of physically and mentally torturing her. She also recalled incidents of solitary confinement inside a cell at a mental health center where she was subjected to conversion therapy. Having been heavily sedated and doused with injections, she mentioned how the whole medication made her feel dizzy most of the time, and also impaired her vision and speech.

In that video, Anjana also mentioned that this whole episode of conversion therapy and how that took a toll on her mental health. The friends who actually saw her condition firsthand confirmed that she was subjected to domestic violence and torture. She was apparently depressed from a long time with recurring suicidal thoughts. And at the end, I think we the larger society and the systems failed to accommodate one more queer person, and we lost a member from the community.

I am sure that it must not have been easy for anyone of us to kind of process this whole news and information and the series of events that happened with Anjana. Shruti and Pooja, you have been in this space of queer rights and mental health rights for more than a decade now. When you came across this news of Anjana’s death, how did it make you feel, personally?

Pooja

Thank you for asking that question. Because, as feminists as people from the community, it’s hard to answer from a distance. And when you added that ‘personally’ to that question, it just… I mean it felt like an acknowledgement also of our own locations of being from the community. And yes, it did feel like a personal loss. Because I think as a community, number one, understanding the stressors and the challenges and the struggles of someone from the community.

And number two, what does this say about our own possibilities in our own lives? What does it say? What does it make us feel about where we are? What can come of our lives as queer people and, you know, it reminds us of our own struggles, of our families and how they have been unaccepting and all of that? So it’s a direct sort of a connection to our lives, and therefore it’s impossible not to feel a loss at a personal level, even if we have never known or been related.

Sudipta

Yeah, I think being a queer person myself, I can completely resonate with what you’re saying. So as queer people definitely a lot of distress that we go through is very specific to our identities, and as you have mentioned that the way we have lost Anjana it definitely felt really personal, very close to home, very close to my experiences and my people. Shruti, you have any comments on that?

Shruti

As a community, we do take these losses personally and are deeply affected as both of you have already mentioned. I think what is even more important is that what do these losses tell us about the kind of society we are living in. Ya, This death, where a person died by suicide and took her own life is really not about her.

It is so much about what society did not do for her. So these losses, these deaths… Also we really need to lay the accountability down there on the homonegative, queer-negative, trans-negative society that we live in, that makes our lives so devalued. And that’s where the distress also comes from. To exist every day knowing that you’re devalued for something that you feel from deep within you, it’s not okay. So putting the responsibility out there on Systems and how they collude to make lives impossible to live sometimes, is also what these deaths bring out.

Sudipta

Hmm, definitely. I would like to ask Uma as you have been an ally of the community, and you have been a strong supporter of the LGBTQI rights when you came across this news, how did it make you feel?

Uma

You know, when I hear all three of you, I think I stand at a distance of this entire issue, and I look at it. And sometimes I feel like maybe I don’t understand exactly, you know, what you’re talking about in terms of, you know, the identity that a queer person sort of struggles with, you know, trying to convince the world that this is who I am. But when I first read this news, there was a sense of shock.

There, you know, one felt, is this really possible that… do these institutions really exist where people can enroll their children in the hope that they’re going to, you know, be converted. So I think for me, the entire institutionalization of this conversion was a shocker and I absolutely didn’t know that this could exist in a country like ours.

That really leads me to ask Shruti and Pooja, what exactly is conversion therapy? Like, what is a person made to go through when they’re put into this therapy? And also like, is it possible that the popular claim that you know where there is a will there is a way? So if you really want to change your sexual orientation, you can—it’s a matter of willpower, and you can change it. So, is it possible for somebody who is, you know, not a heterosexual to be converted?

Pooja

Okay, so short answer, No. Now, I’ll give you the extended version of that. Conversion therapy, if you if you’d like, a definition or a description of sorts refers to a range of efforts made by unaccepting families, made by practitioners from the mental health field, or attempts made by all of these actors in order to change, “change the sexual orientation, sexual identity” of a person from a non-heterosexual to a heterosexual one. Yeah and I’d like to really focus on the fact that you’re talking about a range of attempts.

When you say conversion therapy a lot of times, the image that comes to mind is of you know, someone getting shock treatment like those that we see we’ve seen terrible scenes of in Bollywood films. You’re tied and shocked. That’s not the only way in which the world has historically tried to change or convert queer people. We can also have a separate conversation about how the term ‘conversion therapy’ itself is a misnomer. There is nothing therapeutic about conversion attempts. These are all forms of violence.

lgbtq pride parade
Representational image. Via Getty

So that’s a very expansive definition—a range of efforts. It may include anything from trying to talk and convince the person to change to actually very physically, emotionally, violent ways of doing this through conditions, through techniques of operant conditioning and all kinds of aversion therapies and things like that.

And also, let me just add the fact about who are the people who provide these treatments. We know that culturally there is a lot of… there is a lot of influence by religious leaders and also very often queer people are also taken to these actors, these stakeholders or whatever, what have you, in order to get that conversion done. And there are also practitioners from the medical health, sorry, mental health field, including psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, all of them who claim to offer these treatments.

If we live in a world where conversion therapy exists, what does that tell us? It tells us that we live in a world where there is a certain idea of normal gender and sexuality, and if you don’t conform, you are seen as abnormal. Now, if you are classified as abnormal, the world is going to create ways to bring you to the normal. And that is why we actually have the existence of these forms of “treatments”.

Sudipta

When I was  listening to you one thing that you have mentioned that we can’t call, it’s not right to call it conversion therapy because there is nothing therapeutic about it. And definitely calling it conversion therapy gives a lot of unnecessary legitimacy to the whole process. So do you think it’s also time that we reframe this whole thing so that it is not misleading?

Pooja

So yes, calling it treatment or therapy is, is misguided, misleading. And one more reason why we should maybe sort of work on our language or change the terminology around this because if we continue to call it treatment or therapy, it will continue to be offered.

Uma

So what should it be called? What is this? What is this phenomenon?

Shruti

Coercion! I mean, we can brainstorm together—coercion!

Pooja

I have used the word violence. Violence against queer community.

Shruti

Violation, violence.

Uma

Yeah, so calling it you know, calling it therapy doesn’t really help. So it is a form of coercion, it is a form of violence.

Coming from a child rights lens, you know, because the Aarambh India initiative predominantly works on issues related to children. One of the things, I wanted to share and bring to this conversation was, you know, one was attending a conference in Delhi. And there was a very, very senior person, part of a child protection system of the government sitting on a podium and very naively saying something, like, there was a boy who was extremely effeminate who was brought in front of me, and he was to be admitted into a child care institution.

Now, we didn’t know which institution should we put him in, should we put him in the girls’ institution or the boys’ institution? But anyway, it was a boy. So we decided to put him in the boys’ institution. But the boy continued to behave like a girl. And he also wanted to grow his hair. He wanted to, you know, do things, which typically girls would do, etc. And this person who is extremely powerful in that particular meeting went on and on and naively towards the end she said, but you know, we had a great breakthrough in that case.

What we did was we counseled and counseled this boy. Eventually, the counselor convinced him to cut his hair. And the boy cut his hair. We gave him a crew cut, and he was looking so nice; he was looking like a boy. And finally, he was convinced that he was a boy and we were able to, you know, happily sort of mainstream him in a childcare institution, which was a boys’ home.

Now this, while we were listening to it with a bunch of child rights activists and then when I was reading, reading this particular case of Anjana, this almost felt like institutionally, we are trying to convert and you know, and this little child who was probably exploring his sexuality was completely brainwashed to believing that this is wrong and you should be a boy. So I wanted to ask you both that at what age, parents or even institutions start doing this, like, does it happen to our children?

