We are all story books; mere living documentations of memories and experiences spiral bound by the pages of Time. Welcome to this chapter of LonePack Conversations. My name is Suhas, and today we have with us Mrs. Janaki Sabesh, a well-known actor, a mesmerizing theatre artist, and a charming storyteller.
Suhas: Welcome ma’am, how are you doing?
Janaki: I’m doing very well Suhas, thank you so much for making me a part of your LonePack Conversations.
Suhas: Just to start off ma’am, I want to understand how you’re doing, particularly in these times. So first of all, we’re super stoked to have you on with us here today. How have you been doing, how have you kept yourself busy in the times of this pandemic?
Janaki: So Suhas, I must confess it to, I think I’ve been more busy than ever before, and I think I should thank all the forces of the universe that have come together to make this possible. And why do I say that? I will explain because way back in —I mean, now it feels many, many months back— but it was just in March that I heard that children’s schools were going to shut down. You know, we were still not aware of the seriousness of this pandemic. And, you know, it has just started trickling in that schools are going to close early. And I said, all right, one day I said, why not I do something online? Because I had always shied away from going online because; and as an actor, as someone who seeks instant gratification, it’s very nice to be in the energy of an audience.
Janaki: You know, see the energy while you’re doing a story and feel the energy of the audience as they give you their love, their support, and their attention. So I teamed up with a small outfit called Little Trails, and I just asked them, should I go live? And they said this is a fantastic idea! And we put up a poster together at 10:30 in the morning and at 5:00 pm we will live on Instagram; and that was my starting point. And the way I um, what can I say, I was all overwhelmed with the kind of response that I got from people, not just children, but adults, mothers, fathers, who were suddenly, you know, sending me messages saying “ Please, please, please, can you continue doing this?” Because you know, we really didn’t know how to engage. And there were mothers who were still attending office. They said, “Are you going to continue doing this? Because then I can come half an hour early from the office”.
Janaki: I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize that here, I was, you know, trying to take my baby steps as it were to do something online. And since that day, it’s been really wonderful. It’s been a roller coaster ride because I have engaged not only with children but with a series of live performances on Instagram and where we would also follow it up with an activity from Little Trails, where Avanti is an artist. So she was able to connect the story. So if I did a story about a spider, she would do an activity about drawing a very funny spider. So we had all these children and we were engaging with children every day. So from there, we started doing workshops for children, which was, you know, those kinds of numbers, where about 700-800 people who are online from all over the world.
Suhas: Actually, that sounds very massive. It’s a massive scale.
Janaki: Yes, it is; and you know what we did Suhas, we also recorded the Instagram Live on our IGTV, that is on Little Trails’ IGTV. So all those who had missed watching it live went on the IGTV platform; and we were getting multiple views on IGTV as well. So it was, you know, I just, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound very philosophical here, but I’d like to share with all those who are listening that my icky guy, you know, my sense of my purpose of being every day is to put a smile out there; it’s to spread smiles. And I thought I was blessed because I was able to do that with my storytelling. And when children’s workshops happen, we create communities.
Janaki: We created a safe space where we even had chat shows with experts, everything on Instagram; and then slowly, I said, why do I need to do this only for children? I think I should include adults. Okay. So I started doing short stories for adults too. I also started a series that I normally curate face- to- face. I shifted it online, which is called Melody and Memory where you sing that particular song that’s always there, you know, playing in your mind, and then you tell me a short story about it.
Suhas: Yes. Essentially like connecting verses of music with a story!
Janaki: Absolutely. So if you have a story which is from an old-timer or a Hindi movie, but you will have a story connected, maybe that was the first time you heard your sister sing it, or an uncle singing it, you know, something like that. And you know, something, maybe he didn’t sing it well. So it could be a very funny memory. It could be a memory which has been inside you for a very long time. And I’ve had people coming to the show saying, Oh, I just want to listen in, but somebody else’s memory triggers off a memory in their youth for people to share. Then I started sharing stories for adults where I did mythology, I did a comedy, and another couple of weeks I’ll be doing something called taboo stories. So I think and then of course I kept learning by attending writing workshops, attending a workshop where I would just listen and gather a whole lot of knowledge about maybe certain aspects of storytelling, which I knew just little about. And I wanted to, you know, increase my knowledge then of course, courses, like on Udemy, on LinkedIn and also on Harappa Learning. So I’ve been doing a lot, you know what I think the moment your mind is active and is continuously busy, I think you just seem so happy; not to of course I have to mention that I’ve been also exercising. The gym has moved online. I don’t have any domestic help at home.
Suhas: Okay. So you’re busy doing work at home.
Janaki: Yes. But I have a very supportive family. So we all have, you know specific chores that we are very good.
Suhas: Okay so it’s very well divided and it’s not like a burden on one person.
Janaki: But at the same time, there’s no stress of saying “HEY you didn’t do this today”. It’s like today I have a podcast recording and if I had to do something else, somebody else would pitch in. I mean, we have a family of four with my mother-in-law at 91 who provides me with all the entertainment, because she comes up with her wise-cracks and, you know, talking about corona and things like that. I think I’m keeping myself busy.
Suhas: And the best part is the fact that you know even though you are busy, you don’t sound stressed out, or that you feel you HAVE to do it. Then it sounds like you would actually enjoy doing all the things that you are very happy doing. So that’s really great.
Janaki: Absolutely. So I was doing this Sunday morning conversations on Instagram, which was a live show with people, you know, from all walks of life like musicians, you know, we had, Ashish Vidyarthi and everybody; but it stopped at last Sunday because I said, “I need to take a break”. I didn’t want it to become stressful like “Oh who am I going to interview next Sunday?” If that becomes a point of stress, then I think I will not enjoy it. So I think that is very important. But the first thing is to recognize that.
Suhas: Definitely. I think the fact that you also are aware of that and that you acknowledge that point at which it becomes too much for you, and you decided to give it a halt over there. I think that’s, that’s a wonderful point to note. So I’m going to start off with essentially the first question of the episode. So you have juggled multiple roles through your life across so many fields, be it as a marketer, a mother, an actor, an artist, a thespian or as a storyteller. So how have each of these roles influenced your perspective of mental health over these years?
Janaki: Okay. So now the different professions that you have, the different roles, each one of them be it marketing, mother, actor, artist, theatre, storyteller; they all have different audiences. So for example, when I was marketing, I was marketing a product or service. So what happens is that I am the face of the organization, and when I go and travel and I’m trying to convince my client why he should go in for a product or why he should go in for us service. The conviction with which I tell them you know, my story, my company’s story, the vision of my organization is that is what will make or break the deal, right; or make, or break the trust as you know. So for me, that audience was very different and see, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of how do I say it, you needed to be on call 24/7! It didn’t matter; because of being in the cinema industry, I was in the media and entertainment industry, selling a product like digital cinema. And, you know, before that I was doing that, I was handling a set of studios. So I was selling the service now in the cinema industry. You don’t have, especially in India, something like non-working hours; it’s like when you have to, you need to be there.
Suhas: Got it. Got it. So when you have to chip in to do your work, regardless of when it is, you have to be up to it.
Janaki: Absolutely. So you know it was stressful because see, a film releases on Friday, there would be a lot of issues, tension, but you have to be available. And it did take a, you know, it was stressful at times, but you know, the whole thing was to not take it too personally and take it to your heart, but I can easily say now, now that I no longer in the organization and no longer in a corporate avatar. But when I was going through, I won’t lie to you Suhas, it was stressful. You know sometimes you just feel like, why are you even here? But then what really charges you up is when you complete and when you, when you are convinced at what, the decision that you’ve taken and the fact that you’ve not lied to your customer, you’ve told them what was possible.
Janaki: And the trust that you give back to them saying that I will take care of your issue. So with that game, a lot of power, you know? You become so amazed at the quality of convincing somebody because you’re truthful. And you also trust your organization, your colleagues; if there was an issue to have solved the issue. So that is one audience, but then when you go to say, a theatre production, that influence that I got from corporate is that to be very convinced about what you’re seeing. So that is what came out of my corporate avatar. But in theater, in acting I always wanted you know, how do I say, I was always scared; I never wanted the director to retake a scene because I had made a mistake.
Suhas: You wanted to do your role in whatever the part with the best of its perfection in the first take itself!
Janaki: Yeah. So, I understand that itself is a little bit of stress on yourself. Sometimes inadvertently it will go wrong for whatever reason; we can’t by-heart our lines. We know our lines and we will say it in our own way, but sometimes some directors are very fixed on what they want. Because some directors say, “I’m giving you the gist of the scene. Now you say it”. Okay, of course you can’t use your own dialogues. There are dialogues written.
And so I had these, a team of assistant directors, always who used to help me out, they’ll all come and say “Ma’am ma’am, ipdi pannunga ma’am; if you do it this way, and I’m sure you can do it” you know? So sometimes the Tamizh will be a little hard, you know, it’s difficult, but somehow I managed. So from acting, I understood that, you know, you can’t stress yourself if, if there is a mistake. So be it, there’s always another take. It’s okay. It’s not the end of the world,
Suhas: But you know, on the flip side of that particular freedom and luxury isn’t particularly available in theatre because it’s a one-time run; you have to get it right.
Janaki: Exactly. So theater, again, this whole thing about, you know, becoming nervous. My mouth went dry and I was continuously having water. And it’s like, you know, you’re constantly thinking of the lines. At night you are not able to sleep because those lines keep coming back to you. But I think it comes with practice. The more you do so, you will find your own rhythm in your own dialogues, in the way you say those lines. Like for me, it is very visual. I really do plot points. You know the main important points; say I have a monologue and I have two pages of a monologue or three pages, I will know each paragraph that begins. I said, “Okay! I did A, then I went to B. Then I went to the next”, it is a sequence, right? So that way I always remember, you know, the scripts, your audience, doesn’t for you to bounce back, even if you’ve made a mistake, it’s up to you. And that that comes with experience.
Suhas: Of course, I definitely, I understand that. So just to form a gist of what we’ve spoken so far. You know, you mentioned about how, you know, even though you’ve had the elements of difficulty in your corporate tenure and in your acting I think could I say that you the fact that you have had some amount of job satisfaction and the fact that you delivered, really helped you mitigate that levels of stress that you had for the period right?
Janaki: See, and I was always there for my team also; my team of 40-45, you know colleagues. I was always there and it’s, it’s very happy. I’m so happy when I get messages even to this day saying, “Yeah, you were the best”. And they don’t have to because I’m no longer in the system. Some of them are also no longer in the system, but it is very, very um, you know, it gives you a lot of happiness and, you know, there’s a smile on my face and I read that; because you didn’t do it for that. Somebody will write to you 20 years later that you were the best or you help. I kept them together. I motivated them, you know, there was always, there was nothing that we can solve together. So that was something and the same applies, you know, when you go into different fields and as a storyteller, remember that you know, your audience becomes a participative audience.
Suhas: Okay. So you sort of have, like a feedback loop in that, the way you proceed also depends on how the audience interacts with you.
Janaki: Yeah. If they don’t like my story, which I will know in the first seven minutes, I’ll have to do something very dramatic.
Suhas: To catch their attention, yes.
Janaki: So that you innovate on the go. So, so each one has its beautiful moments Suhas.
Suhas: Okay. I definitely understand that. So now ma’am, just to sort of narrow down for the rest of the podcast, generations differ by several parameters across so many different filters, like as an artist you’re working closely and interacted with younger artists as well right? Is there a difference in how youngsters view mental health now? Compared to a back in the days a few decades ago, when you were a teenager and you started off.
