As I write this piece, I locate myself within the queer community and the mental health system. When I was studying psychology back in 1998 the representation of people like me in psychology textbooks was pathological. I could not find a single reference to my identity of lesbian in any positive light. I was not comfortable with my sexuality back then and these textbooks did not help. Later, I studied at a University in Mumbai that was somewhat accepting but in a cautious, quiet way. In Mumbai, I was lucky enough to meet a few feminist queers who were the starting point in my journey towards self-acceptance as a butch lesbian. This was in 2003. What this gist from my life indicates is the all-pervasive environment of stigma and shame that surrounds LGBTQI+ people. Only heterosexuality along with rigid ideas of man and woman are considered ‘normal’ in our society. The LGBTQI+ community lives in a society which devalues, pathologises and erases our identities and lives on a daily basis. We can imagine then what a struggle it becomes to simply be oneself! This inequality regarding gender and sexuality has a definite role to play in the adverse mental health impacts on queer and trans people.
We need to recognise that mental health stressors that queer people face are not because something is inherently wrong with them. They are introduced into their lives by the negative attitudes and the rigid – and arbitrary – rules of our society. When oppression is a daily experience, resistance and subversion are important ways to cope. What shape does that take? How are queer and trans people building their lives, surviving the struggle, claiming spaces, and pushing for rights?
Queer and trans people find and redefine what intimacies mean and can do for oneself. The narrow confines within which cis-het kinships are contained are broken, expanded, reframed by queer intimacies. These intimacies are a necessary resource to survive a hostile system and are varied.
The Queer Community: Finding Others Like Ourselves
When we exist every day in a visibly cisgendered and heterosexual world it is hard to spot someone like ourselves. But when that happens it opens up possibilities for us to live! Community is a resource. We may be absolute strangers to each other, but the shared experience of oppression brings us together. Connecting with community gives us a way to feel real, feel seen, heard, and understood. Community provides safety in crisis, strategies to combat discrimination, possibilities to find love, feel ‘normal’ and live up our truths.
Chosen Families: Queer Cocoons
On account of our sexualities and genders, queers often move apart from natal families – move away physically or move apart simply because we can’t share our real selves with them. But our need for belonging continues. Where do we meet the roles and functions that families are supposed to play? Therefore, I now believe that despite the critique of what families are and do to us, it is possible to subvert notions of families and claim relationships in a way that meets the varied needs that we expect families to meet. I liken my chosen family to a cocoon. It is a safe space. It is nurturing. It helps us grow and thrive. And it is transforming. Other elements include Affection, Harmony, Connectedness, Rootedness, Respectful and considerate of differences, Demonstration of care and support, Laughter, Dependability, Kindness, Collective care, Critter love and Non-normative couples. What is powerful about chosen families is that these families are not thrust upon us at birth, but we choose them and we negotiate in a more willing manner to be with each other.
My chosen family are my ex-partner, their current partner and my girlfriend. And between us 4 adults we have 12 dependents – 2 dogs, 9 cats and 1 human child. These are people who think and feel similarly about the cocoon that we are trying to create and add to the elements and emotions listed above. And most importantly, our chosen family is an open space for more people to join in. What keeps us together is not any structure but the meanings we painstakingly make with each other. These meanings come from our feelings and our ethics. And the recognition that all of it takes time, years… and it takes hard work. We all struggle, we fail, we also celebrate and through it all we hold each other to make it work, and to keep reworking it.
Equations with exes: Ex without the Sex
Queer-trans people often have harmonious and supportive equation with their exes. Only too often, the ex is the only safe space, the only person who knows the truth about you, may be the only one who you can be your authentic self with. This often results in a closeness that continues much after the romantic relationship ends.
Social Media: The Everyday Queer
Social media has increased access to representation of queer and trans folks. On my Instagram page, I share posts about my everyday life, especially as an older butch in love with my femme. These posts are received with an overwhelming amount of love and joy. The queer joy in my life has become a source of strength for many others. I also feature photographs of queer people, simply living their queer lives in all its shades. My story highlights feature photos of masc persons in shirts, dykes on bikes, queer couples, personal ads for single queers. There is a lot of engagement from queer people on topics like queer love, queer wishes, queer aspirations, fun answers to difficult questions we get asked. For queers, even those who are not out, this becomes a space where they can see possibilities for the self emerge because they are seeing other queer people simply living their queer lives!
Queer and trans people seek and build solidarities across movements and systems. These solidarities give voice to the inequality we feel every day. Queer solidarity directly translates to resilience to survive the oppression.
Queer Collectives and Activism
Many queer-trans people join collectives, activist spaces and people’s movements to raise their voices against the injustices in our society. Our daily experience of being pushed out, left out, discriminated against, erased and censored has helped us recognise systems of power that create an unequal world. This helps us raise our voice not only for our own community but for people in other marginalised locations. Our own oppression makes us join the dots between capitalism, poverty, race, caste class, sexuality, gender, ability and how these oppressions are distinct and yet overlapping. Activism translates into action that contributes to social justice. This empowers us.
Several queer-trans people experience a sense of hope, resilience, inspiration, strength, and possibilities from other queer-trans people. For decades, individual people and members of collectives have offered themselves and their experiences as an important resource to other LGBTQI+ folks. This is peer support – using one’s own experiences of marginalisation to support another member of the LGBTQI+ community. Some peer supporters equip themselves with basic counselling skills to attend to distress and help queer-trans people build internal coping mechanisms to take care of themselves. Their lived realities and genuine struggles are channelised such that other people benefit and find ways to survive this stigmatising world.
Queer Affirmative Therapy
Therapy is an essential part of support for the LGBTQI+ community. Historically, the mental health system has failed those who don’t fit the social rules of gender and sexuality. We have shown up in textbooks and practice only as pathologised subjects requiring ‘cure’. Decades of activism by the LGBTQI+ community and queer-trans mental health practitioners (MHPs) within the system has paved the way for Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice (QACP). Cis-het practitioners, trained under traditional paradigms are now recognising the inadequacy and pathology of those knowledge systems. MHPs are equipping themselves with knowledge developed by people at the margins to become responsive to the unique life stressors and concerns of their LGBTQI+ clients. Cis-het MHPs are joining the fight for rights by demanding changes in policies, textbooks, therapeutic practices and research thereby ‘queering mental health’. An important guide to build capacities to be queer affirmative is presented in the Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice (QACP) Resource Book (2022) of which I am a co-author.
Queer Conversations and Queer Laughter
This is something special. When I say, “Queer is my normal” what I mean is that queer people are different. We are different from the mainstream and that is why in most spaces we just feel alienated. But when a bunch of queers get together, it is a riot. The conversation is different, it matches one’s reality. There is so much resonance in our stories. It doesn’t require explanations or justifications. We can simply narrate our experiences – how we had to leave home or how we ran away with the girl we loved, or how our hearts got broken just so many times. We can be our full selves, in our queer glory and we are applauded for it. Our stories are grand even if they might be about how dangerously we are forced to live, our laughter is loud even if it is about how badly we are crushed. There is something freeing about living a life against all odds. A life hard fought and hard won, lived with imagination and strength that we draw from within ourselves. These tales and the accompanying laughter are precious. It is an elixir for our queer selves.
This is how we do it. This is how we shape our lives when oppression is an everyday experience. Our resistance and subversion is about preserving a sense of self that does not find validation and value in the mainstream. We are the mirror to each other. This is how we seek and build intimate queer spaces so we can be fully ourselves, bit by bit. This is how we find companions to travel queer journeys with. This is how we build solidarities that will one day make the world equal and diverse.