I had short hair until I finished my schooling, and it made my life miserable. I was often forced to explain to strangers why I had breasts or why I didn’t have enough hair (for a girl). Teachers would call me out and advise me on how to be more like a girl. They would body shame me and that was okay. For my peers, I was the beginning of a harmless joke that passed as acceptable to everyone around me. I was called all sorts of names. I was very tomboyish and my mannerisms were masculine. My body language suggested something else than the gender assigned to me at birth based on my sexual genitalia. It wasn’t acceptable. I never realized that I had an option to be neither boy nor a girl and I was put through the constant pressure of choosing one. I was put in a state of conflict as the people around me tried to label me. This was my beginning in understanding gender and sex. I felt stuck with labels that never described me. And I haven’t managed to get free from this dilemma of ticking boxes. I still don’t consider myself entirely a girl, when someone asks me, I say I think I am a woman or I am not sure. I still haven’t figured out what gender category I belong to and I think it’s not gonna be easy. I am not calling myself anything as of now. But for my sexuality, it didn’t start to pop up that soon. I had time to experiment with my likes and dislikes.
When I got on the bus, people stared at my hair then at my breasts and then they would just gaze from my head to toe and right back up finally deciding that yeah, it’s a girl. I was so fed up explaining myself everywhere. I got my ears pierced because I was just tired of being the bud of jokes. But then again, hair was the prerequisite to being a woman and not a vagina. My friends from my same gender would go out with me calling me their boyfriend. They enjoyed my company; they said they felt safer with me than with anyone else. Their parents would ask me to pick them up and drop them off. Take care of them every single day. I had girlfriends who were allowed out only with me, I still do. They admired my independence but failed to inculcate the same in their children. I think it’s sad how they fail to recognize their inability to do right by their children and their failure in parenting to develop these children into capable and independent adults.
But when I went out amongst crowds and travelled in crowded buses, the men didn’t think of me as anything other than a body with breasts and ass. Nobody bothered about my hair when they got a chance to grope me, molest me or rape me in their minds. I was just a woman but not quite enough.
It’s so agonizing when the whole world is just trying to make you choose something that you don’t even consider options. It makes you question everything that you do. It affects your confidence, your self-esteem. The consistent conflict that we are put through for something as basic as my gender and many other things is inhumane.
So, I tried to conform to the requirements of being a woman. I grew my hair out. I joined a college in my home town. My mother was feeling protective of leaving her 17-year-old kid in a metro city, so instead, she played it safe. One the first day of college, I was stared down by everyone. Teachers, non-teaching staff, classmates and batchmates. I didn’t understand. I had a good bed of hair. I went shopping to find decent clothes for the first day of college. And I was sure I looked fine. Then a teacher came up to me asked me – how dare I wear jeans to the college? Jeans. An ordinary pair of denim. In college. How rebellious of me!
I didn’t know there was a dress code set in place only for girls. The college diary stated that girls had to wear a three-piece churidar whenever they entered the college premises. And the boys could wear whatever they thought was appropriate. I wasn’t given attendance until I started wearing a churidar for a week. My class teacher called my mother and sent me to the principal. He allowed me to wear cotton pants Kurtis and a scarf. My attempt at fitting into society was changing everything that I stood for; how I expressed myself as an individual.
I felt the weight of society pouring down on me. It didn’t matter how well I did in class or not, nobody bothered. It didn’t matter what was inside my head, I had a lot of trouble initially. But after, my first two months, after people got to know me, I made friends and people were accepting of me. I was elected class representative unanimously the first year and voted in again the second year. Later I elected as the Association Secretary of the psychology department of my campus.
During my third year in under graduation, the women’s cell was being reinitiated as part of the NAARC visits to the campus. I was elected president of the same. The women’s cell staff coordinator was not happy with me as I didn’t fit the description of a good student. The staff coordinator excluded me from all the activities of the functioning of the cell. On the eve of the first seminar organized by the women cell on the topic- ‘’Restrictions on women due to clothes’’, the staff coordinator called me up and asked me to wear my shawl properly so that it would cover my chest. I was disgusted at the hypocrisy. She warned me not to attend the seminar. I felt dejected and disheartened. After this, I took it upon myself to set up a program for Women’s day. I faced criticism for aiming too big and wasn’t encouraged to do anything. The administration put all my proposals down. They weren’t interested in Women’s day. And on the Women’s day that year, the women cell to my surprise conducted a talk on Women’s Safety, and the panellists were a select few men. And these learned men shared their valuable insights on women’s safety, such as – women staying at home after a designated hour and dressing appropriately. It was appalling to have found that the floor was offered to privileged sexist men to spread more sexism and misogyny. It was repulsive and violating.
Free and independent women celebrated International Women’s Day. It was in the press. Empowered finally. All thanks to a couple of powerful men who graciously set limits for us women!