Pooja

First of all, let me say, I think on behalf of Shruti also, that both of us are reeling from the violence of what you just read. What you just spoke about. I mean, what was there in that woman’s speech. And I mean, it is just so…. it’s so wrong; it makes us so angry. And to think that people in positions of authority take little or no responsibility to educate themselves on all these matters, which are pertinent to child protection, to child care, and all of that. So just yeah… that was a bit of a reaction more than a response to what you just said. Shruti you want to…

Shruti

So I think the process of gendering children starts at birth. Right? We give gender to children when they are born based on their bodies, specifically their genitals. Yeah, and the doctor is an outside expert. He looks at the body and says, if you have a certain kind of body type, you’re a boy, and you are gendered as a boy, and you will grow up to be male, a man. And there are only two options given: man, woman, male, female.

So I think that process of actually creating a very rigid and narrow ‘normal’ starts at birth. First, let’s recognize that, and we call that being assigned genders because that may not be the felt experience or the inside expedience of gender for that person. Yeah, but it’s almost thrust upon you based on a body type. When children fit that gender and follow the social norms and the rules of that gender, they may not face struggles compared to those children who do not fit.

When do children know? Do they know really early on? If you ask trans adults, when did you know that you are a boy though you had been assigned female at birth? They will say I knew as early as three… I always knew. At three or four, I knew I was different because I was being called a girl when I’m a boy, but I always knew I am a boy.

So children who are different and this has been our experience also when it comes to sexuality or gender. We know really, really early on. We may not be able to make sense of it; we may not have the language for it; we may be severely punished for it. But we know. We may never speak up till much later in life. But all of us have very early memories of being different because it is also frightening at that age. We don’t have the resources that we have as adults.

So when, you know, adults who are responsible for our care believe that they know the best for us —they don’t. They don’t know what’s best for non-conforming children. What they end up doing is the opposite of upholding that difference and make the child feel valued like all other children, so we internalize that it’s a bad difference. I shouldn’t be like this. This is wrong. And then of course, what you described are attempts that a range of people do right from your parents, extended family to institutions to schools. All of them are designed to fit you only into boy-girl.

So I mean, when you say what the techniques are, I’ll say everyday life is a technique. That’s all you hear. You don’t see any representation, any role-modeling, any information about that it’s okay not to be this boy, girl and heterosexual. You can be many different things. It really depends on how you feel within. That messaging never goes out. It is never upheld.

Pooja

And just to add to that, I think it’s a scam that people say raising children is about nurturing and we have to teach them values and this and that and make them citizens. So much of raising children is engendering children. So much, because every single decision on what to do in a particular situation depends on whether your understanding is of the child is a boy or girl. So many of the decisions by caregivers, parents, other significant adults, they’re all based on whether a child is assigned male at birth or assigned female at birth, from the way that you sit, from what you eat, how much you eat, what you dress.

Representational image

All of these are social projects of engendering, and we just are taken for a ride because we are told that this is about turning little ones into exemplary citizens. This is not a citizenship drill. It’s an engendering drill. And of course, we can also argue that citizenship is only of a particular kind, of a particular gender, etc. So raising that perfectly gendered human is what child-rearing is about, unfortunately.

Sudipta

I think I completely agree with whatever you are saying. And I remember having this conversation with a friend, where I told him that this whole process of conversion starts actually from the home of queer children.

Like when I came across the news of Anjana, honestly, I have been in the space of queer rights and everything, but I had no idea that there are some structure and institutions, legitimate institutions who are offering conversion therapy. And you very briefly also mentioned that there are people- mental health professionals and other religious organizations who are kind of offering conversion therapy, but in the Indian context, who are these people? Like do they charge money, where they are?

Uma

Like, how do you find these guys? Like who are these people who offer you know, like, how do I find this guy?

Shruti

It’s not that they are very hard to find, I think the ordinary practitioner, or the ordinary, everyday religious gurus who families have access to, unfortunately, they do offer this. So it’s not a specialized service. In fact, I think being queer-affirmative has become a specialized service.