Janaki: Totally; because when I was growing up, I don’t think mental health was even discussed at home unless there was somebody, you know, distant cousin or somebody who was going through an issue. And it was always looked at as an issue. Today’s generation, my God! Everybody speaks about it. I think to be, you know I think to borrow from what my daughter says, she says, “Ma you have a very different take on all this because you’re constantly surrounded by youngsters”. I work with a very young team in terms of storytelling, in terms of theater, you know, with Crea Shakti, with whom I do a lot of theater, I’m surrounded by youngsters who don’t have an issue talking about, “I had a bad day” and then it’s not a full stop. I had a bad day dot, dot dot. So others will pitch in.
Janaki: “So what happened? Explain to me”; and it’s not immediately “Let’s go to the doctor”. NO its like “We will try; we will help you with our circle”. And then that’s where I think our safe space becomes paramount. I think the youngsters of today have found a safe space. It could be their own friend circle, or maybe a bigger circle or people like you, you know, LonePack, where people are able to connect, and say that, “Hey, I’m going through this. Do you think you can help me? Or can you at least put me on to somebody?” Therapy and things like that, I mean, everybody discusses, everything threadbare now, which for somebody who’s just reading it, scrolling on Instagram or Facebook or any other forms of social media might say, “Oh my God, this one is feeling that I’ve been feeling the same, but I’ve, you know, restricted myself, I think I need to reach out”.
Suhas: Okay. So sometimes, you know, when you read about people’s stories on social media and you sort of relate to what they are feeling and you reflect upon those with yourself as well.
Suhas: Okay. Okay. I think there’s sort of a usual saying that hey there’s a generation gap here and there’s a stark difference here, maybe, you know, you’re one of the examples where again, because of your interactions and the way you’ve been engaging yourself, sort of tells us that your environment has played a major role in you know, sort of mending that gap, that supposed to be there for the generation.
Janaki: I’ll tell you one more thing. I have a 91 year old mother-in-law staying with us and she has never, you know, I think it’s also the family, the way you’ve been brought up in not just in my parent’s home, but with my mother-in-law’s as well. They don’t they don’t shy away from talking about these things; these are not taboo words. These are not taboo topics
Suhas: Understood, on the outset. Do you feel like that mental health is still a taboo now? Even though you’ve spoken a lot about it?
Janaki: No. No, I don’t think so. No, no. I’ll tell you what I think. I, I think the way it has been portrayed and the way people are sharing, you know, everybody has their own take on social media and all, but it’s how much you consume and for what purpose.
Suhas: That totally makes sense. So I think, you know, now that you’ve spoken a little bit about your own personal ideations about this a little bit on the professional side, right? Moving on, cinema, theater, and art have played a big role in influencing the perceptions and thoughts society has about various issues and various topics in it. So do you believe that these communities are doing justice to portray mental health issues on the screen or on stage? If yes, how is it? And if not, how do you think that needs to change?
Janaki: So I, I bring out two movies which have impacted me in the sense, and I think in fact, impacted society, one is of course is Taare Zameen Par which brought out dyslexia, and which was, I think the starting point for many parents. I have a friend who, you know, a friend’s friend who said that, “My God, now I can, you know, say to the open, it’s no longer a taboo. It’s no longer something that’s to shy away”. Sometimes you need to share. And for all, you know, it might just take you at, it was not just dyslexia. It was all parenting issues. It’s all about this, you know, being in the rat race, making sure that your child is forever coming first. This class and that class, you’re not, there are so many times I’ve told parents of very young ones. “Just let them be; allow them to stare into the walls because they need to dream. That’s when you know everything in, all the butterflies in their heads will set it down”n and then they’ll be energized and re-energized just because they have one hour or two hours of time. We don’t put them in class, not even storytelling, just make them, they should come and tell you that we need to go somewhere. So that was one. And secondly, a film which I really, really am very fond of is Dear Zindagi, which normalized therapy. Shah Rukh Khan says a very beautiful dialogue there, he says that “As a child we’ve never been allowed to express our emotions. If we are angry, we are said, no, no, no, you can’t be angry. No, no, no. Wipe your tears. And when, you want to express love? What then?”
Janaki: How can you express? You know what I mean? It was all of course in the context of Alia, but the protagonist. But I have seen that even. It’s still my go to a film whenever I am seeing, like, you know, I need to learn more about why people say certain things and you know it’s so judgmental. We can be so ruthless sometimes, you know, somebody said, we don’t realize what that person is saying, and we view it out of context. You know? So for me, I think I’m, I’m sure that I’m many others, like in Tamizh Aarohanam talks about Bipolar Disorder. So these are things that I hadn’t even heard of; like Bipolar Disorder, so it makes you want to research.
Suhas: Okay so you’re telling that there have been a few movies which have been very impactful in what they aim to do.
Janaki: But at the same time, there are clichés. Now at the moment, there is somebody who, who doesn’t speak the same way as you do or language, or he’s a little different. You can’t just say that he’s been put into a mental asylum. Yeah. This is unfortunately too huge, you know, poles apart
Suhas: Even though, even though it’s sort of exaggerated for the dramatics, it sort of puts out a wrong message at times.
Janaki: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you do it because you want to show, and it does like, you know, in all advertisements where they have to depict this out. So it is stereotyping a lot of imagery and we need to get out of it. People need to do a lot of research. I would urge people who are into these kinds of topics to speak to people. And that’s when I know that even in theater, Kirukku Nagaram for which they did a lot of research with LonePack and I remember watching it and then it blew me away. And I was like, “My God”, is this how, as a society, we react to people with mental illness?
Suhas: I think I remember, I know the whole reaction to that play which was really good.
Janaki: Just to complete, that needs to be done to bring about something as strong as theatre or cinema, because we consume it! We are such great consumers of this art form that it could really be the way forward to bringing about a lot of key issues to light.
Suhas: Definitely because I totally agree with you; I’ve watched movies across so many languages and, you know, with the advent of various OTT platforms this has also been bridged. I indulge in a bit of theater myself, and I have a lot of friends in the theater circle. But I think I totally agree with you on what you said, about the stereotypes Haven’t noticed that day I think that [inaudible] doing good and Vicky says, and you know the mainstream audiences so with respect to the movies how do you think the scales are tipping impact on people with respect to mental health?
Janaki: But it started already. So now it shouldn’t be difficult for us because there’ve been already films made in this genre and it just showed us, we need to be very, the topic has to be very sensitively handled that’s all, sensitivity with a lot of research. It’s not just enough to make people cry buckets, you know, at the end of it, if people understand and say, Oh, and they want to say, Oh, okay, this is a different point of view. And I’ve been like, if I disliked a neighbour, I am seeing it only from my point of view, right? What if we suddenly change from her point of view, I might be missing something; and we never do that. Right? When we get into a fight, it’s always me against that person.
Suhas: Okay. So if I may, you know simplify, I think you’re talking about empathy and about how one should be mindful of how you are to people, why you think people might be reacting in a certain way. So empathy is very important as a characteristic for people to nurture.
Suhas: Okay. That sounds really great to hear that from you. So I think I’ll move on to one of our final questions. So, very recently a lot of talk has been happening with respect to mental health, especially in the world of cinema. So regardless of the language, cinema continues to be very fast-paced, dynamic, and being the public eye is also so difficult and not very easy. The paparazzi are always around; so could you shed some light on the relationships and emotions shared across artists that grow in the industry? How do they interact with each other? Are they always very stressed? It’s something that’s never seen to be public, the lives of people in these industries, how they are as people on the outside.
Janaki: If one sees my body of work, I’ve done about 30 films, I think since 1994, so 27 years 30 films, that’s all, I’ve been very choosy because that’s what I was, I was handling a corporate life also, you know? And so I think I’ve been very lucky and having said that I’ve been very, very shy from the media as such. People write about me, if there is a theater or something, or some collaboration or something like that. But I will tell you something that my mentor told me a long time back when I had, I think my first film had released or second film I think, Jeans. And he said “Janaki remember that even after all your films, you should still be able to sit in an auto and go home”.
Janaki: So subconsciously, I think that stayed with me and I’ve done exactly that because I can still take an auto, we’ll have a very nice conversation with the automan. I’ve seen it with some there, and then we have this conversation and he finally said, “Oh my God, Ghilli, Vijay-mother” and all that. So I enjoyed that because it gives you a kick. But at the same time, I, I do understand that this whole thing about [the paparazzi], you know, I remember one time when I was in Pondicherry a lot of people who said, “Hey, inga parunga Vijay amma” I was petrified and went and ran into a shop and hid myself because I didn’t know how to react because I don’t know. I can’t even explain that. But when I was in Sri Lanka many, many years ago, when my first film had released and a whole lot of school children came and recognized me, I was okay with it, maybe because it was the first thing.
Janaki: So even as we evolve and the ways we react to situations also change. But for my other colleagues and all I hardly meet them. It’s always on the set and on the set, I’m very happy with my book. So it’s only during the short end that we all during lunchtime are direct. And then we go back to you know, other rooms or wherever via setting, but I I make it a point to speak and, you know, I’m always in search of my learning, you know, now I, again, I don’t want to stress myself saying, “Oh I didn’t learn anything today.” Not like that. It’s just nice to hear somebody else’s journey and you don’t orchestrate these conversations. It happens on the go!
Suhas: It’s not like you sit and talk about it, it’s just something that happens when you talk in the evening with friends, or just when you’re talking with anyone, you learn about new things and then you think about it and then you probably extract some type of learning.
Janaki: It’ll come; it’ll pop up one day when you’re doing something else.
Suhas: Okay. Okay. That sounds really interesting and I’m glad, you know you’ve also evolved so much with respect to how people react in such situations. And it’s great to see that you’re comfortable taking the roads and sometimes, you know, who knows the fact that somebody spoke to you might even make their day they’d be happy and the same auto-wala would probably go and be like “Hey I spoke to Vijay amma” your buddies that would probably give them a really good sense of, you know, content for that particular day.
Janaki: Let me tell you a joke that happened. My daughter came in and the auto guy dropped her off. And he asked her “So neenga indha building la irkeengala?” [ So do you stay in this building?] ; And she said, “Yeah”. And she was giving him the change, and he saidUngalakku theriyuma? Indha building la dhaan Vijay oda amma, Ghilli”, [Do you know? In this building Vijay’s mother from Ghilli stays]. She came and said, “Ma you’re very famous.” I didn’t realize that it was very cute and you just felt nice about it like that, you know? So these things happen and you just take it in straight.
Suhas: I definitely, I think I totally understand how that feels. So this is sort of to slide into the final question wrap this up. We’ve spoken up so many things, both personal and professional, and I think one of the most pressing questions and topics in this field of mental health, professional help. So along with professional help, we require the support of friends and family when you’re going through a difficult time. So what you can, each of us individually should keep in mind when we’re interacting with somebody else?
Janaki: Okay. So I think the first thing which is something that I really, really want to even speak about and emphasize, even for myself, is to be kind to people. We have no clue what they are going through. We all wear masks and we are so amazing at wearing these masks; unless and until you know that person inside-out, you’ll see through. Even like when I’m speaking to my daughter and suppose she’s not here, she’s not in town. She hears. And she says, “Ma you, okay?” So it’s, it’s as simple as that, you know? And because she asked me if I’m okay, and because she’s my daughter, and it’s a very safe conversation that you can have with your daughter, because she’s not going to judge, you, up saying something that disturbed you, something that you will not happy, but you can’t always rely only on family members, because they are also going through their own journeys.
Janaki: So you need that one person, or you need one person, who’s your friend, or you need that safety network of friends or people, who are actually qualified to ask you some questions. It’s not like one of these “Joram iruka? Evlo irundhudhu?” [Do you have fever? How much is it?] It’s not that it’s like, do you want to talk sometimes just a simple line, some simple question, like this can completely change somebody’s life. Do you want to talk? And that person breaks down or says, yes, I want to talk. You’re not to pick up that call, to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, it takes a lot of what do I say? Lots of ups, something from inside that pushes you, which forces you to pick up because otherwise it’s easy. We can always say, no, no, I don’t want to call it today.