During the last few months on the campus, we were celebrating Boy’s Hostel day. The girl hostlers who were the guests for the function were humiliated and ridiculed by men performing sexist programs on stage which were screened beforehand by the management. It was horrific and disgusting to watch. The girls boycotted the program and it incited masochistic chauvinism from the men. They shouted, threatened and verbally abused their guests. The next day my classmate who was the first to leave was targeted and harassed by the male students the entire day. They threatened her in between classes. While leaving the campus and to my horror, I found my friend in a terrible situation. She was enveloped by men shouting and screaming at her. I saw her faint, another friend and I jumped to rescue her. These men then started to verbally abuse me and threaten me. I vaguely recall 15 men who had surrounded the three of us. I saw my professors, classmates, and juniors walk by without coming to help us. It was like we didn’t exist. I was deeply hurt and I registered a formal complaint in the nearby police station. I was pressurized by the entire student, faculty and management body to withdraw my case. I was turned into a heartless ignorant human being by these men in the coming days. None of my friends whom I stopped to help showed me any support. she testified for them. I was neglected and ignored by everyone. Strangers came to ask me why I was hell-bent on destroying innocent lives. But my family was with me throughout my fight. All three of them showed me that I was not wrong to stand my ground and I had every right to feel violated. They showed me the support that no other family would dare to.
The explicit portrayal of discrimination and dejection was very damaging to my wellbeing. I was excluded from my classmates. I was the class representative for two years out of the three but nobody lends me a hand. Nobody saw me as a victim but as a witch sent to destroy lives. I felt alone and abandoned. The whole process of trying to get justice from these men ended up emotionally destroying me. They were celebrated after their return back to the campus. The whole campus was perpetuating misogyny and nobody even seemed to care. This was the education that was being awarded to these students. What were the lessons that were being taught?
I don’t know but I sure learned my lesson. I made a friend who was equally abused by these same men. They used to body shame her. They used to throw stones at her behind. Like she was some mute abandoned pest that you see on the road. But it was always our fault. This incident affected my college life even though it was towards the end of the course. I felt lonely and neglected by my friends when I needed them the most.
This incident took away my confidence and trust. I was left alone to struggle for my future. It was the darkest period of my life. I avoided contact with those few who remained as friends. I found it impossible to trust anyone. I retracted my room and spent my time watching movies and TV series. Then out of the blue, a piece of information swept right into my life and managed to lift my spirits. I had just been accepted into one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country.
Hyderabad Central University was a different story altogether. But I was still distrustful of new people and it hindered my social life. My course department wasn’t any better than the one in Kerala, in fact, it was worse. They had a system where they rewarded and punished students through internal marks. They cut marks of students who didn’t follow the culture of the department, and once again I was targeted. I was targeted because I didn’t wear traditional Indian ethnic clothes to class. I was judged for the company I kept. The people I spent time with were also judged by my professors. But my batch mates made all the difference. We supported each other throughout the two years. We started an initiative called Udhavi. It was a support group for students to tackle academic anxiety and it served its purpose very well.
Madhavi was our attempt to stay alive. We were so desperate to find help, we decided to help ourselves and others like us. We started with a small group. It took time to build an audience. It was steady and small, we did activities that helped increase self-esteem, trust and coping with stress. There was once a meeting, in which we asked everyone to write down a problem that they wanted to get help on anonymously. We collected the chits and picked them out randomly by each member. The activity was what would you do if that was your situation. We were trying to foster empathy. It was so enlightening, as we tend to get stuck in our heads and forget that there are other people out there, with their problems and issues. It was very hurtful to know that we found ourselves talking about sexual abuse a lot in our meetings. Everyone thinks that their problem is the biggest or is unsolvable. We encouraged activities that build trust with each other. We were able to make a space safe and non-judgmental so that people felt safe to express themselves and me. It gave a lot of peace and satisfaction with Udhavi.
Here I also found people who had different identities, like me they too were different, but we never felt different together. This was something that couldn’t even be imagined in the conservative society I lived through in my previous college. I found myself in a queer support group. We had a limited number of members and the meetings were often held in secrecy. It was difficult to organize and arrange a group of people together who had non-compliant sexual and gender identities. We had so many hurdles to overcome every week and limited time to spend together. People were unsurprisingly hostile towards the LGBTQIA+ community. And there were also extremely violent right-wing activists within the campus. Two of my friends who were transsexual used to talk about how stressful it was for them to live in a men’s hostel while they identified as transwomen. During this time, we witnessed a hate crime against an open transwoman, who after coming out was raped by a man inside the men’s hostel in HCU. This news wasn’t worth much to the media and the university couldn’t care less. The transwoman couldn’t go to the police as Section 377 was still in place back then. The victim was not very cooperative with the support group and I didn’t know them. We were not able to reach out to them. This is a major drawback of the community as we find it difficult to forge meaningful and deep relationships with our own.