Pooja

The widespread presence of practitioners who can offer this points to two things importantly, number one, that “conversion treatment” has legitimacy within academia. Because that is where these practitioners claim legitimacy and training and credibility from, so it is institutionalized hate, in that sense, you are taught this in your textbooks.

And number two is of social legitimacy, which means I can put this out on YouTube a video of myself offering conversion treatment services without any fear of a backlash, without any fear of criticism and knowing full well that there will be a large number of people out there who will support me social legitimacy and the institutionalizing of hate is why this continues, and you will probably find more people offering this all you need to do is ask.

Uma

I’m sure there are some legal consequences to this in its current form in India, isn’t it?

Shruti

Yes, the Mental Health Care Act (MHCA 2017) clearly upholds the rights of gender-sexuality and that can be used to make a case and take it forward to the relevant authorities namely State Mental Health Association (SMHAs). Their protocol is to respond to this and even take it to court if the practitioner does not shut down their practice etc.

Uma

What can a citizen do if we come across  advertising or hoarding which says “come, and we will cure your child”, what can we do?

Pooja

Usually, I mean, because we speak from being inside the community, the first thing that we do is warn as many people as we can. The first thing really I mean, that’s the strategy of the marginalized no?. I mean, when we live these lives that are highly precarious, taking up battles, when and where and how long—these are questions that we decide based on our meager resources already. So I think the first response within the community has always been to warn the others. Then, of course, if resources permit or if there are allies who are willing to take this up, then I believe there are many ways to confront and have a conversation openly.

Shruti

The Mariwala Health Initiative is also looking at pursuing legal action. And so if you know of some cases or you know, I would urge you to write to them because they are definitely coordinating with legal activists and lawyers to firm up, I would say. Firm up some legal procedures to respond to these cases and these sort of treatments.

Sudipta

I feel that now that we’re talking about this, one thing that also works now as a community when we raise our voices against any kind of injustice. Because recently when a lesbian couple committed suicide in Tamil Nadu, one of the primary newspapers actually promoted conversion therapy, which a lot of people called them out and they actually took it down immediately after the criticism. So I think as people in general, we need to be very vocal about our stand on this whole issue of conversion therapy.

Shruti

Absolutely. I think what we need actually are more cishet voices joining our queer trans voices. We’ve been shouting from the rooftops for decades. We definitely need more mainstream people who actually have a membership of the mainstream world with all its benefits to stand up and say this is not okay.

Sudipta

Now that we are having this conversation about conversion therapy, we are talking about the context of forced conversion therapy. So I think when I was also growing up, there have been moments, especially when I was young, and a lot of young friends of mine, young queer friends, who thought you know, this lifestyle as queer people, our aspiration and expectations from our lives are very different from cisgender heterosexual people. And there is a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. So sometimes we used to think that having a heteronormative life can actually give us some stability and direction.

So I don’t know if some queer people wishfully want to enter into this whole setup of conversion therapy. Do you think like they can do that or it is the right thing to do?

Pooja

Now, as Shruti mentioned earlier about how the world makes you feel that you are wrong, or your identity or your gender identity, your sexual identity, all of this is wrong, then I’m really not surprised that a queer person wants to change. Yeah, as you said, it provides certain ease in living, which will not come to you if you don’t conform. So I mean, cannot fault a queer trans person for wanting an easier life. Period.

However, if a person were to be told that this form of change is a form of self-harm… what you want to change is harming to yourself—that everything, all genders, bodies, sexualities are normal. Once this is added to the conversation, possibilities open up.

Shruti

I think when therapists offer this, and they say that the queer person or the trans person, the queer trans client, themselves wants this and I must uphold their needs, it’s very important again to recognize, as Pooja said, the context within which this is being asked. And when I don’t envisage a life for myself, I may have internalized the belief that a hetero normative life is the only way to live. And that’s why I come to you. And if at that time, the therapist aligns with the client, what the therapist is actually doing is aligning with societal prejudice.

