“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
— J. Krishnamurti
Sexuality for folks from the queer community is not as straightforward as heteronormative stories make it out to be. Heterosexuality is considered the ‘default’ and the norm. For queer folks, in the act of exploring their sexuality, there is not only love or pleasure, but also guilt and shame for doing what is implicitly unacceptable. This is because of a lifetime of being made to feel like a “freak” by everyone around (Salunke, 2021). Even if gender, sexuality, and identity shouldn’t be the cause of someone’s reduced self-esteem, dread of being seriously harmed, or even reluctance to make conversation, the feelings of shame and fear nonetheless bubble to the surface. We exist in relation to the people around us, and being at the margins is such a difficult experience that we are bound to conclude: “something is inherently wrong with me”.
The Power Threat Meaning framework (2018) proposed by the British Psychological Society discusses how systemic and structural threats play into the psychological distress of individuals, especially marked for those at the intersections. Therefore, when treated badly by several systems, and by everyone around them, it is not a surprise that people who are not heterosexual suffer a lot of mental health distress, which often gets attributed to their sexuality, akin to “You are depressed because you are gay,” rather than “You are depressed because of the way the world treats gay people”. Often the distress may be invisible and may not be a full-blown breakdown or a mental illness. That does not mean it does not exist. For example, students who identify as gay or trans struggle especially when living on campus. Because housing and residence offices operate around the gender binary, queer and trans students may encounter unwelcoming living situations. This illustrates how a necessity like that of having a safe housing environment, turns into a privilege and even while we may intellectually know that there are systems and discrimination that lead to our distress, it is still hard for us to really hold on to that thought. Often, we need more than intellectual insight to deal with the impact of systemic discrimination.
At Guftagu Counselling and Psychotherapy Services, using a nuanced, depth-oriented, person-centered, and intersectional approach (queer and trans affirmative and trauma-informed), we provide individual, couple, and group therapy for people of various ages and diverse concerns. When working with clients at the margins, the effort is not just to find out what intersections they are at and what systems alienate or harm them, but also the internal factors that affect them in the process of exclusion and violence. What insecurities come up, or what feelings emerge about the self? What core beliefs or stories about the self and the world tend to repeat in a loop, such that they create more distress with each new incident and become more and more entrenched?
For example, Sadaf, a therapist at Guftagu, said about one of her clients, “My client is a lesbian woman, who has had mixed messages from her parents from childhood. Materially, they will give her everything and will panic if she becomes physically sick, but at the same time, they ignore her mental health and actively shame her for seeking therapy or medication. She has always been made to feel good if she looks thin, or scores well. Therefore, when she came out, she was treated quite badly. Parents blamed themselves; one of them started self-harming as a way to guilt her and the other told her that this is a phase and that she is not a “real lesbian” because she has had male partners before, and if she wants her father to not be depressed, she should get married. Her feelings about being shamed for her sexuality were not entirely separate from how she had been treated as a child. Therefore, just naming the parents’ homonegativity or abuse is not enough. We had to work with its effects. We worked on the main beliefs about herself that get activated due to their behaviour − a feeling of inherent badness, which also manifested as insecurity in her romantic relationships. We worked on slowly chipping that feeling away so that while she might still feel it faintly, she could see it as a function of her history, and she could see her parents as flawed people and decide how to respond at the moment, rather than take a reactionary stance (either overcompensating or rebelling). She also eventually learned how her childhood patterns were coming up in her self-concepts, including how she looked at her sexuality and her romantic life. This helped her to operate from a fuller knowledge of her nuanced life and the people in it.”
Aryan, one of our other therapists, said, “I was part of a support group where people were discussing how they feel the need to come out to their parents. This is something I also see in the groups I run and the individual clients I see. Coming out here is not an act of joy and sharing of one’s truth from a place of trust, but rather something that feels ‘owed’. The clients and group members often feel that they owe the truth to their parents or other loved ones and are being deceptive if they don’t share it. This is an internalisation of cishet ideas of the charm circle. Because for those in the centre of power, it’s all good to glorify telling the truth, as it has lesser consequences. Truth, however, has bigger costs for those on the margins. And anyway, what we at the margins need to think is, ‘What has this person done to know about my sexuality? Do they make me feel safe and welcome? Are they likely to unlearn their harmful ideas?’ Therefore, I feel, the onus is on whether the listener deserves the trust rather than the teller owing anyone any truths.”
While we try to work with these internalised ideas in therapy, it is curative work, done painstakingly slowly, one at a time. We should definitely try and do more preventive work too. It would be a great help if there were more adequate representations of all types of sexualities and ideas. Representation is so important, especially for children. Unfortunately, the material that they are exposed to is largely heteronormative, showing a boy and girl falling in love or struggling to figure out a crush. What about the little kid who is struggling to come to terms with being attracted to a friend of the same gender – who will highlight that? This lack of representation tends to make people feel invisible or ashamed, making them wonder if their feelings are valid or if they deserve to take up any kind of space. However, books like My Chacha is Gay by Eiynah and Himanjali Sarkar’s Talking about Muskaan, as well as Netflix movies like Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare are definitely changing the landscape. At the end of the day, narratives cement our self-stories, and the more diverse the narratives around us, the less we have to internalize and privilege only cis-heterosexual ideas.