June marks the beginning of Global Pride month. It’s been heartwarming to see how aware, receptive and supportive we have become towards the LGBTQ community in the recent past. We’ve indeed come a long way. But somewhere deep down, we do realise that there’s still a stigma that needs to be shattered around it.
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Valerie -Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Vinay Chandran, a counsellor, activist, and writer. He is the Executive Director of Swabhava Trust, an NGO working with and exploring intersections between sexuality, gender, health and mental health concerns, and much more. He also runs a telephone helpline called Sahaya for counseling the LGBTQ individuals and has worked on linking support services with the community.
Vinay -Hi, Good Morning
Valerie – It’s great to have you here.
Vinay – Thank you so much for having me here.
Valerie – You started the Swabhava Trust, about 20 years ago, for the LGBT community. At a time when there wasn’t a lot of dialog about the LGBTQ+ community, what drove you to start the organization and what was the initial reception?
Vinay – Well, it wasn’t just me. There were a set of trustees that helped set up the organization, and the idea was that at that time, there was a dire need especially in Southern India for a counselling service that can specifically be accessed by LGBT people who are going through a lot of personal crisis or identity crisis and so on, and there wasn’t anything like that at the time to address sexiality issues openly and with no judgement. So a few of us got together, kind of realized that we could offer that kind of service because among the original trustees, there were about one or two of them who had experienced setting similar kind of organizations or helplines up in Northern India and we took that experience and kind of helped Swabhava specifically to at least start providing counselling on the telephone and it just took off from there.
I was working in advertising at the time and I quit that at the time to become part of this full time and set up the helpline and provide counselling. At that time, we had a lot of volunteers and we did a couple of training sessions with a psychiatrist Dr. Shekhar Seshadri from Ninhans on how to provide such counselling, what kind of issues we can address in LGBT communities and so on. We also advertised in newspapers, in classified columns and on various sites, about our services and we’ve been receiving calls non-stop since then.
We set up Swabhava in 1999, so we’re 21 years old this year, and the helpline itself started exactly 20 years ago, in June 2000.
So in terms of initial reception, the only thing I can say is we operated twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, from 6-8 pm in the evening because we weren’t sure of how it would be received or what kind of calls we would get or whether they would be relevant or useful, and on the first day of our launch, the phone started ringing exactly at 6 o’clock and I think in the two hours that we were open, we got about 40-45 calls non-stop. So, we knew then that the requirement was there and it just took off from there. We had a fairly huge kind of experience trying to understand what kind of problems were coming up and how to deal with each of them because we were as new to the counselling field as anybody else at the time. Does that answer your question?
Valerie – It does! It’s actually really great to know that you guys stood up for something like this 21 years ago and the reception that you had to it, having non-stop calls, it does show that there really was a need for the initiative that you guys began.
Vinay – Absolutely. I think there were a couple of other similar kind of spaces in Delhi and even in Bombay or in Hyderabad but our helpline specifically targeted LGBT issues, specifically provided counselling for that and I think the reception of it, maybe it’s a little bit of promotion of the city itself, it’s because it’s Bnagalore, I think. I do know that organizations that tried to give classified advertisements in newspapers both in Delhi and Bombay, were flat out refused by those newspapers because they didn’t want to take such controversial text that said “Helpline for gays, lesbians, bisexuals transgender perople”. In Bangalore, we had absolutely no problem.
Valerie – That’s really good. So you did give a Tedx talk at NIT Trichy where you spoke about various sources of stigmatization when it comes to sexual orientation, Would you like to elaborate on this for our listeners? It’s something I found very interesting and I thought people should know about.
Vinay – Yeah, I think you have to start with how you are raised as a child in India, where the concept of Nivedita Menon speaks about, a force or compelled heterosexuality is thrust upon you. You are not born heterosexual in any sense of the word, that you are not born to be attracted to the other gender. That is a biological construct but the idea that everybody has to be a heterosexual is kind of drilled into us from a fairly young age. When you talk about films or books that you have to read or cartoons that you watch or cinema or TV serials, it’s always the heterosexual hero-heroine, man-woman story that gets promoted.