So this argument about I’m upholding the client’s rights does not fit here. I mean, as therapists, yes, we do uphold our client’s rights and in all possible ways but when we look at self-harm, do we not work with the client to reduce self-harm? Then asking for conversion therapy is self-harm. It will cause damage. Then why is the therapist not able to work with the client to help them see that and then help them reach self-acceptance in such a queer-trans-negative society? That is the role of a queer affirmative therapist!

Pooja

I think an example would be a lot we have heard of over the years, many, many lesbians getting into marriages. You know, these are all attempts to also self-convert, that life with my girlfriend doesn’t seem possible, parents will never let. And also we know that assigned female persons are subject to very, very terrible forms of violence and pressures and all in their families.

When they know that a way out of this would be just simply to get married, do we see that marriage as self-harm? Would we also see that that marriage is not going to change a person’s sexual identity, they could perform heterosexuality, they will perform heteronormativity, the marriage is not going to change the lesbian sexuality of that woman. Even if she thinks that it may… so this cycle of wanting conversion and then being offered it… all this has to end somewhere. It has to break somewhere, and we can only break if we know and believe and talk about how every sexuality and gender is normal.

Uma

Somewhere we need to break this cycle. And at some level, I feel when parents, especially parents, are faced with a situation like this, you know that they have to respond to their child’s queer sexuality. They don’t know what to do and most of the times parents end up doing the things that are not in the best interest of their children, like how we’ve seen in Anjana Harish’s case.

So if you had to start this conversation with parents not only of children who are under 18, but also of people who are about 18, and parents still trying to convert them, you know, into some sort of a normal lifestyle as we all say, how do we begin that conversation with parents? How do we convince parents and that group?

Pooja

First of all, it’s very important to address the whole parental issue because many queer or trans people are brought to clinics by parents. Now a lot of “well-intentioned”, “well-meaning” efforts at times perhaps also very openly phobic and negative responses. They get brought to clinics by parents. It’s important to really talk about what’s going on with parents when queer people are struggling.

One answer is that of course, because parents also internalize these scripts of heteronormativity, the gender binary and all they will respond the way society responds. Secondly, because we live in a caste society, this whole idea of community pressure what will others say? What will people say? Everything is linked to honor, izzat And all those kinds of things, right? So that’s going to just add to the pressure. So I’m not just struggling because I don’t know what to do with my child’s orientation or identity. I’m also struggling because what will people say. And all of this gets fused into this very terrible, unholy mix of prejudices.

So a lot of support will be necessary at these points by support, I am not trying to take away responsibility from parents. Parents do have a certain responsibility towards their children, no matter what the child’s age. It is important that they reflect on their prejudices, and they work through it. What am I only trying to say is that certain input, certain support might be necessary at that point. So that you’re also protecting the queer person by providing support to parents.

So it’s not a way of letting them off the hook but actually trying to support the queer person by engaging with parents on all these issues. And as I said earlier, the reasons that I mentioned why it’s important to talk to parents- it would help to really attack the main villain of the scene, which is SHAME. Now, when we engage with older adults, there is so much shame. It overpowers every other emotion, including the love that you have for your child.

Uma

You know I also feel that parents in this case or any case can be sort of an easy target, right? Like the parents are incapable of handling this. But what would you say to the larger society and especially the government, that has at some level, categorically failed to a) give visibility to an issue like this? And also at some point, I think they have kind of legitimized a lot of these practices, hiding behind the fears that parents have. So where do you think that the society, the government, particularly the institutions of the government, have let the community down?

Pooja

It’s quite sad that we are having this conversation at a time where the state is letting a lot of populations down.

I think matters of gender sexuality that do not conform, people who do not conform are seen as threats. You need the abnormal so that you can continue to feel okay about being normal, but you also don’t want them to flourish. So you have to keep measures in place that squash rights and certain populations down.