Janaki: You’re only delaying that call, but the more you delay that call, the more horrible you will be feeling. So I think A, be kind and don’t judge, they’re going through something and please, we can never say, “Oh, I understand what you’re going through”. You will never be able to understand that is what they’re going through. So I always, I have seen so many TED talks, you know, ‘The 10 ways of having a conversation’, all these are mindfulness, all these are going, because I tried to, I want to become a better version of myself. I keep striving because I don’t want to hurt people with statements. I’m very, very mindful of what I speak now, because earlier we’ve all made mistakes. We’re all human. Yes. And I think everyone has a story. Everyone has a backstory, as they say, you know, you like Steve Jobs says you can only connect the dots, you know, backwards, right? Yeah. So when you, when you, when you connect those dots, only you realize, Oh my God, if I had not said that that day, maybe I would have never come to this phone today, but then you’re not God, it’s okay.
Suhas: Sometimes when we make mistakes. It’s okay to acknowledge that you made it and then try to react on how to go about it before even realizing that you made one and react about it.
Janaki: Absolutely. And I think if you’re being mindful, it’s very easy for me to say it is, it is not easy. It comes with a lot of experience, practice, and maturity. You know, there is something in music and Hindi, they say the ‘tehra’, or ‘nidhanam.’ That is even when you’re telling a story, you can’t go *wadadadadada*. “Once Upon a time” [slowly], you need everyone to soak in your story. So if you want people to even listen to you, you need to first understand that it’s okay to share, but you need to create that safe space, that safe network that, that one person or two people—it could be in the family, it could be your best friend. It could be maybe an ex-colleague who’s, you know, turned out to be your best friend now. So these are things—in these strange times, the pandemic has taught me so much saying that, you can push your limits and, go there, get out of your comfort zone. But the day you are not feeling comfortable, just keep quiet.
Suhas: I think, you know, that’s very important to know that. I think this answer was, can I say that this answer really sums up how you are and your philosophy about things in life itself?
Janaki: Yes, because there are some days I do nothing and it is okay. I used to stress about not having done anything, but I don’t longer stress. It’s okay! It’s okay to feel bad for 24 hours. It’s okay to not feel good some days. But you have to snap out of it. And if you’re unable to snap out of it, go and go ask for some help. It’s okay to not be okay, and then ask somebody for help.
Suhas: I think that really sums up you know, the whole idea about mental health and the fact that conversations are important. I think I’ll be happy with the way this whole conversation in the last half hour has turned out to be really good. You know just to sort of loop in something you said at the beginning, you felt very shy and weren’t very sure on how to interact on the online space, but I’ve been following you for very long and let me tell you ma’am, you’re very enthusiastic to watch and it instills the energy back in us. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be doing.
Suhas: Just before I close off, I’d like to bring something that you’ve spoken about right. You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of a safe space, a non-judgmental safe space where people can talk; that can be your friends or family or anybody else who you know you’re comfortable sharing your feelings with. We at LonePack have also understood the importance of this, and keeping this in mind, we’ve designed an online virtual space where people can do the same thing. It’s called LonePack Buddy, and the whole essence of LonePack Buddy is to provide a non-judgmental safe space, which is also anonymous, where people can talk to other volunteers from our end. People who volunteer with us are also trained with us in a course where they know how to talk to people actively and invest themselves emotionally and ensure that they can help people on a temporary basis. Of course, this is not a replacement for therapy. Just like you said, it’s good to have someone to have someone to talk to and you know, some days with the conversation you learn a lot about yourself when you talk to somebody, especially when someone is there to listen to you. So I think that’s the whole essence of LonePack Buddy. We just wanted to let you know so that you or somebody else who probably would want to talk can use this facility.
Janaki: I think it’s a wonderful initiative because I think like in the corporate world, when you say buddy, it’s like when somebody joins the company and you know, that person needs somebody to help get started. He needs help to understand the company better, the processes better. So I think a buddy like this, a LonePack buddy will be so good for people to understand because I, they will be non-judgmental, you know, and that is what I think we need in these times, especially in these times. Thank you for even launching that, and I think that’s a wonderful initiative and I know LonePack is doing some amazing work and I know you’re doing it very quietly. And I know that I think we need to inform a whole lot of people, especially in these times when people just need the need to just pick up the call and talk. It’ll be, I don’t know, we can’t put ourselves in their shoes.
Suhas: Definitely, I agree. This has been a very heartening conversation to have with you. Thank you so much for firstly agreeing to do this by taking time off your day and engaging with us. We hope that we can share a lot from you and collaborate further and I wish you an amazing day ahead and thank you so much for this.
Janaki: Thank you so much Suhas, and thank you LonePack, continue to do whatever you’re doing. And I will always be there and whatever way I can contribute for LonePack.
Suhas: Alright, thank you so much. I’d also leave a message to all the listeners that we’ve had listening to this wonderful conversation. Thank you and have a good day.
Over a decade ago, when there were no queer Indian voices online and no safe spaces for queer people to connect offline, Sakshi Juneja and her friends decided that they would begin the conversation about what it meant to be gay and desi, in other words- ‘Gaysi’. What started as a simple blog for queer desis to share their stories, has grown into a community that exists not just online but offline too. In addition to its forum for people to share stories, Gaysi features articles from prominent voices in the LGBTQ+ community, hosts events and screenings, has its own magazine- the ‘Gaysi Zine’, collaborates with major brands and has been featured in several national and international mainstream media publications. Want to learn more about Gaysi and the queer community? Keep listening.
Ruchika- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m your host, Ruchika. Today on the show, we have with us Jo- a doctoral student of Anthropology and the Digital Editor at Gaysi. Jo, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became a part of the queer community.
Jo- Hi, Ruchika. Thank you so much for having me here, firstly. I’m Jo. I’m a 25 year old research scholar in London. I study Anthropology and my area of work is Queer theory, sex work, lots of different things which I will not go into because it’s a different conversation. Well, I have comparatively been pretty new to the Indian queer community because I grew up in Gulf countries. I grew up in Riyadh and Sharjah for most of my life and it’s only when I got to India that I had so much more information to access that I could actually explore my sexuality and understand where I stand within the spectrums of sexuality and gender. So, I’m only about six years old within the community but those six years have been such a learning curve upwards, only upwards of learning and continuously seeing, doing, being part of the community, being very heavily involved with the community.
So, I think the first time I was exposed to the existence of somebody who is not as hetero-normative as I had seen throughout my childhood would be a close friend, when I was in my journalism degree in Bombay. After that, it was quite obvious because there was the Pride Parade that was happening in Bombay and Bombay is a very queer city in terms of its queer history. So, I had access to a lot of people, a lot of stories, a lot of voices I could talk to and then I went to Bangalore for my Master’s degree and then I got introduced to the larger Bangalore queer community as well, which has a very different texture to the Bombay queer community. That’s how I learnt so much from them as well and that is when I joined Gaysi.
So, I joined Gaysi as a writer initially and that’s how I had applied to Gaysi and they told me that I can do well as an editor as well and that’s how I sort of landed my dream job because for any queer young Indian to work with Gaysi has always been a dream because they have been such a solid pole star kind of a voice for so many of us for like the past ten or eleven years. So for me, working for Gaysi was something I didn’t expect, to be working in the close capacity that I’m working in right now.
Ruchika- Yeah, I agree that working with Gaysi would be a dream for many in the queer community. So, Gaysi as an organization does not just go by the name ‘Gaysi’ but by the name ‘Gaysi Family’. So, could you elaborate on why and how the choice came about to name it this way and how do you extend this notion of being a family with the larger queer community through your online as well as offline events?
Jo- So, if you were to think about only the semantics of the name, Gaysi started as a space where- Sakshi felt like there needs to be a space where- all kinds of people can speak about anything that they want as long as they’re queer and desi because there was no space for them to even share the most basic things. For example, when you go to a movie and you see some sort of a female friendship that looked as though it had a queer subtext, there’s no friend you could have told it to because you might be a closeted queer person. So, Gaysi was that space where you could just come and write, even if it’s just four lines. It didn’t have to be a heavily edited article, it didn’t have to be a long form seven thousand word article. It could just be five lines of why somebody felt ‘Fire’, as a movie in ‘95, was a great film to begin with. It could just be those four lines or five lines.
I think Sakshi wanted to create that family and for us, within the queer community, the concept of chosen families is very very important and I think that’s something to do with most marginalized communities because in the case of whether it’s queer families or whether it is sex workers, it could be anybody. When I think of most marginalized communities, it’s very important to have external families. Most of us would call those families “friends” but it’s a lot more because in the case of queer folks, most of our biological families might have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that our existence is completely normal because they’ve never been taught that our existence is normal. They’ve always been taught within hetero-normative structures, that being gay, being queer, being a lesbian, being asexual, not conforming to gender, is something that is deviant behavior and not something that is completely normal and that has been around for way more centuries than even colonialism has been in our country.
Being queer is nothing new although that’s the common misconception and the stigma that is attached to being queer, which is why chosen families play such an important role because let’s say for example, I have a very close friend of mine who has an extremely difficult family right now. They are continuously triggered, they are continuously told that they don’t matter, that they’re not valid, that they’re thoughts don’t matter. They are constantly put in pressure to go and seek therapy to make them “normal”. They find peace when they talk to me and my partner, which is why they call us their parents, their pseudo-parents because that sort of parental help that we can give like for example, when this person had to write their IELTS exam, which is an English exam, I was there to walk them through the entire exam because I wrote it with them so it’s not only about a friendship but it’s something more as well because they can actually fall back on you and those friends who are more family than friends are very very very vital to the survival of queer folks because without them, it’s a very difficult world to live in. We all know about the rates of depression and suicide that affects the queer community or marginalized communities more than it affects those who are in a space of privilege.
So, yeah, I hope that answers your question about why it’s called ‘Gaysi Family’ and not just ‘Gaysi’ although colloquially we just say ‘Gaysi’, nobody says ‘Gaysi Family’ but that was the idea and that segues into the fact that chosen families are super important.
Ruchika- Yeah. While the LGBTQ+ community on the whole still has a long way to go in India to find complete acceptance, the LBT individuals in particular do not have enough support. Gaysi, however, has made a special effort to be inclusive towards these individuals. How and why did this happen? Was it something that you did intentionally or did it come about organically?
Jo- It’s a very interesting question, first of all because it’s very central to Gaysi’s functioning, talking about LBT individuals. So, well, yes. Firstly, we do have a long way to go, specifically when we talk about the fact that we’re still not seem as equals even though because of the amendment of section 377, we can see that at least we can have sex equally, to heterosexual couples but that’s not enough because letting people have sex is obviously not the government’s purview but I guess that’s one thing to be grateful for because for a lot of us, we are more content with the privacy law rather than section 377 although section 377 is a very high-profile law which is why there was so much celebration around it but the Privacy law did a lot more for queer individuals because it very clearly started that sexual orientation and gender identity is a private matter, which is a very important step but of course, because of the Trans Bill right now, we have gone two centuries back because the Trans Bill is a horrendous bill that has come out and that’s the first thing we need to be solving.
Then there is same-sex marriage acts that we have to talk about, we have to talk about the anti-trafficking bill, which convoluted all kinds of different groups- it affects trans sex workers, it affects cis queer sex workers as well so yeah, it is a very messy journey but none of our rights, whether it’s feminism, Black rights, any sort of rights in the World, none of it came easily, none of it came without tonnes of us fighting extremely hard but it has to happen because otherwise there is no freedom for all of us together so, yeah, that’s one part of the question. For the other part of the question, about the LBT community, firstly I want to clarify that when we say LBT, it would include everybody who is a gender, sexual and romantic minority, it does not only include Lesbians, bisexual people and trans people, so I just wanted to make that clear.
