For a queer person, finding a trustworthy therapist or counselor is often a challenge. Discrimination exists even within consulting rooms.
I had been in therapy for a year before I told my therapist, J, that I was bisexual. I was in therapy for depression, for a host of problems and worries, and my bisexuality was one thing I had not had the courage to talk about. What would she say? Would she be open to my orientation and not make it into a 'problem' to be solved? Would she help me navigate my fears of being open? I trusted J, and to have her fail me at this moment would hurt me terribly. It would mean a new search to find help I still needed so very badly.
I was not originally referred to J. I was referred to a well-established clinical psychologist and to this day I think I ended up with J due to a clerical or scheduling mix-up. This older therapist is, among other things, an activist for LGBT acceptance in mental health communities. But she was not always an LGBT activist. In the 80s and early 90s, before she knew better, she had recommended therapy to 'cure' gay and lesbian people of their homosexuality. I do not want to denigrate or invisiblise her current wonderful work, but I am so glad I got to see J instead. I’m not sure my own fragile sense of self could have handled this problematic history.
'Must be LGBT-friendly'
Seven years later, I am 'out' and open. I have queer friends across the LGBT spectrum, close friends and family I can rely on. This is a blessing not every lesbian woman, gay man, bisexual person has. Even fewer transgender persons are accepted – whether in society or in social institutions. (Try to get a PAN card and Aadhaar card to show your new gender identity–it’s not easy.)
In closed Facebook groups across India, queer men and women ask, can you recommend a good psychiatrist/therapist/counselor? Must be LGBT-friendly. We do not take 'LGBT friendly' for granted; we are not so very far away from the days when queer people were given electroconvulsive therapy to 'cure' them of being gay. Family could involve religious figures to 'guide' you into behaving 'normally'. Over the years, queer Indians have built a crowd-sourced list of trustworthy professionals who do not condemn us and are understanding of LGBT issues and needs. These lists are built name-by-name, by people who have tried therapist after therapist until they found one that fit.
We don’t have a clear view of the many people in India who have an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity. What we do know is that, of the people who are visible, an alarming number are prone to depression or at risk of committing suicide. Some of this data is not data but experience. You hear about people who died, you see RIPs on Facebook. We track each other through social media, we mourn. In real life, my first queer event in Bangalore was a memorial for a transgender woman, much loved by her community. She was beautiful, loved, empowered. But you can be beautiful, loved, empowered and still have a hard life, still want to end.
I have lived with this for so long that I take these facts for granted: People are expected to behave according to gender roles. Children who don’t conform to those roles get bullied. Adults who don’t follow the norms–date, get married, have children–are pressured by friends, family and community. People who are transgender bear the brunt of this gender policing very harshly.
What happens when your orientation is revealed? Will you be penalized at work, subtly and socially? Will your landlords allow you to live in peace? What about your friends and family? Do they understand alternative sexualities? In a negative scenario, your family rejects you, your workplace finds ways to demote you or ignore your contributions. In a worst-case scenario, you are at risk of violence.
The saddest story, I think, is when we believe the stereotypes, when we despise ourselves for our orientations, for our gender identity. Our morals, our ethics, our norms – we learn all of these from our parents, from television, from our religious leaders. If our parents, religious leaders and favorite shows all have a negative vision of queerness, where do we learn that we are okay?
When we are able to say I need help, it's time to find a trustworthy therapist. For logistical reasons, I no longer go to J; I have been to my new therapist only once, and she seems fine, and LGBT-positive. But I didn’t know that until I told her; until I risked it. It’s a very big risk, even now that I'm better, have a better sense of my self and my desires and my needs.
Things do get better.
I might recover, or I might have depression for the rest of my life. The thought of going to therapy, taking my medication, of a constant onward struggle to achieve and maintain mental health, is exhausting. The thought of having to live, possibly with a partner, constantly under scrutiny, with fewer rights and lesser protection against discrimination – by landlords, employers, store managers – that’s exhausting too.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am well-off. I am educated. I look mostly “normal”. I can pass as heterosexual if I so pleased. And yet, I am exhausted. Not everyone is as lucky as I am, and my exhaustion cannot compare.
I don’t want to give the impression that being queer has ruined my life. Things do get better. Being queer is no longer the devastatingly lonely experience it was when I was a teenager. Bangalore's strong LGBT community offers me both friends and activity. I hope for a time when the next generation – my nieces and nephews, my children of the heart – will be lesbian, bisexual, gay, will be transgender, non-binary, without fear or judgement.
But the change we are affecting – through advocacy, and through simply living our lives visibly – is taking place slowly. Right now, we face discrimination, both real and feared, and sometimes we discriminate against ourselves. If we are open, we do not know if we are safe from harm or slurs. If we are still hiding, every word, every gesture must be monitored, so that we reveal nothing by accident. For those of us who were exiled from home, the stressors are more prosaic – earning a living wage, getting safe housing.
So, we are stressed. Some of us more than others! So many of us have lost friends to violence (especially in the transgender communities, because they are so often dispossessed and have higher vulnerability to violent crime). So many of us struggle not to add one more body to the growing statistics of queer people who have passed away. Instead we want new statistics of queer people who live, and are allowed to live.
Every day, I walk outside, my queer self on display. I am here and I am okay. I hope to be here, and okay, tomorrow.
Rohini Malur is an LGBTQIA+ poet and writer based in Bangalore.