Shruti

In terms of what can the government do, I think gender sexuality is not a topic, okay, that exists in isolation. These are people we are talking about—people amongst us. So it’s not that you know, it’s some faraway some exotic beings to whom we have to offer some services. Gender sexuality is something that actually why it is a threat is because it affects each one of us really personally.

So if you’re talking to the government, we have to say that please equip like take any department and start looking at it from a gender sexuality lens, and you will be able to bring changes—change your textbook, change the images in the textbooks, look at your media messaging, look at you know how even your institutions are divided very much on the basis of only two genders.

Ya, whether you’re traveling by train or you are talking about jails, or you’re talking about hospitals, whatever it may be, you have only man/woman. Now, you have only in all your messaging you have only the heterosexual family. So take any institution, if you apply what we call a gender sexuality lens, which essentially means that there is a diversity of gender, sexualities and bodies. All are valid, and all are normal, life will look very different.

But they may not be invested in that because especially the current government is very much invested in a very Hindu, heterosexual, male-dominated sexuality. So like that, I guess we’ll keep talking, we will keep fighting.

Pooja

And we’ll also I think, very vocally, very strongly speak from the value of self-determination. We would like to speak from a space of self-determination, we would like self-determination to be upheld.

Uma

So, in terms of working with children and different groups in different categories of children, you know, who could potentially be harmed by conversion therapies like this What can be done? How do we address this issue?

Pooja

Number one, there should be greater efforts at what we in the nonprofit sector call sensitization, awareness, spreading of information, knowledge etc. there are those attempts which will have to continue and have to be done at regular intervals to keep the conversations going.

We’d also like to speak a little bit about in what ways you can do, if you encounter at your work, a child who is different and then what can that official or that person in that situation do because, within institutions, we also know that there are some very strict ways in which power is distributed. Authority is arranged. I think there too, firstly, for that person to know that never ever underestimate being that one affirmative voice in that child’s world. Yeah, systems will take their own time to change, of course, we will also continue to put in efforts. But if at that moment you realize that you are the one person who can be an affirmative voice in that child’s life, do not miss that opportunity.

Secondly, if that happens, there might be two, three things that you can do even in a very, very quick interaction. Like for instance, when you shared that story of the child who was asked to cut hair and was given “counseling”. I would say number one, to really validate that child’s difference, because every child who sees oneself as different, is queer, trans and sees self as different from others, the child perceives it as a bad difference. And that is the conversation that children need that it is not a bad difference.

Thirdly, that the world will see it badly. That does not mean that you are bad, that does not mean that you are wrong. That does not mean that you have to change anything about you. In that moment of interaction to say, I see you in your authenticity, and it is not wrong and it is not bad. That form of affirmation and then at that moment, to also provide some hope for life later as a grown-up. Right now, the child might feel disempowered. Also to say that you may feel right now life is going nowhere, grown-ups around you are treating you badly because you are different, but there will come a time when you can be in your authenticity as an adult.

A child has different resources, maybe disempowered, maybe disenfranchised but don’t miss an opportunity to lend hope. And even if you are the only voice, you have no idea what it means to that queer trans person to have that voice. It’s a piece of affirmation. Absolutely life-saving work can be done.

Shruti

Talk to any queer person, and we will recollect that one voice, that one newspaper article, that one message, that one teacher. They may not even have intended it but said something that made us feel like I have now the strength to go on. So speak up.

To all the adults and authorities that are entrusted with the care of children, I would like to say very clearly that you will have to work with yourself first to feel ok and to be convinced about nonconforming children. If you don’t make that journey, you will not be able to convincingly and authentically value children.

So it’s a lot of labour. Because of social conditioning, you may find it tempting and even well-meaning to help the child fit the heterosexual, heteronormative world. What you are doing is actually severe damage. Conformity is violence to those who are not confirming right. That’s one thing I wanted to say. And the second is the children respond to affect, emotions.