Firstly, the fact that Gaysi was created by cis-gender queer women who identify themselves as lesbians already creates a space where the needs of those who are are not cis-gender gay men will be put forth more than the needs of cis-gender gay men, if I’m clear. So, I’ll make that clear in the next few sentences as I go. Gaysi was created because there was already some amount of a space for cis-gay men in the Bombay queer community for them to speak about, meet, stuff like that and I think one thing we forget is that patriarchy still allows for cis-gender heterosexual men and cis-gender gay men to access public space in a way that people who are not cis-gender gay men cannot access public space because for us, in most cases, let’s say cis women, will be shut off at home if somebody finds out that they are gay. They cannot ward of marriage in the same way that cis men might be able to, for example. There are lots of things we can’t do. So, keeping that in mind as well, the space that has to be built for people within LBT communities has to be different from the space that has always existed in public space for cis gay men, which is why when it comes to Gaysi as well, when we started doing our parties, our two-by-two parties, we wanted to specifically create a space that LBT people can access freely and as openly as possible, which does not have to be absolutely mixed with cis gay men because, because of the amount of spaces that are already available, I have been to parties where there were eight percent men and twenty percent, everybody else.
That made me feel very uncomfortable because I was not able to enjoy the space in the same way that I would have enjoyed it in any other space and especially when it comes to non-binary people or trans people or people who like to cross-dress or people who have any sort of different gender identity than cis-gender, that space is not available even now, I would say. Even after Gaysi, not enough spaces are available for all minorities in public space and this is still something Gaysi has to work on. I’m not saying we’ve created this epitome of awesome space but it’s something that we have very purposely tried to do because we have to do that. Making of space and ensuring that all communities and minorities are centred and given space, does not always happen organically so it is very important that people purposely be allies to these communities, very purposely ensure that their space is valued and kept in the centre, especially if they’ve not had that access. So, I hope this answer wasn’t too academic. (laughs)
Ruchika- It’s great to hear that Gaysi is being proactive towards this cause but I’d like to ask you another question. Members of the gay community are often stereotyped into moulds that can be very problematic. For example, lesbian and bisexual women of the community are very largely fetishized in pop culture. In your life and in your work with Gaysi, have you come across such instances and how do you suggest that we tackle them?
Jo- Yes, of course! Fetishization is a major problem. I mean of course, one of the first things I came across when I was a child that had to do anything with the community was lesbian porn because I though people were only lesbians when it came to porn, I didn’t think it was a real thing because that’s the kind of stigma that we’ve been fed. That it’s a preference, it’s a choice that you make in bed and not that it’s an actual romantic sexual emotional feeling towards another person which is completely as normal as heterosexuality, So, of course that totally exists and it stems from the stigma that any sexuality other than heterosexuality is not real, which is why a woman on woman kind of relationship is very stigmatized, it’s a sexualized view and even the first time when we talk about bisexiality and how stigmatized it is, for most bisexual people, especially if they are assigned female at birth, if they go on Tinder and they’re trying to look for somebody, usually you get couples who ask for somebody for a threesome so that’s what most people are reduced to. So, again that’s another thing.
That’s part of the stigma that’s attached to the community that says that this is all bisexual people and lesbian people are worth and that is what their function is in life and it’s sad because while that’s what they might be interested in, you are not taking an effort to learn more about them, about their likes, their dislikes and you reduce an entire person to their sexuality, which is the problem, right? So that’s that about the stigma, that it does exist. You don’t see it as much in the case of gay men because I actually know a lot of gay men who’ve asked me how I can like women and I’m like “just like how you can like men.” How does that make sense? So there is a lot of stigma within the community itself.
Within the community there are homosexual people who think bisexuality is a just a path to homosexuality rather than a very valid sexual orientation and I mean there is a stigma within the homosexual and bisexual communities, there are people who think that asexuality is not valid and I identify as asexual and it’s my lived experience that I do not feel sexual attraction towards a person I love very much on an everyday basis or there is a certain way that I have understood my sexuality and I would say that all these things have always existed within us, we just have words and a language for it, that is it.
All of us feel certain things. Human beings are very complex. If we can understand that our bodies are so complex and we can have five hundred organs doing five hundred things, why can we not understand that we have five hundred feelings and systems and this and that doing different functions for us? It’s as simple as that. I think this largely ties to the understanding also of mental health. If you cannot understand that mental health and physical health is very on par and should be taken care of on a serious level on par with each other, that is also why you cannot understand that emotions and feelings can be as diverse as your own bodily functions, if that makes sense.
Ruchika- Yeah, I completely agree with you about the continuum between mental and physical health. Speaking of that, there are studies that report that members of the queer community are at greater risk of developing mental health issues but for many members of this community, access to safe mental healthcare is a challenge. So can you elaborate for our listeners on this topic? What can we do to remove the barriers that the community faces?
Jo- Yes, I completely agree. There is a major issue with how much queer folks face mental health issues because the spaces that they live in and grew up in are extraordinarily different from how it is to live as a hetero-normative person who is adhering to most of society’s standards. For example, let’s say there will be a very clear difference in attitudes towards a heterosexual sibling and a homosexual sibling because the homosexual sibling is not seen as a normal part of the family at all. The family themselves have not learnt anything beyond hetero-normativity so the homosexual child will be treated differently. A child, for example, if they have been assigned male at birth and they are wearing a saree, they probably will be beaten up by their parents to sort of make them better or something, apparently.
Yeah, I know abuse is a different thing to be talking about but a lot of children in families that are hetero-normative and if they are homosexual or if they are just not hetero-normative like the rest of the family, will go through some amount of abuse, whether it’s verbal, physical, emotional or will even just be said some things that are extremely scarring and sadly, because we don’t have queer affirmative mental heath practices enough in the country, and just generally also there is so much stigma around mental health that parents are not going to reach out to a psychologist or a therapist to talk to them about how they can support their kid. Instead, they will reach out to psychiatrists to put their kids into conversion therapy, for example. So, it’s a completely opposite way to be looking at it, instead of trying to understand why their child might be having these feelings or how we can support them better.
So, that’s the kind of conversation that we should be having that we’re still not having, which leads to obvious mental health disorders, to illnesses, to just not very healthy practices at home and yeah, of course it ends up in young queer children having to take so much more therapy for all the nonsense that their parents have fed them, so it’s really sad. The statistics are right. A lot of us face a lot more depression and anxiety because we are closeted for most of our lives, so it is a very horrible space to be in- to continuously lead two lives- to continuously be inside the closet and outside the closet with some people but not with other people and not live our authentic lives, our true lives. That’s extremely tough.
Ruchika- I agree. I wanted you to elaborate a little bit more on the queer affirmative therapy. How does it help the members of the LGBTQ+ community?
Jo- So, the reason that we need to have queer affirmative therapy rather than just queer neutral therapy, very basically, we need to have therapists who have educated themselves on the community and who need to be affirmative to their LGBT clients. That is extremely important so that they don’t end up sitting over there saying something that further demonizes the community, that further stigmatizes the person sitting in front of them and makes them feel like they are of no significance to the Earth because that can really happen a lot. For example, something very basic like self harm and we have the person opposite just guilting them, that itself can make a person feel extremely horrible about themselves. Similarly, in the case of queer folks as well, if it’s not affirmative, if it’s not coming from a place where the therapist is well read, it can really have very negative side effects on the person who is seeking therapy and that can be extremely dangerous because we already don’t have many therapists in the country and we have more therapists in metropolitan cities than in any other place and that already is a big gap because smaller towns, tier I, tier II cities don’t have enough queer affirmative practices that work. So, there’s still a long way to go, that’s where I always end up. Such a long way to go but have I answered your question? Is there something else you wanted me to elaborate on? Because I’m not a therapist also.
Ruchika- Yeah, of course but I believe Gaysi has done something about this. They’ve compiled a list of practitioners.
Jo- Yes. So, first of all, we do have some really great organizations like the Mariwala Health Initiative and other tonnes of initiatives that try and push therapists to look at their practice and make it more queer affirmative. It’s something that’s coming into the mainstream right now and I’m glad that’s happening. More queer folks, thankfully, are becoming therapists and practitioners. So, we do need queer folks from the community itself to also take up counselling because I know trans men who are counsellors and who are amazing counsellors. It’s a different thing to be able to take from your lived experience and counsel a client, right? Because when a client sees someone who is exactly like them, it’s a different sort of affirmation than for example, a cis person telling them about gender dysphoria. So, when a trans person tells them about gender dysphoria, it’s a different sort of affirmation.
So, I’m happy to see that so many more queer folks are engaging in therapy. I, myself, am planning to take a few counselling courses over the next few years because I figured that I’m doing that on a day-to-day basis anyway and I’d rather be more well-read while I do it and be a proper counsellor than be a person who is offering free therapy anyway. With regards to Gaysi, so Gaysi is technically a media platform. We do what we do through content and continuously creating content to read. So, the resource tab is something we had thought of like five to six months back when we are like okay, you know what? We need to have some sort of really easy resource guide kind of things which can be accessed by anybody and which sort of delves into these concepts that we don’t see in the Indian context.
For example, the first resource guide we had put up was something about binders that are used by people across the spectrum- the non-binary spectrum, the trans spectrum- and we had not seen any information on binders that had anything to do with Indian queer people and we saw that gap and that’s another gap that we keep trying to fill. So, that’s how the resource section started coming up and within the resource section, we’ve had so many different articles, and within that we’ve had like for example, the ‘Gaysi guide to queer positive mental health’, under which we started publishing guides on whom to reach out to if you’re feeling depressed, some helplines that are queer affirmative, some practices or therapists who are queer affirmative and whom we can go to. So, that was the whole point of the guides that we’ve been trying to create because we figured that if a person is sad, if a person is depressed or anxious or not in a good space of mind, the last thing they want to do is go on Google and sift through tonnes and tonnes of material that is available. Instead, if we are able to streamline that and do that for them, maybe it might help, which is why we worked with our writers to do that research and there is this very cool database that we have created which I am personally proud of.
It’s thanks to our writer, Anna, who put all of this together on a work-flowy flowchart kind of thing, like if you press “Kashmir”, you will get therapists who will help you, who are queer affirmative or if you press “Andaman”, you will get the same. That’s very necessary and thankfully yes, there are tonnes of lists that keep going around. So, that’s what we’ve tried to do with the different lists and most recently, we did a little chat with a therapist who was talking about borderline and bipolar disorder in the context of queer communities, which is also important.
So, we’re trying to understand how most of these mental health issues work when it comes into a space where the person is also queer and thus, might have had a difficult family background or some kind of issue with their self and how they view themselves. That’s what we’re doing in the mental health sort of thing but again, none of us are therapists so we try to push them to actual therapists if anybody needs help from us. But yeah, first-aid is something we definitely pay a lot of attention on because all of us need to know mental health first-aid just like we know physical health first-aid.
Ruchika- Yeah, so it’s great to hear that Gaysi is not just a media platform but also a resource hub for people when they want to access mental health help. So, it’s been over a decade that Gaysi has been around and has given people a platform to share their stories. What major trends and changes have you noticed in the kinds of stories that people have been submitting through the years?
Jo- Definitely one would be that the articles are getting a lot more nuanced. People are writing about things very critically. I think that’s just our time and I guess we’ve just grown as a community to talk beyond coming out. To talk beyond acceptance, because usually the most common thing for people to talk about is coming out of the closet and how people accept it. These are the two questions that people are continuously asking queer folks but that’s not the only thing that queer folks encounter. So, it’s amazing to see that people really engage with media nowadays and they really question where media comes from.
The trends that I’ve noticed is earlier a lot of us would be completely okay with brands making Pride month all about themselves by putting a rainbow flag but now we are very critical about whether that brand is giving enough money into the queer community because at the end of the day, the queer community does not need more platforms. We have enough platforms. We’ve always had a voice, we’ve just been silenced. But what they do need, is jobs. What they do need is better policy. What they do need is anti-bullying policies, washrooms that can be accessible, spaces where the intersectionalities are visible because there are disabled queer people, there are people who have mental health issues and are queer.