Even in the context of gender, if you look at transgender people, you are promoted this idea of how to be a boy – don’t cry, don’t be like a girl, or how to be a girl – don’t act like a boy, these kind of gender norms are also trained into your psyche from a very young age.
Now, that itself is the source of the first stigma because if you don’t feel that way, if you don’t feel like a man even though your family has been telling you that you are one, if you don’t feel like a woman even though your family is telling you that you are one, and if you don’t feel an attraction towards the other gender even though that is what the world expects you to be, that becomes a source of self-stigmatization.
The world does not have to oppress you in any way for you to know that you are different. The invisibility of that oppression is part of the problem.
So a lot of children realise very early on that they have to hide themselves and have to pretend not to feel what they actually feel. So, that becomes a huge stress in their minds. During childhood, there’s a stigma of being an effeminate child if you are male or being a masculine woman and things like that. The way you get teased and called all sorts of names like “chakka” and “lesbo” – those kinds of things kind of put more stress on the child.
Whether or not the child is in a formal education system or otherwise, the same thing at home can become very pervasive in the way it formulates the child’s opinion of themselves. It’s really the source of stigma.
Then, you talk about the absence of these kinds of roles or ideas of sexuality. Where do you see the story of a successful homosexual person? Where do you see the story of a successful transgender person? You don’t see that except in certain kinds of media. Otherwise they are treated as outsiders and therefore kind of weird and freakish and so on. You see that even in cinema until recently.
A lot of the mainstream characters are either macho men or feminine women. You don’t ever see the context of feminine man except in the context of a comedy.
There is a lot of that kind of stigma that people have to go though, both gender and sexual orientation. Not just one or the other. The stigma is both visible, in the examples I gave, and invisible, by the way we are trained by society on not talking about ourselves.
Those are some of the sources that I talked about there and how it influences mental health and health concerns of LGBT people.
Valerie – Thank you for elaborating on that. We did talk about the struggle when it came to their mental health but we also know that there is a community struggle when it comes to access to opportunities that many of us often take for granted. Unfortunately, you do know in many cases, this includes access to safe professional mental health care. A lot of times you see that even mental health professionals do not give them the amount of comfort and acceptance that they do deserve. It can also lead to a lot of devastating consequences for them. What are your thoughts on the same?
Vinay – I think the recent case of Anjana Hareesh from Kerala, who went to Goa and was foun dead from suicide and her narration of her story where she says her family found out about her same-sex attractions and sent her to conversion therapy and she was given several kinds of treatments in order to make her straight. And that kind of drove up the depression in her to as point where she couldn’t handle it and committed suicide. We’re talking about the whole conversion therapy bit in the last six months.
When I started back in ‘99-2000, we used to also get clients who have been referred by doctors, either Nimhans or other kind of mental health spaces where the doctors believe that the conversion therapy administered to the client was not successful and therefore, the person cannot be converted and therefore, the last resort is – “Why don’t you just join the LGBT community because you can’t become normal”. That kind of offering of treatment for people who want to change or don’t want to change, whatever the child might want, if the parents come in and say “My child has to be heterosexual and get married in the next month. You better make him straight”. That kind of belief in the mental health sector, even though the mainstream has changed in the last 20 years, that 20 years ago the Indian psychiatric society or psychological society or the psychiatric social work society would not have openly spoken about stopping conversion therapy treatments, which they are doing today.
All of these committees have declared and written on paper that they feel conversion therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity is no longer practiced and should not be practised in India. But there are still private practitioners and Anjana Hareesh’s example illustrates the consequences of such practice.
It’s incredibly difficult for people from the community, especially if they are dependent on their families for their livelihood. When the family decides that they have to become straight in order to get married, then trying to get a sensitive counsellor to say that “There is nothing wrong with your child but there is definitely something wrong with you for thinking that your child has to be like you and we will counsel you but not your child”, there are very few counsellors. At least 20 years ago, there was Shekhar Seshadri and very few others.