Pooja

Ya, I think this is very important to remember because very often when we are talking about adult-child interactions, we focus too much on what words to use, how to speak, what should I say, what is a technical child-safe, a child-friendly term for xyz…. I think that’s the secondary question. Primarily what you should work at is the emotion that is conveyed.

Shruti

And I just wanted to give an example of a teacher. This happened, I think just a couple of weeks ago. A teacher was doing a basic grammar class with 10-, 12-year-old students. And this is a teacher who is a bit more aware and open to issues of gender-sexuality, and she was teaching pronouns. So a student asked that teacher if there’s a person who is not a he or she what pronouns shall be used.

The beautiful part was that the teacher’s response was so much at ease. She said, “thank you for asking such an important question. Good. ” And then, she went on to say yes, there are some people who are transgender, and you know the pronoun he/she may or may not fit. Some people may like to use the pronoun ‘they’. So what is very important is that you ask the person if they want to be called he/she or they, and you use that pronoun.

Any other teacher would have probably shamed the child saying, what kind of question are you asking? I am talking about this, and you are talking about some people. And that would have finished the class for 12-year-olds. All children would have learnt never to ask that question again and actually that it brings displeasure from an adult.

Uma

And actually, it goes back to your point where you said gender, sexuality is not a topic right, I mean there she was talking about gender and sexuality in a grammar class.

Sudipta

I am in a zone now. Learning, I’m looking into my past, and there have been so many instances that affirmed my identity that kind of helped me to see a future for myself. And that is why even today, because of people like you, despite what is happening, I feel hopeful, that something good is going to happen for the community.

Shruti

That’s a feeling we all carry. Because when I was in my 20s, I had the opportunity to know some queer people who were older that I could look up to, and I could look forward to having a life for myself. So, I think this is one way for us all passing our debt forward. Right

Uma

I think for me, I share Sudipta’s sentiment. This has been one the most enriching conversation I’ve had with two people who are so experienced but yet you put things so simply that anybody can really understand and start implementing in their own lives. What has really stayed with me in this conversation, apart from the other things you said is—know that conformity is violence for those who are not conforming. And I think this is a very big lesson for many people who are out there trying to think they are doing things in the best interest of children, but probably they are not.

And that you need to validate the child’s difference and make sure that you make the child feel that he or she is not abnormal, that the world around him needs to change.

I just want to thank Shruti, Pooja, Sudipta. All of you. But especially Shruti and Pooja from the bottom of heart for engaging with us and really helping us navigate through this extremely controversial and tricky space.

And conversion therapy is unconstitutional, it’s illegal, it’s unethical, and it’s absolutely damaging the lives of our children and young people. So thank you so much for lending your voices and talking to us in the Due Normal.

Shruti

From our side too, I think we really did not realize the passage of time. We felt very connected even across this virtual medium to both you and Sudipta. Thanks a lot, we are very heartened.

Thank you for the efforts that your team at Aarambh is taking to make these conversations happen so that they don’t remain controversial anymore. Thank you.

And thank you Sudipta for bringing so much of yourself into this. We all know that is our labour as queer people that we do. Thank you. I want to just acknowledge that.

Sudipta

Thank you so much

Pooja

And from my end as well. Thank you to both of you Uma & Sudipta. I think you both have been excellent. I don’t want to use the word interviewers or any of that because it did not feel like it was a Q&A at all. Its such great pleasure to be able to ideate and talk about some of these important issues with people who share the same values, who are politically aligned who have the same drive to keep working at it.

I mean, who knows when social change is going to come. We may never see it in our lifetime. But that all of us feel that not doing anything is not an option and we just keep working at this goal of social justice. And to be able to have some of these conversations with people like you, always a pleasure. Thank you for creating this resource, because as I understand this is something that will be created and shared and preserved in that way. And to be able to contribute to it was a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

Thank you for being with us and listening to our podcast, The Due Normal. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can write to us at info @aarambhindia.org. We look forward to hearing from you. We will be back again soon, with another conversation, which might not be new but definitely due at The Due Normal. Take care, and stay safe!

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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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