All sorts of intersectionalities- there are dalit queers, there are upper-class queers, upper-caste queers, middle-class queers, there are all kinds of intersectionalities that we need to talk about. There are queers in smaller towns and villages. How do we make our things more accessible to them? It cannot be continuously speaking in this vacuum of privilege, right? So, I think that is something that has grown in the past few years because there are people who come and talk to us. Recently, we had a really cool article written by one of our writers, Abhishek, who spoke about how the English language both, helps the queer community but also restricts the queer community because it’s not accessible to so many people. I wouldn’t even say Hindi is accessible to enough people because again, it’s a very small population that knows Hindi. The whole of South India is not interested in learning the language. I mean I am South Indian so, it should be in languages that are for us as well.
So, thankfully the conversation has also moved forward to other things like I personally enjoy talking about and thinking about how localizing queer support is the way to move forward in the future because even though Gaysi or larger organizations exist in the country, we cannot provide support to everybody. It’s impossible in a country especially like India and Gaysi has a very clear population and there is only a certain amount of diversity that we can reach out to. We should be aware of that and we are aware of that, which is why supporting smaller organizations who can provide localized support is very important. For example, Yol in Manipur, they are looking after the Manipur community and the communities around there, and pushing in more money and more help and more resources there would make more sense than pushing more money and resources into larger organizations. Personally, I feel like money will come easier for us anyway so it’s important for us to push forward smaller, local community help and solidarity support systems that exist in smaller towns in Coimbatore, in Chennai, in Thrissur, whatever smaller spaces and pockets that exist.
So, those queer groups should be pushed more, should be supported and put in solidarity with more because I think that’s the future of the queer movement in India. It is not having more Pride parades. I mean yes, that’s fun but that’s not it. It has to be as accessible as possible to all kinds of people as possible and that’s not going to happen with one streamlined movement. It’s going to only happen with an intersectional movement that looks at all kinds of people.
Ruchika- Absolutely so yeah, I agree because the smaller organizations are the ones that understand the needs of their communities the best as opposed to maybe the bigger ones.
Jo- Yes. Ruchika- Jo, thank you so much for joining us on this show today and for giving us such valuable insights into the queer community.
When you decide to be true to yourself and live life without hiding a significant part of your identity, it’s common for people to make you feel like you don’t belong and are not accepted. A safe space to share your story and know that there are others like you gives you a sense of connection and comfort.
Valerie– Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we have with us Deepthi, one of the founders of Chennai Queer Cafe, an online and offline safe social space for anyone who is a cis woman and identifies as Queer or Questioning. She has been a member of the Orinam group and mailing list since 2011 and has been volunteering with the Queer community in Chennai since then. She has been a part of the organizing team at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival since 2013. She is passionate about movies, women in sports, mental health issues and intersectional feminism.
Deepthi– Hi. Thank you, Valerie. Thanks for the introduction. One quick thing I would like to say about the introduction is that the group is not just for queer cis women, it’s actually for queer AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals, which sort of includes anybody who is cis gender, identifies as bi, pan or lesbian, and who are assigned female at birth and are trans masculine, gender fluid, as well as non-binary.
Valerie- Thank you for the clarification.
You were part of the core team that started Chennai Queer Cafe, about 3 years ago, in order to create a safe social space for queer cis women in and around Chennai. What was it that compelled you to start this initiative and how did people receive it?
Deepthi– So, since 2011, like you said, I’ve been a part of Orinam and other queer spaces in Chennai but there wasn’t really an exclusive AFAB space. When we started, there were very few, less than a handful queer women who were coming to the meeting. Not necessarily out in their own spaces but even coming to the meetings. So at that point, like I think around 2013 or so, I had a really bad breakup and I was in a really low point and there was a lot of marriage pressure from the family. At that point, I really needed a space like that, where I could talk to people who could relate to my issue.
Not that there were not but then, it would have felt better, is what I had in mind and then in 2014-15, when I had the time, there were a little more people. Then we thought of a space like this and then we started an online space and slowly moved it to the offline space. So we meet once every month. Now because of the lockdown we are not able to, but before this, it’s been about three years, we started in September, three years back.
Valerie- So, how did people receive it when you started this initiative? I mean, from then to now, obviously we’ve probably had more people who are coming in and sharing their stories but at a time like then, what was it like?
Deepthi- So, the film festival is usually in June-July-August, early August or late July. So, we started sort of talking about this group around that time and quite a few people had come to the film festival and they were looking for a space like this as well. From them on, we’ve been associated with the film festival so we sort of put a word out during the film festival and the queer events. So, initially we had about 7-8 people, now we have roughly about 20 odd people that come for the offline meetings.
So just as you said, a lot of the reason you started the initiative draws from your own personal experience. When you realised you were queer, what was your initial reaction? How did you decide to come out to your loved ones and how did their reception to it impact your mental health?
Deepthi– There are a lot of layers in that question. I think I figured out and I knew I liked girls when I was around 16 or so but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on my life or on my everyday stuff. I think it was only when I was 25 that I accepted my sexuality and slowly, I started talking to friends about it. Even at that point, I wasn’t a part of the queer community. So, slowly I started talking to friends. I knew it was a sort of taboo subject and I can’t just randomly come out at work or spaces like that. So, I was very careful as to whom I spoke to.
I had come out to the family when there was a lot of marriage pressure and stuff. At that point, initially, they were pretty hesitant saying “You were in hostels, maybe it’s because of that” but then they took me to a counsellor in Chennai. That wasn’t a very good experience, that counsellor was pretty homophobic and the they gave me some time and then they took me to another counsellor that was in Bangalore. So, the counsellor in Bangalore was pretty accepting and at the end of the session, she called in my family and she was like “She’s pretty clear about what she wants. She’s pretty clear as to what she is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you should change about it. Just let her be.” Since then, there’s sort of been no discussion.
So again, when you talk about the mental health aspect of it, I would say the first session that I had in Chennai was pretty traumatic. So, that put me in a lot of pressure. At that point, I was in touch with the community but I never really was in a space to mix family and community yet. There was still a lot of pressure from family and the first experience I had with the counsellor didn’t help at all. I think at that point or even early on, when I knew I was queer, I think if there was right representation in the media or access to materials with which I could educate myself, I couldv’e guided myself better, guided my family better and have done away with a lot of trauma that I had to face.
Even now, even in this day and age of social media, we have queer Pride events happening in cities, we have newspaper coverage, there are still people and parents who believe in this conversion therapy concept. I’m sure you would’ve recently heard that a girl from Kerala committed suicide because of all this. There’s still a lot of this happening and I would say that the solution for that would be on a certain level, educating these touch-points, whether it’s somebody who works in a school or somebody who is a mental health professional or people who are in the media to do the right representation. Even articles sometimes written in the media end up being homophobic. All that put together, a conversation in every space, is what would have helped me when I was 16 or when I was 20. That’s what would help parents normalize it or kids to not feel traumatized about what they are.
Valerie- Right. I liked that you said that right representation is important and access to material so that people can be educated, which makes it an easier conversation when you decide to come out and when you decide to talk to people.
Valerie- So, you’ve been vocal about how queer women often lack access to the same benefits and legal rights compared to heterosexual cis women. This can have far-reaching consequences, especially impacting someone’s self-esteem and mental health. What are your views on this? Can you describe it for our listeners?
Deepthi- Sure. In my personal experience, I can talk about somebody who is queer cis but again, I would also like to talk about people on the AFAB spectrum because it’s quite different how the AFAB people experience discrimination or oppression. When it comes to me, I would say that queer relationships, especially, are not legally recognized so that has its own complications- whether it’s starting a bank account together or adding your partner as a beneficiary, say for example, on life insurance. Adoption is another huge challenge. Staying together isn’t always easy. People talk. There will be people that say “Oh, two girls are staying together.” Parents don’t make it easy. Even if you’re out to them, you’re not out to them.
I think, far more traumatic will be situations like if your partner is in the hospital going through something very serious, you don’t have the kind of authority in those spaces. If there is a consent form that needs to be signed or something, they would want somebody who is a blood relative. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been living together for like six, seven or ten years, they would still ask you “How are you related?”. I would imagine that can be a pretty traumatic situation.
When it comes to somebody who is AFAB and identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, I feel like since their gender expression is different in the sense that somebody who is gender fluid would want to dress up like the opposite sex one day, the societal opposite sex notion, that can cause a lot of judgement. That can cause a lot of judgment from people around in work spaces. Restrooms are again a messy situation when your gender expression doesn’t match what the society expects it to be. When it comes to documentation, it’s a huge challenge- whether it’s a government space or otherwise. So I think these can take a huge toll on especially gender fluid and non-binary people on an everyday basis.
Valerie– Right. So, we’ve talked about what it is like for queer women when it comes to benefits and legal rights but even when it comes to interacting with people in our own community, a lot of people have come out in support of the queer community but I think we’d all agree that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to complete acceptance. What can we do, as individuals, to ensure we can be a support system to the community?
Deepthi– Whether it’s individuals or brands or organizations, especially when it comes to brands, it’s sort of very triggering when it comes to the whole Pride month because some brands, all they do, is change the logo just for PR. The sensitivity that they show or all that they talk about does not reflect in their policy. Do they have samesex partner benefits in their policy? No. Do they have a gender neutral sexual harassment policy? Maybe not.
So, similarly, for individuals as well, when it’s Pride month, everybody has a hashtag thing going on, everybody has these frames that they put up on Facebook but a lot of them are not very okay when it comes to starting the conversation around the community when it comes to their friends’ circle or family. I think that would be a huge change. It’s very hard for somebody to recognize and admit to biphobia, transphobia and homophobia.
If you want to be the person who wants to help the community or be a support system, I think learning, educating, starting conversations and creating a safe space. If it’s the workplace, you want to create a safe space for queer people to come out. So, just compassion, just learning and being a bit sensitive as to what and how. Introspect. I think mainly, starting conversations is what it is but also, along with that, being sensitive and compassionate.
Valerie– So, what are the kinds of reactions that you’ve seen when people come out, that have been negative and can possibly impact people the wrong way? As you said, people do lack compassion and very often, people are insensitive to the whole thing, right? So, what have you seen?
Deepthi– So, I’ve seen people say “Oh, it’s just a phase. You’ll get through it.” or even worse things like “Oh, you just didn’t find the right man.” Not a very good experience but this is really early on in life where I was like okay, you guys are not going to be very sensitive about it, let me just move myself away from spaces like this. I had the luxury to move away. Not everybody would.
Valerie– Right. So, from the experiences you’ve had, when it came to starting the Chennai Queer Cafe as well as your own personal experience- because you’ve heard stories of people who come to you and talk about their own journeys- what would you like to say to the people who are struggling to come out?
Deepthi– I would say that you don’t have to come out. It’s always a choice but then sometimes it’s not easy for a woman because of marriage pressure but there are usually work arounds. One thing I would like to say is- assess your situation because nobody knows it better than you do. You have to figure out if you come out to your parents, how receptive they are. Is there danger of violence? Is there a situation where you can be in like a house arrest situation? So, those are the things you first need to assess.
I would say test waters. If you are somebody who identifies as non-binary or trans, just drop a word about some actor coming out as trans or some actor coming out as bisexual, just to test waters and see where they stand. I would say, after that, depending on the situation, either you move out of your house whether it’s to study or to work, get your own financial freedom, get your own social support system, like at least five or six friends. They don’t have to necessarily be from the community but some kind of support system that will help you stay sane in times like this, when you’re accidentally out to the family. If and when you choose to come out to the family, you need to have the financial confidence and the emotional support system for you to stay sane.