Now, we can say there are slightly more but that’s in metro areas. What about smaller cities, smaller towns? Those are problematic and we know that there are devastating consequences including suicide.
There are a lot of problems for having proper access to mental health care in India.
Even in the last few months when I’ve been providing counselling, when I tell any of my clients “Why don’t you go to Nimhans and get long term therapy because of the depression you’re going through?” They mostly say “I’m not crazy, why should I go to Nimhans?” They reduce all of mental health into “I’m not crazy”.
The understanding is still not there and we’re talking about a community that is already stigmatized in society and is as stigmatized in the medical sector.
The mental health sector is one of the most stigmatizing places for the LGBT community.
It’s not easy, for instance, for a transgender woman to walk into a public hospital and not be treated badly in India. There are still those kinds of problems to access.
That is still a change that we need to go through but the fact that committees like the psychiatric society and the others have openly stated their support for the community, things have also changed to some extent. We just hope it takes root far more deeply than it has till now.
Valerie– You did talk about the fact that India has come a long way from the past 20 years when it came to how we look at the LGBT community and how we receive them. But we are aware, as you just said, that we’ve not fully embraced the community and there is a lot of stigma when it comes to the way we talk to them and how we receive them. Also, these are people that we see and interact with on a regular basis, so what do we do, as individuals, in order to embrace the community and be reliable allies towards them?
Vinay – The bigger question is, how do you normalize conversation around gender identity and sexual orientation? Without taking it out of the person and making it something like it’s special about the person. My colleague, who is one of our trustees and has also set up counselling elsewhere as well, he used to say that the community is not asking for special rights, we are asking that we not be given special discrimination. And that is the point that people are failing to understand when it comes to the community.
An ally who basically responds to a statement of an LGBT person coming out with a basic saying “So what? Let’s go to dinner” or “Let’s go watch a movie”, meaning that it’s received with as much enthusiasm as any news would be received. That there is no spectacular, outgoing kind of reaction that is kind of over the top and makes no difference to the person.
The person needs to feel that there is nothing wrong with them, and the only way you feel that is if you feel that you’re the same as everybody else. I think it’s that sense of creating an ambience or an environment around you where people can open up and say anything like this and not feel so judged. They are not coming out to you because they want you to help them. They are coming out to you because they trust you.
Do you provide that kind of space for that to happen? That itself needs to be normalized. I know I use the word “normalize” here very carefully because the word “normal” becomes such a weapon towards the LGBT community also, where doctors say “abnormal”, people say “abnormal” and all kinds of names get thrown about and stigmatized. But I want to turn it around and use that also on behalf of the community and say that what an ally can do is to create an environment where being LGBT is no different from being anything else – from having black hair, from wanting to be an actor, from wanting to be an accountant. It makes no difference to life in any other way. It’s the same thing with being a transgender person.
Whoever that person has come out to, they’re still the same friends that they were before. The gender might have changed or been rejected but the people don’t change. And that’s really what we’re trying to get allies to understand.
I think that while we have travelled a long way over the last 20 years, because when we started, we had no hope that the law would’ve changed in any way. We didn’t think that we would see a change in the laws in 50 years or even in our lifetimes. By 2009, the law had already changed and we had so much back and forth since then. By 2018, when the section 377 was completely struck down, at least read down for consenting adults, we were as surprised because we didn’t think it would happen but attitudes have changed.
The community has become more accepted internationally as well as in India.
There’s still a long way to go because marriage is still considered number one priority for all families, whether you are gay or straight, they don’t care. You have to get married. That is still a struggle that a lot of LGBT people experience.
So there’s a long way to go but start by creating an environment where people can be themselves.
Valerie– I think that was very very beautifully spoken. When you talk about the need for us to normalize it and the need for us to not treat them any different from who they are and for them to just be seen as a person without labels.
