It took me years of bumpy rides through days or even weeks of existing as a living and breathing list of anxiety symptoms before I realised something was most definitely wrong. Despite studying psychology day in and day out, when it came to seeing the shackles around my own ankles, I pulled out my smartphone, scrolled through Instagram, and ‘lol-ed’ at the meme where a cartoon dog is sitting on a table surrounded by fire pronouncing “This is fine.” That should have been a sign, right? Somehow, it still took me a year after this upending realisation to enter the brightly lit room of a therapist’s office.
My first experience with therapy was…lacking. I blabbered incoherently, recounting details of past traumas and present trifles, extolling the healing power of denial, and waiting for her to interrupt me. She took a few notes on her milky notepad but largely twiddled her thumbs, waiting for me to pause. I stopped for a sip of water eventually, and the silence was punctuated by the softly ticking hand of a clock above my head – the kind of slow ticking that elongates the seconds when it’s almost lunch break in school. I was beginning to wonder whether it was about time I started speaking again when the clock was irreverently silenced by the first few words my first therapist spoke to me, “But why do you think you are bisexual?”
I stared back in blank confusion. It was a question, at least by all the rules of sentence construction. But, it felt more like an assault on an identity I had barely started to come to terms with. As a matter of fact, at the time, I was very intent on making a cosy home in my closet to last me a few years before the inevitable ‘coming out.’ The ‘coming out’ that is a special declaration reserved for those of us who fall outside heteropatriarchy, and who must announce themselves as different.
Barely hidden between those words were rippling veils of judgment, morality, and ultimately, how I might be ‘wrong’ about being myself, and maybe about everything else too. I spent the rest of the session trying to engage in an interrogation about my sexuality. Connections were drawn between my ‘illicit’ love for multiple genders and my trauma, as though my desire had anything to do with the things that kept me up at night. I had no idea where the session was going. To be fair, in the wee hours of the night, I do look back on that fateful day in 9th grade when I tried to talk to a girl I found ‘beautiful in a friend way’, only to awkwardly ask her where she got her earrings. Negotiating the spaces of queer flirtation was beyond 15-year-old me, an adolescent still trying to mask her sexuality with a thin veil of having ‘friend crushes’ on women where I really wanted to be their friend and definitely nothing more (or so I told myself).
Same-sex sexual activity was still a crime in India back in 2016, when I was sitting in front of my first therapist, looking at her certificates adorning the walls behind her, while I searched for something to say. Looking back, I can’t remember how I justified to her that I was bisexual. But I do remember that it took me another two years to even think about returning to therapy. My anxiety disorder went undiagnosed for years – years. I kept believing that my identity meant that the unconditional positive space of mental health help was not for me; that the safety and inclusivity of that space would forever elude me.
Until I stepped into another brightly lit office, pushed by friends who asked me (sternly) to give therapy another shot. I was quite staunch in my belief that I would have a ‘Hah-I-told-you-so’ moment when it inadvertently went south again, but I was pleasantly surprised! The session focused on my sexuality as only a part of my identity, one that was significant enough to matter immensely but not enough to eclipse everything else I was or can be. Over time, when I peeled back layers of my childhood and adolescence to reveal some raw scars and dislocated perceptions, I drew my own links between my sexuality and trauma. But these connections, unlike the forced barbed-wire of my first-ever session, flowed like an unspooled thread finding its way on its own.