So, I think these are the two things that I have pretty much told a lot of people who are like “I think I’ll come out.” Figure out what your situation is. Figure out how open your parents are to listening. Then you take a stand, if you choose to come out.
Valerie– Thank you for your insights on that. I think it’s very important, like you have mentioned in the past, for us as well, it’s important to start initiating conversation and not just turning a blind eye and being ignorant when somebody wants to speak to us. I think it’s very important for us to take part in creating a safe space and being supportive and compassionate towards people so that in turn, we can be a community that does become completely acceptive.
Deepthi– One last point I would like to add is that when I say conversations, it can be around anything. Whether it’s somebody talking about a policy in a workspace or whether they’re taking a domestic violence seminar, you have to understand that queer people exist everywhere so queer identity or queer conversations are as relevant in domestic violence cases as they are anywhere else. So, whether it’s a start-up culture, I am a queer person working in a start-up, so there’s like a two-layered pressure on me, when it comes to my mental health. So, in any space, I think these conversations need to be normalized and so they need to be started.
Valerie- Correct. It was a lot of information that you gave us today, a lot of insights when it came to the legal rights, when it came to how we accept and how we should be around people who decide to come out so that we can be there for them. So, thank you for all of the information and thank you for this conversation.
Deepthi– Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks, Valerie.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), also known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is a severe manifestation of the group of psychological disorders known as Dissociation. DID is characterized by an individual experiencing a splitting or fragmenting of their original personality into two or more different ones.
This leads to a lack of clarity in a person’s thought, emotions, memories and actions.
What causes it?
Extensive research by organisations such as the American Psychiatric Association shows that DID is more often than not caused by severe emotional, physical or environmental trauma in a person’s past. These causes include physical, sexual, and mental abuse, the loss of a loved one, and life-threatening or near-death incidents, usually occurring around the age of 6.
Who does it affect?
DID occurs very rarely; studies show that it affects 0.1% to 1% of the general population. But when it does occur, there is no age bracket or cases of medical history within which patients fall. DID can affect anyone, living at any place, of any age, or with any background. The onset is commonly observed to be during childhood, but the symptoms may take years to manifest, making it very difficult to diagnose and treat the individuals.
However, it is also commonly agreed-upon by medical professionals that females are more susceptible to this disorder than men.
How can you recognize it?
The following symptoms have been recognized and grouped among individuals with DID:
Eating and Sleeping disturbances
Prolonged headaches and migraines due to irregular sleep patterns
One other symptom that is observed is an alternation of personalities; a radical shift in thoughts, behavior and emotions, due to the emergence of the different ‘alters’.
Methods of Treatment
Psychotherapy: Also called ‘talk therapy’, it is designed to work through whatever triggers the DID.
Hypnotherapy:Clinical hypnosis can be used to help the person access and deal with repressed memories and feelings that are potential causes of DID.
Another effective form of therapy is encouraging the affected individual to indulge in the creative arts, music, or exercise; anything that can help to reduce stress in a positive way.
Misconceptions about DID
Multiple personality disorder, as DID is more commonly known, has been featured time and again in novels, television series, and movies, the most famous of them being the character of Gollum in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, and Alfred Hitchcock’s blockbuster hit, Psycho (1960). While it makes a good premise for pop culture, the severity of this mental illness is often disregarded and misunderstood.
Though most fictitious characterizations show one or more of the personalities as being ‘good’ or ‘soft’, and some as being ‘violent’ or ‘psychopathic’, in reality, one can never predict the nature of the ‘alters’. So it is best to seek professional help when dealing with a person with DID.
How can I help?
You can help the patient by recognizing the symptoms at the right time and taking immediate action. DID is a very serious condition that needs to be treated as soon as it is diagnosed.
Your teens are always a difficult time. We are trying to explore our rebellious natures, trying to find our identities, all the while trying to fit in with our peer group; and when we’re made to feel like we’re different and that we don’t belong – It’s challenging. It takes immense courage to stand up for ourselves and live our truth – even if that means we may not fully ‘fit in’. It’s okay to ‘fit out’.
Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Anwesh Sahoo, an artist, writer, model and a TEDx speaker who was crowned Mr. Gay World India, 2016. He is an activist for LGBTQ rights and has written extensively to dispel stereotypes people have about the LGBTQ community. His campaign “Fitting Out” aimed at connecting with NGOs, schools and communities to spread awareness about the simple fact that straight men and women are only a part of the rainbow spectrum of sexual orientations possible.
Anwesh – Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.
Valerie– It’s great to have you here today.
Anwesh– Thank you. I’m happy to be a part and I hope that I can actually give out something worthwhile during our conversation. I still believe that I think I’m too small a being to actually be here talking about such big issues today but thank you so much for having me.
Valerie– I’m sure you will. I mean it’s been a very personal journey for you and I’m sure our listeners would love to hear about it and it will be very inspiring.
Anwesh- I hope so, I hope so. Perfect.
Valerie– – So, in a lot of the talks that you’ve given, you’ve shared your experiences about how you struggled to fit into the ‘typical masculine’ mould growing up. You’ve been vocal about the bullying and teasing that you faced in school. So, how did this impact your mental health and how much did it influence your decision to come out and tell the world how you really feel?
Anwesh– So, to be very honest, I think I was bullied almost all my childhood, especially at school. I think home was always like a safe space. My parents, while sometimes they would get a little annoyed with the fact that there were acquaintances who would always come and talk about, or mock me, or talk about how I should’ve been a girl but I’ve become a guy and I have such feminine traits which boys my age didn’t really have. I think all of this sort of aggravated by the time I turned sixteen. I remember I was actually going for a coaching class at that point in time. I was preparing for JEE and around that time, I was starting to realise that I was actually interested in boys and the fact that my interest in boys was not going to fade away. I think that was the point when I really started questioning everything around me.
I sort of went into this existential crisis perhaps because I think I was finding the education in that coaching centre extremely difficult and I think for any child who has grown up in India, around the time you’re in your eleventh and twelfth standard, it’s such a big leap from when you’re just fifteen and you’re in your tenth standard and I had done well and I was hoping that I would just ace everything that was coming my way but I did find everything in the eleventh standard perhaps a little difficult, also because there are already so many things that are going on in your head. Your body is going through massive changes. So, I do believe that I think the kids in my coaching centre, when they started teasing me, I think that is when it started affecting me because I felt like school was still a place where guys would tease and it didn’t really matter. I had been with those boys for a very long time now and I think that I had sort of trivialized their bullying.
When the same bullying continued in my coaching centre, that’s when I started questioning that okay, maybe there is something wrong about me, maybe there is something different about me. The more I introspected, the more I realised that I was sort of going into this downward spiral and I do remember this very day when I was just sitting on my table, I was supposed to complete an assignment for my coaching centre. They had given us a lot of assignments and I was really bogged down. I had switched off my lights and I was just there in that darkness, with a pencil in my hand and I had my desk right in front of me, and I was just scribbling on it – like a crazy maniac. It was almost as if I could not take in the mess that was going around in my head. I could not even channelize any of this because of course, I’m talking about 2012, when mental health issues were still not very talked about and I wasn’t even very active on the Internet to even understand all of these very massive concepts, very complex concepts for that matter, for me back then, at least. I had just gone into that phase where I just did not want to live any more.
I had sort of started realising and understanding, and the more I questioned myself – thankfully, I was introspecting- I was questioning what was wrong about me because I could not live without having answers to these questions and the more I questioned myself, the more miserable I felt about the fact that perhaps I am gay and therefore, there is no hope in my life and I think this is it. I just felt that if I am not going to live a dignified life, then there is no point of me living this life because I am going to, perhaps, bring shame to both me as well as my parents. Above everything else, my parents might not even be there for me in the future but I will have to life with this body and the very fact that I am going to be gay all my life and therefore, it just didn’t seem like there was any meaning to my life anymore.
I remember going and standing right in front of my mirror, right above the sink. There was this phenyl bottle which was right below the sink and I would always look at it. After both my parents were asleep, I would go there and stand there for sometimes an hour and I would always be contemplating “Should I drink it? Should I not? Should I drink it? Should I not?” and then I remember once googling what are the easiest ways with which I can kill myself. Those were really dark times. Sometimes, maybe today when I think about it, they do seem funny but back then, I sort of laughed them off. That’s perhaps the only way I sort of combat all those very difficult times. Back then, it was a very difficult time for me and I would often contemplate what if I just kill myself and just done with this because I cannot take this any more.
But I do remember telling myself on one of those days when it had sort of become a cycle, you know sometimes when things become a cycle, you start questioning- Why is this becoming a cycle? This is not a good thing for my life, to have a cycle like this where every night I stand in front of the mirror and think about killing myself. Especially if I have exams coming up. Board exams are coming up and my parents were very particular that I should do well, and I was doing well in school so I didn’t want to lose out on my grades. So, I just told myself that if I die today, this is the end. There was nobody who was going to tell my story ever again and perhaps, there will be another Anwesh, if not today then maybe ten years down the line, five years down the line, who would probably go through the same dilemma that I am going through today and perhaps, that Anwesh does not deserve to die and so don’t I. I don’t deserve to die. I deserve to live. I deserve to tell my story, and I deserve to have access to every fundamental right and perhaps the most fundamental right there is, is dignity and happiness. I wanted all of those good things in my life like the way my straight counterparts did.
Therefore, I just felt like if I would die, it would be the end of everything. I didn’t want that to be the end. I had such big aspirations. I was so hard-working all throughout my life. I didn’t want my hard work to go down the drain. So, I just told myself that. I came back to my room and I do remember that over the time, that night was kind of me reaching the lowest in my life. I came across this amazing book by Robin S Sharma called ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’. That book also changed a lot of my perspective about life. It made me value the time that I have, it made me value the education that I have and it made me value my parents a lot more and I realised that I didn’t want to lead a life where I simply wasn’t being treated like an equal and I think by then, I was just being treated like a garbage bin where people would come and say random and very negative things to me and it would just break my heart and therefore, I just didn’t want to lead that kind of life any more.
Valerie– That is indeed very inspiring and it’s amazing that despite going through so much, you decided that this is not how it’s going to be. You’re going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say that this is who I am and I’m going to live my life with dignity. I think it’s really amazing that you’ve made this decision despite all of the hard times that you’ve gone through and that people have put you through.
Anwesh– Yeah, today when I sometimes look back at myself, if often breaks my heart when I think about those times but I’m very grateful that by eighteen year old self, my seventeen year old self, for that matter, had the maturity to understand that I deserved more and I think every great thing that has happened to me since, I feel so grateful for it because I know what it means to not have any of it. I know very well what it means to not have any hope at all and just go into that downward spiral and therefore I really value everything that I come across or everything that I experience, both good and bad, because they are why I am what I am today.
Valerie- That is a wonderful way of looking at things.
So, you’ve also spoken about how society, in India especially, is unprepared to deal with those who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Many parents adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. A lot of other parents who mean well and accept us, still advise us to not tell other people under the guise of ‘protecting us’. So, what is your perspective on this? And how did your parents react when you decided to tell them?
Anwesh– That’s a good question. I have come across, in fact, a lot of people, who are not just from India but also from – I’m talking about gay men – from around the world who often, in fact men who I’ve dated in the past, who would often tell me that I have this “don’t say, don’t share” policy with my parents, or with my mother and I’m trying to do this to protect them from going through that trauma that I’m going through their my life and to be very honest, I don’t think it really works out. I don’t think it, in any way, is helpful for either the person who happens to be queer or the parent because it sort of leads to a very miserable relationship between both of you, because you have already created such a block for yourself between your parent and you and obviously, you’re never going to be transparent to your parents and therefore, any relationship for that matter, not just a mother and child relationship or a father and child relationship, or a parent-child relationship in general but any relationship cannot be based on lies or it cannot be based on half-truths.
