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Mid-Air Between Heaven and Earth

Review of Growing up Gay In Urban India: A Critical Psychosocial Perspective by Dr Ketki Ranade (Springer Nature, Singapore 2018).

“Always desire to learn something useful”  – Sophocles

My association with Dr Ketki Ranade began over 18 years ago, when Dr Ranade was pursuing a degree in psychiatric social work. Over the course of the years, I have been aware of their passionate and dedicated work relating to LGBTQ issues. Dr Ranade’s new book, Growing up Gay In Urban India: A Critical Psychosocial Perspective, based on their research on the experiences of gays and lesbians growing up in Mumbai and Pune during the 1980s and 90s, offers us a rare insight into the emotional and psychological experiences of LGBTQ individuals in urban India.

Dr Ranade attempts to understand the experiences of the individuals they interviewed during the course of this project through a psychosocial lens. The book begins with a critique of disciplinary frameworks that have been used to study child and adolescent development with specific reference to development of sexual identity, and highlights the lack of literature on the development of homosexual identity.

The second chapter introduces us to the research methodology used by Dr Ranade, a qualitative approach that uses narratives from research participants to develop an understanding of their experiences of their emerging homosexuality. This is contrasted against the normative gender binary/heterosexual development, taking into account the cultural differences between the East and West, as most research in this field is from a Euro-American perspective. Dr Ranade clarifies this by stating,“This is not to suggest a dichotomy of individualist versus collectivist or western versus eastern culture. In a globalized world such a compartmentalization would not be possible and there are degrees of individuation and individualization in all cultures. Moreover, as suggested by Sinha and Tripathi (2003), ‘individualist’ and ‘collectivist’ can be thought of as orientations that co-exist within individuals and cultures, that find expression in diverse contexts. In this chapter, and later in the book, I do cite research from the Indian context that supports the idea of a socially/familially embedded self, as one of the analytical lenses to discuss findings of my study.” (Chapter 1, footnotes 7, page 23)

Chapters 3 to 6 are filled with rich and poignant material that brings to life the struggles encountered by the study participants as they are faced with the reality of their emerging homosexual identity, their attempts at seeking and gaining acceptance, consolidating their sexual, personal, social and collective identities and their work for social change and political activism.

In the final chapter Dr Ranade summarises the four main propositions used in the book to identify common universal themes of identity development and the differences in the experiences of young queer individuals, including differences in experiences of people within specific LGBTQ communities, to finally highlight the uniqueness of individual experiences based on their individual psychosocial environments. This is followed by an acknowledgement of the limitations of this study, and thoughts on future research that focuses on socio-cultural realities faced by individuals of LGBTQ communities across their lifespan.

The concluding chapter reiterates the aims of the book, i.e., “to start critical conversations within the disciplines of psychology, social work, childhood studies, and family studies in India and to think about exclusions inherent in these disciplines…. to develop interventions towards more inclusive familial and educational environments, to develop LG-informed and inclusive curricula for educationists, doctors, teachers, counsellors, social workers, and also to inform future research agenda in this area.” (Chapter 7, page 167-168)

My first thought upon reading this book, was that this was a book dedicated to growth, and more importantly a desire to grow as it is this desire that fosters love and makes us human. This was evident not only in the structure of the book, but also the narrative accounts of the various participants as they moved towards forming relationships and communities and questioning the usual notions of family and society.

The opening chapters placed the narrative material that followed in context. Individual accounts brought to life the struggle with invisibility and the bewilderment experienced by children, adolescents, and young adults when faced with their emerging queerness. In many of the accounts this was followed by a sense of isolation, loneliness, and denial of their sexuality for internal and/or external psychosocial reasons, as they wrestled with the question, “Why me?”

The plight of being caught in a ‘no man’s land’, the associated sense of self-hatred, loathing and betrayal, not just by parents and loved ones but their own minds and bodies as well, was poignantly illustrated by the experience described by one of the study participants, “I think the idea of ‘trishankhu’ (refers to a king in Hindu Mythology, who lived being suspended mid-air between heaven and earth) best describes my early psychic life. It is this sense of belonging and un-belonging, togetherness and alienation, all at once that I constantly experienced….”(Chapter 3, page 61).

Persecutory anxieties, exposure to violence and stigmatising experiences mark the path of emergence and acceptance of non-normative sexual identity for most individuals.As they come to terms with their sense of loss of a societally required/expected and idealised heterosexual identity, they develop a new identity – personal, social and collective –that accepts and celebrates their queerness.

Dr Ranade’s aim in writing this book was to start necessary and much required conversations amongst health and social care disciplines in India. The tone and style of writing lends itself to this aim. Although the first two chapters are filled with extensive reviews of literature that may seem daunting to those unfamiliar with the subject or unaccustomed to reading scientific papers, the narrative accounts in subsequent chapters provide the required balance to bring to life the key facets. All in all I would recommend this book as a must read for anyone who harbours a genuine desire to understand the experience of another, be it a parent, sibling, child, friend, colleague or even a stranger.

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