So, when you draw on your experience as a counsellor and as an activist over the last 20-21 years, what would you now like to say to the individuals who are struggling to come out and live their truth?
Vinay – See, I think the primary struggles are still the same in terms of when poeple call up and say “Am I gay?” “Am I straight?” “Am I normal?” “Why do I feel this way?” “Why am I attracted to my own gender?” “Why do I feel like dressing up like the other gender?” Whatever those questions are, those are journeys that people will have to go through by themselves. But I think the difference between 20 years ago and now, is the increase in some acceptance within the community itself.
There is no shame within the community. There may have been a lot of guilt and shame early on because of the way society was, and that has changed over 20 years.
So 20 years ago, there were a few of us and when we get calls about “Is being Gay normal?” “Is it okay?”, we would have to vehemently say that being gay is normal and that discovering yourself as transgender is perfectly alright and so on and so forth. Where the identity, the “label” that you said, those become important. But 20 years later, I feel as a counsellor that now the labels are irrelevant. The conversation for instance, for me as a counsellor between a 25 year old person and their family who is trying to force them to get married, for example, the conversation is not “How do I come out as gay to my family?”. The conversation is “How do I get my family to realise that I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions about things?”.
If you focus all your energy on how to come out, you create more obstacles. But if your family recognizes you as an independent adult in India, which itself is a big deal obviously, then perhaps the journey of coming out becomes easier. The label is not important. The identity is already there regardless of what you call yourself. “Are you attracted to men?” “Are you attracted to women?” “Would you identify as a man or a woman or as a gender non-binary?”. All of those are personal journeys but how you have the conversation with other people, I think those milestones have to change. You need to think of yourself as an adult or an independent person. If you are not an adult, then you need to realise that it is about strategizing your coming out because not all families are accepting of these kinds of journeys.
Strategize in a way that you are able to live your own life and your own truth without necessarily jeopardizing your future in any way. Because at some point, people like, for instance Anjana, that I spoke about, the example of Anjana Hareesh, she had to come out. She felt overwhelmed by the way the family was pressurizing her, and clearly at that point of time, if she hadn’t, they would’ve forced her into getting married or something else. So, it was necessary to come out at that time. And the way they responded to it was by forcing her into conversion therapy and so on and so forth. That tells you two things- that they didn’t respect her as an individual who is capable of making her own choices and that the support system that she had, the friends that she had, the people who surrounded her weren’t enough because the self-esteem and confidence levels had been shattered by the people she trusted.
So it becomes so difficult at the point to say “Be a proud LGBT person”. Can you be comfortable with yourself but focus also on your identity as a human being? You are valid as a human being. There is nothing wrong with you.
Whether you are LGBT or not is not the point. Recognize that there are many struggles, including sexual orientation and gender identity but they are not the only struggles.
You are going to have more struggles in the future and the way to live your life is to start by saying that “I’m okay. I’m not perfect. There are going to be problems but I will be okay.”
To get to that slowly and to believe in yourself and continue to access support systems and friends in this context is very important. If we focus all of our energies on “Come out” and “Be gay” and “Be transgender” and so on and so forth, then you are creating a conflit with your family and with your friends, etc. but you are not necessarily empowering yourself to deal with the problems.
If you are not comfortable with yourself, if you don’t love yourself as a person, how are you going to make people trust you and love you as well? I think that’s really the problem.
Valerie – I think that’s a really insightful bit of advice for us as well as the community, I’d believe. This has really been a wholesome conversation. I’ve got to learn a lot from you and I hope that we become a people that’s more accepting and non-judgemental and a group of people who don’t look at people differently because of who they choose to be and their sexual orientation. I hope that we become more supportive and acceptive with time. Thank you for all the information and for the lovely conversation I’ve had with you. It’s really been great.
Vinay – Not a problem. Thank you so much for calling.
Valerie – Thank you, Vinay.