Therefore, if you really want to build a healthy relationship with your parent, I would also suggest that you take your time, and see or examine when is the right time for you to really come out to your parents because perhaps in India, I have come across young sixteen-seventeen year olds who find it extremely difficult to talk to their parents because they’re culturally sometimes not a very accepting group of people. I mean, I have come across people where honor killing is still very much a big deal in parts of the country. There are parts where sometimes when kids come out to their parents, they come back to school or they come back to college with swollen faces and that’s not a very safe space to be in. In fact, acquaintances can sometimes be very mean and there is a reason why we still have corrective rape in India. There are still parents who perhaps take their kids to psychologists and sometimes psychiatrists to go through shock therapy, which is such an incredibly awful thing to let your child go through.
So, I think at least in India, I would say that you take your time, and realise and examine when is the right time for you to really come out. More often than not, it’s better to take your time to empower yourself financially and when you can take a stance for yourself, that is when you actually even initiate a conversation with your parents. If you really think that your parents are extremely headstrong about stuff, then I would really suggest that it is better to not actually share sometimes and perhaps find a safe space somewhere else. As queer people, we always sort of learn to build a chosen family. I do have a chosen family as well in the queer community, which I’m extremely grateful for. They will always accept you the way you are and they will understand the pain that you have been through, which perhaps a lot of our parents find very difficult to understand.
However, that said, if you can afford to come out, I would really recommend that you do come out because it really helps build a really healthy relationship between your parents and you over time, even if it does not lead to a very healthy conversation at that point in time, which is something that had happened to me. Both my parents were very shocked when I had come out to them. It was extremely difficult to even have a simple conversation with either of my parents when I came out to them. My mother would often say that “Oh my God Anwesh, I don’t know what I did wrong that I have to go through this”. It was no more about just me, it was also about her and the fact that she might have done something wrong which led me to being gay, which is something that I obviously didn’t agree with. I was born this way and therefore, I didn’t understand why I had to go through the negativity or all these very awkward conversations but I realised that I had to be extremely patient with both my parents and I’m grateful that I had that patience with them because now they are certainly a lot more accepting than they used to be.
I know that there is a part of them that still hopes that perhaps someday I would come back to them as their straight son, perhaps marry a woman and they would have a daughter-in-law and all of those aspirations that Indian parents usually have with their kids. But I think it’s a very unfair aspiration to have with your kids. I know that you invest a lot in your kids and therefore you have these dreams attached but your kid will eventually lead his or her own life and therefore it’s extremely important you let your child be and choose what the child thinks is the best for himself or herself. That is exactly where the parents will also eventually find happiness.
Valerie– Right. I’m assuming now that you said your parents also did find it difficult when you told them that you were gay and you said that they were not as accepting then as they probably are becoming now. What was it like for you when you to then, decide to then sign up for the Mr. Gay World pageant. I mean when you told them about it and when you aren’t feeling accepted, what was it like for you to decide to do this and take this step?
Anwesh– Well, there were many reasons why I decided to initially take part in the competition. One of the biggest reasons definitely was the fact that I just felt that the pageant was a platform where I would be able to represent myself and provide my voice with a bigger platform. Above everything else, I felt like it was going to give me a more dignified life, which I really felt was lacking massively in India. In fact, I still to a big extent feel that I’m unable to live my life to the fullest extent sometimes because I have to hide a part of myself while I live here, in India.
There are times when I would like to wear very fancy clothes or a big pair of heels, which I love wearing. Sometimes I do feel like I don’t get to wear all of that because I have to also take care of my safety. I have been stalked in the past, I have been groped. There are things that I would not like to put myself through again and therefore I’m much more thoughtful, mindful and careful about how I carry myself in public today. I just wanted to have a way better life where I didn’t have to hide myself from anyone.
Perhaps it was also a way for me to me to combat awkward conversations with my acquaintances because I knew that if I was going to win the pageant, I would never have to deal with awkward conversations with any of my acquaintances and they wouldn’t assume things like I’m going to marry a woman because that would often happen with most of my acquaintances. They would always ask me “What about your girlfriend?” or perhaps someday they would’ve also asked me “When are you getting married to a woman?” and all of that. I felt those questions to me were extremely uncomfortable. I felt like you know, I’m not attracted to a woman and you’ve already assumed that I’m attracted to a woman and therefore, I am going to have a girlfriend and I’m going to marry this person and they would often also do matchmaking for me with all these other girls my age. All of that was extremely awkward for me and I just felt like I don’t deserve to go through all of this.
I should be able to have a life where people know about me and don’t judge me for who I am. Therefore, even if they judge me after knowing I’m gay, then it’s actually their fault and it’s not going to cost me anything. At least I have put my life out there in front of them, they know about my sexuality and they are not going to have stupid assumptions about who I am. Whether they accept me or not is a very far-fetched question. They should at least know who I am, to begin with.
There was also one of the clauses in the Mr. Gay World pageant that in order for me to participate, I had to be out to my parents and that is usually done to that the organization doesn’t get into unnecessary fights with the parents of the participants later. I had to be nineteen and I had to be out to participate in Mr. Gay India. Therefore, I was like this is the right time for me to really come out to them and talk about my sexuality to them because I don’t see a reason why I should hide it. Straight people don’t have to hide their sexuality. So why should I have to hide it?
And my father did say that “I accept you as you are but I don’t want you to talk about your sexuality with others. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve and put it out there for everyone to know and discuss” and I was like “Papa, you are not asking yourself to do that and therefore why should I have to do it? You have to understand that while my sexuality is not everything about me, it is perhaps a very small part about me but it is a pertinent part about me and therefore, I don’t want to hide a part of myself. Nobody is going to ask me to put my gayness out there for everybody to know. They’re never going to ask any questions about my homosexuality until I initiate that conversation with them and I educate them about it because there is a lot more to it and people can be very insensitive about it and people have been very insensitive about it to me all throughout my childhood, all throughout my teenage years and people sometimes still continue to be very insensitive and ask me very insensitive questions and therefore, I do not want to combat any of this anymore. I have had enough of it and I am old enough to decide what is right for me and therefore, if my conscience is right and I know there’s nothing wrong about me being gay, then I am going to talk about it, no matter what”. And that’s what I did and I have no regrets today at all.
Valerie– That’s really great.
So, the fact that we’ve got platforms like Mr. Gay World does show that ofcourse, we are making progress but as we can see, even many Indian movies and shows that we have, we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community or we’re using them as props for comic relief. So, considering the fact that there is a significant societal impact that movies have on people, especially in India- the Indian audience worships a lot of movie stars and you look at movies and you aspire to be like somebody there. What are your thoughts about this?
Anwesh– I think in popular media in particular, we have a massive lack of representation of the LGBTIQA+ community. We have of course had very problematic characters in the past, some of which have also affected me and my thought process about being gay. In fact, the very first time I actually came across the word “gay” was through Dostana. I think anybody who’s struggling to come out and is struggling with their sexuality should never be looking at a film like Dostana because it will only scar them further.
The way, for example, the character of Abhishek Bachchan was caricaturized, his character was this effeminate character. Let’s also break this down- there is nothing wrong about him being effeminate. There are a lot of gay men who are effeminate. I happen to be on of them and I have absolutely no regrets about being a proud gay fem man. However, I have lived most of my life knowing that I am brown, gay and fem and all of these three things, when they come together, they sort of unfortunately strip you off of a lot of your privilege growing up. Therefore, I didn’t even know what privilege meant growing up because I was always looked down upon throughout my childhood for being all of these three things.
Unfortunately, of course, when I looked at the film, I felt that the fem characters were not represented in a dignified way. I often come across a lot of conversation about how gay men are so much more than effeminate, there are also so many gay men who are not fem. They are like any other men. Well, that’s fine and we’ve had enough of that representation. There is a reason why people accept straight acting or masc, as they say, masc gay men very easily because somewhere down the line, they also fit into their hetero-normative mindset and it always becomes very problematic when people in general do not fit into the narrow, normative behavior that the society has sort of chalked out for us.
Therefore, if a man is a little effeminate, that becomes very problematic because you’ve already been conditioned in a certain way that “This is what a man is supposed to be”. “This is what a woman is supposed to be”. And if you blur those lines, it suddenly becomes so problematic to this entire societal structure that we live in. I genuinely have a massive problem with the way fem gay men, or even trans people are represented in popular media.
Therefore, I really feel that fem gay men also need representation, and dignified representation. Not all fem gay men are sex addicts or sex maniacs or sexual assaulters or side-kicks! They can be the central character of their own stories and they should be represented as strong dignified characters who have a job, who perhaps have all these jobs that we do not even know a lot of gay men have. A lot of the top leaders in our country happen to be LGBTIQA+ and therefore, I do hope that in the future, there is more equal representation and not the one-dimensional representation that has existed till date.
Valerie– Right. The fact that you said that the representation is not equal and obviously it polarizes people’s vision in the way that they now look at people in society. That is extremely wrong and there needs to be a massive change in the way people are represented on screen.
Anwesh– Yeah, absolutely. It’s high time.
Valerie- So for you, your journey from struggling with bullying to coming out and being crowned Mr. Gay World – I’m sure it’s been a rollercoaster journey for you. So what is the one thing you’d like to share with people who are struggling to come out?
Anwesh– For me, there were two important things that I would often tell myself when I was struggling with my sexuality. In fact, this was something that I had come across during one of my school assembly sessions, when one of the teachers spoke about self-pitying. I completely agree with the fact that self-denial and self-pitying are two of the worst things that one could do to one’s self. You cannot deny yourself who you truly are and it is extremely important that you live an authentic life. You don’t have to live a life that is so high on ethics because honestly, all this protocol that has been given to us has been defined by someone and everybody’s right and wrong can be very different.
Therefore, it’s more important that you invest in understanding your conscience and then truly live a more authentic life so that you also lead a more fulfilling life. It is extremely important that you also take yourself less seriously. Don’t get too involved in all the negativity that there is because there honestly is a lot of garbage, even on the Internet right now, at least on the social media platforms. There is a lot of noise on these platforms and I would want people to start investing in looking into themselves instead of indulging in these very meaningless conversations. Pick your conversations, pick your battles and you will lead a much more fulfilling life and that’s all that there is. Leading a peaceful life, leading a happy, fulfilling life. Yeah.
Valerie– Well, Anwesh, thank you for this conversation that I’ve had with you. It’s been lovely to listen to your journey, your experiences shared and I do hope that we become people that are more positive and receptive to other people and let them live their lives with dignity instead of judging and creating differences and all kinds of discrimination. I really hope that we become people who become more acceptive.
Anwesh- Absolutely. I hope so as well and thank you so much for having me again. It’s been incredible talking to you. It’s been a little emotionally actually, as well but yeah, thank you so much and I really hope that my words are able to make a positive impact in the audience listening to us today. Thank you. Thank you so much.
The world is a beautiful place, filled with people of different age, race, religion, economic class, able-bodied status, gender, sexual orientation, etc. These infinite identities, in their various combinations, are the ones that make our everyday experiences unique and powerful.
In the case of gender and sexual orientation, over time, our ideologies have become conditioned to be more accepting of familiar binary identities while often disapproving those who identify beyond the binary. Identifying differently is not something that is up to choice and is simply the way they are. It is nothing uncommon and there are ample examples of non-binary identities throughout history and even mythology.
While there has been a slow and growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, they continue to face different forms of prejudice. This often forces the community into living a fearful and closeted life. Everybody, regardless of their choices deserve to live a life that is free of discrimination, which is why becoming an ally and standing up for what is right is of great significance and importance. An ally is a person who is genuinely concerned about the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community and strongly advocates for equal rights and fair treatment. While there is no such thing as a perfect ally, here are a few tips on how to be a good ally.