I realised that my sexual expression, desire for intimacy, fear of abandonment, and apathy towards my own wellbeing in the face of pleasing an unknown Other, were links of the same chain. Over months of sessions, some more difficult than others, I managed to unspool this thread further and further to reveal more pain and more strength than I knew I had. Much later, I realised what the words ‘internalised homophobia’ meant – the internalisation of prejudiced ideas present in a culture that can cause psychological suffering
What does this mean, though? Taking away the jargon, it boils down to the acceptance of negative stereotypes that stem from a fear of ‘the other.’ When I grew up hearing about how it was wrong to be anything but heterosexual, when the only representation of any ‘difference’ was tropes to be made fun of in Hindi Cinema, when there was nobody around me who was ‘the same’ as me, I internalised it. I started believing it was my fault. It must be true if so many people are saying it, right? It has to be. How can a single child, adolescent, young adult, adult, be right in the face of overwhelming narratives that tell us we are wrong? While this may seem like I yelled curses at myself in the mirror every morning, internalised homophobia tends to surface in far more sinister ways. It can take the form of self-harming tendencies, low self-esteem, and sexual behaviour that can put us at risk. In sum, it sucks.
Queer Affirmative Therapy addresses internalised homophobia by encouraging the client to recognise the self-hatred learned in a homonegative and heteronormative world. Becoming aware of these negative cognitions allows us to slowly let go of and build more healthy thought patterns around one’s sexuality. Think of it as an insidious forest in our head planted by those around us, a forest where the leaves, the fruits, the flowers, the thorns, are all poisonous. Therapy gives us tools and time, but the actual work of dismantling the forest is ours as we are the only persons with access to that forest. So queer affirmative therapy validates our beliefs and helps us identify the poison, cut it down, dissect it, unroot it. And then we can plant a garden we choose ourselves, with flowers and fruits that serve us, that give us peace. And that garden is the space we protect and return to, our very own positive space.
Like queer affirmative therapy, queer friendly therapy may also be beneficial for LGBTQIA+ clients. However, the major difference between the two is the depth of exploration of socially learned internalised homophobia. While queer friendly therapists may be allies, or queer people themselves, and offer support, positive regard, and even a safe and inclusive space, this can only go so far. Queer affirmative therapy opts for a perspective that is not only accepting but also active and going beyond the non-judgmentality of therapeutic practice in order to engage with the client on their sexuality or gender identity. The therapist affirms this perspective repeatedly, with the right language, and with cognisance of the privileged identities (such as being cisgender and heterosexual) they may have.
This perspective gives queer persons a space that is free, validating, positive, and affirming. A place that goes beyond simply letting them express their identity to be greeted with the non-partisanship of traditional therapy. A space that questions the structures of heteronormativity with them; that encourages rejection of these structures and embracing of self-love, self-care, and self-acceptance. These benefits of this perspective on gender and sexuality are not limited only to queer persons. They can help cisgender and heterosexual persons identify the spaces where heterosexist value systems are holding them back. This model of therapy can enhance the ability of cisgender heterosexual individuals to develop more healthy relationships with the less normative aspects of their own person. So really, queer affirmative therapy is for everyone!
In the space of my therapeutic relationship, I was able to explore how deeply I had internalised prejudices of the seeming lewdness and wrongness of not fitting into the heteronormative space. My past of risky sexual behaviour and lack of self-worth was contextualised in a way that allowed me to see it for what it was: borrowed hatred, as in hatred that I had learned. I had found a space to let go of this hatred and to create a new, more loving space for myself inside my own mind.
In the kind of heterosexist and patriarchal society that India has, vulnerable groups are far more likely to be marginalised, discriminated against and also statistically more likely to be burdened with mental health concerns. This, coupled with the lack of queer affirmative therapists available owing to the relatively nascent nature of the practice, creates a toxic space for queer persons. The good news is that queer affirmative therapy is on the rise, with more and more therapists realising the limitations of their practice and acquiring the required skills to not just be queer friendly but also queer affirmative. And, as someone who still finds herself in and out of therapy, that receives a yay from me!
Therapy is a space to heal and grow. It helped me to accept my identity as an anxious, cisgender, South Asian, bisexual woman. Moreover, I have come up with the perfect response next time someone asks me, “But why do you think you are bisexual?” I shall flip my shoulder length hair with aplomb, turn with a gleam in my eye, compose a profound delivery in order to leave the most lasting impression possible, and ask them in response, “Why do you think you’re not?”
Cover Image: Pixabay