The group’s primary objective was to create group coherence. We set up meetings all over the campus with the sole aim of understanding each other. We talked about our unique experiences and upbringing. Most of us hadn’t come out yet to our families and we talked in-depth on how best to break the news. We encouraged each other to educate ourselves more and in-depth about our own identities. Before meeting up with this group I was unsure of my queerness. The question of how queer you are is always asked to those who are trying to come out. We held long conversations on the issues that we faced in our daily lives. For some identities example, who had a different sexual orientation, they were excluded from visual judgment as most times their physical appearances never gave them away. For a gay person, him being gay only came into the picture when he wanted to make intimate relationships. It was easier for them to not come up on the cisgender heterosexual radar. But for the other half, it was a daily struggle. I met a friend online. She sent me pictures of her, I saw a full-grown man, dressed up as a man. He had a shirt on, pants and shoes. He had ties and watches that were all masculine. This person lived in Kerala disguised as a man. But I knew she wasn’t a man. I got closer to her. I saw her struggling to put up a face that didn’t belong to her. She didn’t like looking at herself in the mirror because she saw a man. She told me she liked girls. She is a lesbian transwoman. But right now, she was nothing. She was being destroyed as a person. She was lonely and unsatisfied with her life. And it wasn’t her fault. Last I heard, she was struggling to find enough resources to migrate to a more accepting country, a place where she can finally be herself.
A bird forced to abandon its home, made to search for a new home because it isn’t allowed to spread its wings over this land, a land they loudly claim doesn’t belong to her and the likes of her.
After finding peers who could understand me, respect me and moreover love me for who I am, I found peace within myself. These people helped me understand my own emotions. When I used to try and talk to my cissexual and cisgender friends about my emotions and feelings, they never understood what I was talking about. They gave me sympathy but most of the time they ignored me. They told me I was hypersexual, some even called me a sex addict because they never understood what I was talking about. When I talked about sex with my gender or the other gender they were more or less clear. But when I told them that for me gender didn’t matter as long as I could like the other person as a human being they didn’t understand. They called me a whore who would sleep with anyone. They couldn’t comprehend when I used the term pansexual. These people said that it’s just another term for a ‘’whore’’.
It was only from my queer friends that I got the acceptance and dignity that I deserved. This has always been true. When I was 12 years old, my mother took into our home a lesbian couple who had eloped from their homes. They had no other option and had to flee their home town because of the stigma and the shame that they supposedly inflicted on their parents. My mother let them stay with us and we were a family from then. I have queer sisters who helped me understand the difficulty and hurt that they were subjugated to by society. I saw how they struggled to get the basics – rightful education, a house to live in and someone to love. They weren’t the last couple or person my mother supported. We were able to give them, the unaccepted and the shunned sons and daughters, true acceptance and care. We realized early on how love and care were all that we needed to become a family. Unconditional love and consideration were all that it took to bring these hurt souls to the shores of hope.
While completing my formal education in psychology, I also learned something else. Theories and assumptions about human nature that textbook psychology talked about was completely ignorant of the minority population. Psychology with its never-ending fancy jargon and empiricisms has neglected the subjectivity of the voices and identities unknown or unaccepted by society. Great thinkers have talked about sexuality and gender outside the realms of psychology. But psychology as a subject is unwilling to address and incorporate learning from fields that cannot always be scientifically quantified and it has led to the formation of blind spots in its leanings. The traditional psychologists are as adamant as they get. They hold on to their outdated concepts of morality and sexuality and they try to impose that on us. They try to advise and change people who are different and convert them into ‘’normal’’ people. Those who are trained to help, end up putting more pressure and stress on individuals who are already vulnerable. But all hope is not lost as psychology is trying to rectify these mistakes.
My experiences have led me to believe that being a queer health professional is an added advantage when I deal with queer clients. There are better chances of understanding and developing trust that can help speed up the helping and healing process. The knowledge that you are not being judged or stigmatized at the least from a health care professional is an important prerequisite to accepting help.
Mental health in itself is much stigmatized and to talk about the mental health of further stigmatized individuals is not an easy feat. Starting my professional career as a queer centred health care professional has been a dream come true. Softmind, the mental health clinic in Kerala has given me and the LGBTQIA+ community the long-awaited safe space to talk about queer mental health. Here we have queer-friendly and queer health professionals who are sensitized to the needs and requirements that a queer person in distress demands. I hope that I can help elevate the quality of life of the queer folks who come in contact with me. It is also my ambition to help other psychologists understand the specific needs of the queer community to enhance their mental health.
Only when we feel at peace with ourselves can we live better lives. Talking about emotions is a must. Because what we think and how we think is the foundation of creating attitudes, and attitudes dictate how we express ourselves. The understanding of the importance of a sound mind is primal. And for those of us who are discriminated, abandoned and face social injustice, life itself becomes a cause for declining mental health and increased mental disorders. And that is why we all have to stick together. And for my queer siblings, we finally have trained professionals from among us to help take care of our own.