1. Understand Gender, Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression
Do not confuse sex, gender and sexual orientation. Recognize the range of identities that a person can associate with. To know the difference between sex, gender and sexuality and to learn more about the various identities, please check out our blog article, Infinite identities – understanding sex, gender and sexuality.
Try to do your own research. It is unfair to ask the LGBTQ+ community to justify their identity for your better understanding.
Always use the appropriate pronoun to address people. If you are unsure of what to use, ask the person how they might want to be addressed. Also, get to know when/where it is safe to use the chosen pronoun. ( e.g. In front of the family / at their workplace)
2. Do listen when a person talks about their identity
Talk inclusively about sexualities in your everyday conversations, to make it easy for someone to know that you’re a safe person to share their identity with.
Be aware of the process of opening up about one’s identity and realize that the process is not a one-time thing and is unique to each person. It is okay to ask questions but make sure they are posed in a sensitive way.
Appreciate them for having the courage to tell you, do not judge them, and most importantly respect their confidentiality.
3. Speak up for the Under-represented
Speak openly about the LGBTQ+ people in your life, if they have opened up and are comfortable with it. Again, be aware of when/where it is safe to do so.
While social media is a wonderful tool for education and building community, take online activism further into real-life scenarios. Anti-LGBTQ comments are very hurtful. If you find yourself in a situation where such discrimination happens, speak up and say that you find them offensive.
When people speak up, it helps educate others and also reduces instances of intolerance from repeating again in the future. It will also give others the courage to stand up against discrimination.
4. Check yourself whenever you’re “performing” as an ally
We have to acknowledge that we can still do harm, even when we’re trying to do good. Remember that it’s okay to make mistakes while getting to know the LGBTQ+ community.
If you mess up, do not beat yourself up for it. What is more important is to learn from them and move forward. Apologize for your actions and aim to do better next time.
Being an ally is about embracing the differences and looking past them to create a better world. It is choosing to strip down all the different labels and to remember that we are all human. It is about being Otis to Eric  and Captain Holt to Rosa . While one person by themselves cannot change the world or undo the past, one can do their best and that’s good enough.
Here is a list of other resources, that you can refer to help you become a better ally:
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.
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.
‘Who am I?” – This question has haunted thinkers and philosophers forever. We attach an identity to a person and aim to form a generalized opinion of the mass through this segregation. However, each person has multiple identities – a woman, a biracial person of color, a brother, a social worker, a queer man… the list is endless. It is when we feel supported and recognized in every aspect of our collective identity that we feel accepted as a person. This realization, that each of us have something or the other in common and that we are ‘brothers’ through some shared identity, allows us to empathize when we see others being shunned for their sense of identity, for example, being LGBTQ+.
The LGBTQ+ movement is focused on getting EQUAL rights, to overcome the disadvantages they face on a daily basis and to earn a place of respect just as any other person could but without hiding their gender or sexual identity. The road to equality and acceptance isn’t always the same for people of differing identities. Sometimes, it is an uphill struggle with no reprieve – especially for minorities and disadvantaged groups. This fact, in any way does not discount that it might be difficult for a person not belonging to these groups, but only that there is an added hurdle of discrimination that cuts deep into the progress by someone who is LGBTQ+.
This is evident in major aspects of any person’s life – relationships, religion and access to resources. In all these areas, scientific studies conclusively state that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to face hurdles and have less success in achieving a fulfilling life.
Even in countries with a generally progressive view on LGBTQ+ rights, people belonging to the queer community are far more disadvantaged and having a lifelong relationship with a partner remains a distant dream. A 2013 Survey of LGBT Americans shows that only 16% of LGBT people, mostly bisexuals with opposite sex partners are currently married compared with about half the adults in the general public. We can safely assume that the numbers are even lower in conservative and religious countries such as India. Acceptance by family is another major aspect to the problems faced by LGBTQ+ people. The stories of prosecution and attempts at conversion therapy of LGBTQ+ youth who have come out to their family deter the many others still deeply closeted. It is cruel that even their family is no place of solace from the continuous stress and trauma owing to the fear of judgement from society.
However, there is hope. The trend in urban India shows that there is an uptick in the activism and awareness surrounding LGBTQ+ issues. With the repeal of the colonial-era law criminalizing homosexual relationships, the support on social media and general public has increased. This move in India has also inspired movements in other former British colonies to throw out this outdated law. Support systems form an essential building block in the foundation of LGBTQ+ relationships. Many LGBTQ+ people’s accounts show that they received support and help from online platforms anonymously, opening up an avenue for closeted LGBT people to seek a sense of community. Hopefully, this social acceptance can also translate to more and more families accepting their children’s sexual and gender identity.
Faith and hope can come from more than one place. Spirituality and religion can impart a sense of belonging and must be a safe haven for everyone who wishes to practice it. ‘For a member of the LGBTQ+ community , however, that avenue is also riddled with danger. The outlook for homosexuality’s acceptance in Indian religions is grim. Most religions either oppose or remain mum on homosexual relations and this lack of basis in written tenets alienates the LGBTQ+ population from following religion. This is exacerbated by the fact that most liberal religious leaders do not raise their voices for fear of prosecution.
In our blog article, The Language of Love, we discuss how homosexuality and gender identity aren’t radically new concepts in the context of Indian history. This attitude is slowly changing; in an article published in Indian Express, there are examples of how acceptance by a local church father, temple priest, or Muslim cleric can make an impact at a wider level. As stories such as these are adopted and shared by the media, more and more religious leaders might step up to the need of LGBTQ+ people’s concerns in Faith. A study by GLAAD, Missing Voices, reports that mainstream media outlets were disproportionately reliant on anti-LGBT religious voices and provide a skewed outlook of general opinion. As an example of proof to the contrary, Catholics support marriage equality at 54%, which is higher than the U.S. national average. Faith and Spirituality must be non-political, open, and accepting to all, for it is a sanctuary for the emotionally and spiritually wounded to open up and that is not possible when there is fear of judgement.
Access to Resources
Deprived of meaningful connections through relationships or religion, it is sad but not surprising to find that this has a direct impact on the mental and physical health of LGBTQ+ people. This issue is compounded by the fact that to access resources, a gay or lesbian person has to overcome hurdles of substantial proportions. Financial independence can be a strong factor in the decision to come out of the closet. A curated study by the World Bank in India, finds clear evidence of stigma and exclusion for LGBT people in India and that this stigma has a possibly substantial economic impact of lower productivity and output because of employment discrimination.The situation is far worse in the case of health resources. In an exhaustive guide and resource kit published by the U.S. Department of Health, it is stated that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to contract physical illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and obesity and mental health issues such as suicide and substance abuse.
However, In the same guide, it also finds that culturally sensitive mental health services have been shown to be more effective in the prevention, early detection, and treatment of these conditions. At the height of the gay rights movement in the U.S. the fight for access to resources to combat AIDS was a strong motivator. Providing these resources contributed significantly to improving the overall health of the population and bringing about awareness of the deadly disease. A research study published in World Development which analyzes economic data from 132 countries from 1966 to 2011, finds that there is a strong sign that economic development and LGBT inclusion are mutually reinforcing. Just one additional point on an 8-point scale of legal rights associated with a whopping $2000 per capita GDP increase. This shows that there is a strong basis for governments and industries to fight against LGBT discrimination and secure their rights in the workplace.
Open LGBTQ+ people are a minority. The majority of the population might feel inclined to not support their rights or that their problems are exclusive and trivial to a straight person. The research and data however paint a picture to the contrary. Inclusion of LGBTQ+ people has a direct positive impact on the overall health and economy of a nation. If data and statistics aren’t enough to convince you to be a supporter of their rights, we must look past the identity of a gay man, a lesbian woman, a transexual or queer person and see that they too hold an identity that you might associate with; a college student, a sister, an Indian, a neighbor in your community. It is through this shared identity that we must motivate ourselves to be compassionate and empathetic to their cause. Only through this attitude of acceptance and approval can we truly become open and accepting to our own identities and those of others’.
There is no right way to begin talking about something like this. And that is exactly why it should be talked about; because conversations surrounding mental health issues are uncomfortable, need vulnerability and most importantly take a damning amount of courage.
You see, the fight against the stigmas surrounding mental health dialogue and creating awareness about mental health issues is an everyday push-and-pull. India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There are days when the world seems receptive to conversations, seems accepting of mental health issues, but some days just go on to show just how much of an uphill battle it actually is. LonePack was started with the very purpose to fight to start getting people to talk about mental health and to normalise mental health issues and their treatment. But it is absolutely gutting to see so much insensitivity and dismissal that still shadows mental health. It makes you think just what does one need to do to tell the world that they need help? And this is essentially what it is – this is the heartbreaking yet sobering reality that millions who are battling their own demons face every single day.
If you scream out for help with everything you have but no one listens, you forget how to speak with time.
It is high time everyone joins the battle against de-stigmatising mental health. It is not a taboo, it is a crisis. And it is time that the world starts recognising that.
To bring to attention a few things that need visibility, especially now.
Be extremely careful of the words you use. It is very easy to throw words out there that in reality can deeply affect and trigger someone who is battling mental health issues. Be very sensitive to the content you share on social media. Be mindful of your language and educate yourself on the proper way to address those who reach out to you for help or talk to you about their mental health. Here are a few resources that you can refer to
Do not misuse hashtags on social media. The aim as a collective is to bring attention to the issues surrounding open dialogue on mental health. It is not to be taken lightly and not to be used as an exploitative tool for any sort of personal of professional gain.
Talking is definitely a great first step but if you wish to open yourself up as a listener to those who need it, do keep in mind the accountability and responsibility that come with it. It is not to be taken lightly. You have to provide a non-judgemental, safe and inclusive environment for people to talk to while taking care of your own mental health. Here is a document that outlines some of the do’s and don’ts of being a listener https://lonepack.org/blog/index.php/2020/06/15/talking-to-someone-who-is-suicidal/. Again, let it be known that it is not an easy task. Instead, gently guide them to professional help and resources.
Please, please be kind. Battling mental health issues is not easy in any sense. Mental health is often romanticized as being quirky, moody, or anti-social and its portrayal in media is only now slowly changing. It is not pretty, it is not cute, it is not an adjective in any sense. It is raw, it is messy, it is uncomfortable, and it is wrenching. Be kind to those around you.
The road to recovery is long and winding. Be patient. Anyone who has battled or is battling mental health issues can attest to the fact that recovery is not simple, it is not easy and it is not linear nor definitive. It is not a switch that you can flip and consider yourself to be “cured”. It is an everyday battle and every single, small step taken towards getting better counts. Please be patient and understanding.
Reach out. Mental health issues are silent. Those who are battling them might not feel ready or comfortable or safe to talk about it. The stigma surrounding mental health issues has made it incredibly difficult for those who battle mental health issues to come out and talk about them. And most often than not, they are driven to believe that they are alone in their battles. It is important to let them know that they aren’t and offer unyielding support. Reach out and check in on people with kindness and gentleness.
Educate. Both yourself and those around you. Use your platform, no matter how small, to spread awareness by sharing proper established sources of correct information. This is one of the most important things to do if change is to be brought. Here are a few resources to check out.
It feels unreal when someone who battles mental health issues gives up on it. That is someone’s friend, sibling, parent, partner, colleague but most importantly a genuine human being. Life is not to be taken lightly. Empathy and understanding is often dismissed when addressing issues such as this in the press and on social media. It is sickening to see the way a person’s life is turned into a mockery of sense in the wake of their death. And it has to stop. They are more than their achievements, they are more than what we see. There are so many who need help and are unable to have access to it. It is up to us to become allies and fight against the stigma. Fight for changes at the grassroots levels. Fight to normalise mental health issues and its treatments. If not now, then when will change happen? How many more lives do we have to lose to see change? Do your bit in helping. Here are a few ways you can be a strong ally
An audiovisual representation of what does it mean to be an ally