Identity. That’s a pretty heavy word. What is an identity? Some say it constitutes your values, morals and beliefs. Some say it is a combination of your experiences and personal traits. But at its core, identity is a sense of self. Like the message behind every Disney movie, identity comes from within, and no amount of societal pressure should invalidate it. Growing up, we were encouraged to discover our identity. Try out different things and experiment. Find out what makes us us. But society often skips two really significant parts of identity – gender and sexuality. Why? Oh, because it’s predetermined, of course. You will identify as the gender you’re assigned at birth, and you are straight, no questions. Homophobia is the norm, and anyone who doesn’t conform to societal expectations is immediately ostracized.
Although it has been five years since the annulment of Section 377 (a law that criminalised all sexual acts “against the order of nature”, yeah we don’t know what that means either), the current scenario in India is a far cry from the acceptance and peace that the ruling promised to offer. The LGBTQ+ community still faces just as much discrimination from society, just not legally. With threats like facing workplace biases, getting kicked out of the house and bringing dishonour to family names looming over their heads, it shouldn’t be surprising to know that most of modern India still remains closeted. People are forced to lead double lives. They’re forced to hide a part of themselves from their loved ones. Worse yet, sometimes they refuse to accept themselves.
Blatantly disregarding your identity and being unable to express yourself in public can undoubtedly take a toll on your mental health. It’s a well-established fact that members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Studies have also shown that suicide rates are higher among LGBTQ+ youth compared to the rest of their peers. A lot of LGBTQ+ individuals develop internalised homophobia over the course of their lives and conform to heteronormativity, while others choose to keep their identity a secret and prioritise personal safety and family acceptance.
Not having openly safe spaces to come out and the ever-increasing pressure to blend in a heteronormative society have made it more crucial than ever to create mental health resources that cater to LGBTQ+ individuals. While there has been a steady increase in the rise of queer-friendly healthcare associations in India, they are mostly limited to the borders of metropolitan cities and fail to reach those in rural areas. It’s essential for mental health care to be more accessible, affordable and trustable. The recent discourse on banning conversion therapy is a step in the right direction. Conversion therapy is an inhumane, horrifying practice undergone by queer individuals (against their will) under the guise of “curing” them. The harrowing procedure includes but is not limited to drugs, exorcism, electroshock therapy and “corrective” rape. In an unprecedented ruling by a high court on 7th June 2021, Tamil Nadu became the first state in India to ban the practice of conversion therapy. The move has been highly lauded, and hopefully, will encourage the rest of the country to follow suit.
Not every battle toughed out by a queer individual is external. The fiercest fight of them all is sadly against internaliZed homophobia. Constant exposure to societal messages that stigmatize and marginalize non-heterosexual orientations leads to self-directed prejudice, negative beliefs, and feelings of shame or guilt. These feelings manifest as self-denial, fear of rejection, internal conflicts, or even self-hatred. It can lead to low self-esteem, identity concealment, and avoidance of same-sex relationships. In extreme cases, the self-hate can take dangerous forms of self-harm and self-sabotage. Being punished for being yourself and being ostraciZed for loving someone is something that can break the psyche of a lot of queer individuals who are coming to terms with their identity in their teenage years.
Self-acceptance is the largest obstacle in the journey of every LGBTQ+ individual. The largest obstacle is the pile-up of self-hate from decades of societal heteronormative norms and discriminatory attitudes. Acknowledging and embracing your gender identity as a valid and integral part of who you are requires challenging the negative beliefs and messages and seeking support from trusted friends, family and queer support groups. Therapy is not a bad word. Counselling and therapy can provide a safe space to be who you are without regrets and explore and address the internalized homophobia. Self-acceptance is a journey of hoping that we embrace and celebrate our authentic selves with time, patience, support, and validation.
Coming out to the world can seem like a massive, colossal task (and sadly, it is), but the presence of a strong, supportive community can make it all seem normal (like how it’s meant to be). Whether you’re questioning or whether you’re struggling to come to terms with your identity, being part of an accepting community can help you deal with your dysphoria in a healthy, non-destructive way.
Additional Mental Healthcare Resources: