In India we are never given a chance to explore our sexuality growing up. We are put into boxes at birth, and in a country where even our profession is announced at birth, being given the freedom to explore our sexual identity is a reach. Figuring out your sexuality can be confusing, take your time! Hello readers, I’m Srishti, and my counselling practice, ‘Identity: Beyond the Binary,’ has always been focused on building awareness of and advocating for LGBT+ mental health. I have an MSc. in Mental Health Studies from King’s College London where I specialised and researched on suicidality and self-harm among the transgender and non-binary population. I also have a PG Diploma in Sexuality and Reproductive Health.
I have been a queer-friendly therapist for 3 years now and have been a part of numerous talks, workshops, and panel discussions on queer topics relating to identity, gender, and sexuality in the Indian context.
A common aspect of struggling with your sexuality is combating self-stigma. What does that even mean, right? Why would we stigmatise ourselves? Well, you wouldn’t; not consciously, anyway. I know it sounds odd, but stay with me! Growing up in a largely heteronormative society where topics around identity and sexuality are at best ridiculed, we find that sometimes we take all the things that our society has said about the label and we internalise it - all the negative thoughts and behaviours, the hatred, the stereotypes - we take all that inside and turn it against ourselves, and this is called self-stigma (or internalised homophobia). Remember the ‘Fair and Lovely’ advertisements we all watched as kids? The ones that perpetrated the whole ‘fair is beautiful’ bias that so many Indians have? In the same way, think about how you have always been told, or have heard, or read, or just experienced that being different is wrong, that the only normal way of life is for a man and woman to marry. What impact do you think that will have on you?
So, how can we work on self-acceptance, you ask?
1. Question your biases: Ask yourself why you believe a certain point and whether or not it is actually true. “When I finally left for college, I realised that having to hide a part of myself for years made me internalise the hate and shame that society felt” – said one of my queer clients is from a small town where most are unaware of the LGBT+ community. Look within and see whether the statements you sometimes say are your own voice, your own opinions, or whether they are things you have heard over the years - from your parents, from that one loud neighbour, or even from the media.
The next step is to talk about it with someone, and that takes me to my second point.
2. Find your support system – Finding a group of people who accept you, listen to you, understand you, and who are there for you will help you recognise that you are not alone in this journey. Know this! You are not alone! A male client once mentioned to me, “in high school I often thought, why am I the only one? Why did this have to happen to me? This was a time when everyone in class was pairing off and there was a lot of, he’s my boyfriend and she’s my girlfriend - but I was always attracted to the guys in my class and didn’t understand it.” In India, it is not common to grow up in a school and have friends who are openly queer - a lot of people end up feeling like they are the only ones going through this. So, take that step to reach out and build a network of support for yourself, and once you find them, don’t be afraid to talk to them!
3. Use the internet to your advantage - do your research and if you are ready, explore your sexuality! – We now have any and all information on our fingertips, which is something people didn’t have even 20 years ago. Use the internet to understand what sexuality is and what you feel! You do not have to label yourself immediately. Many of my clients first come out as bisexual and only later come out again as gay or lesbian because they feel like they need to have a label ready for when anyone asks them how they identify their sexuality. It’s okay to be unsure, it’s okay to take your time to explore your sexuality, it’s okay to label yourself only when you are ready, and it is also okay to not label yourself at all. You don’t have to put yourself in any specific bucket just because that is what people expect.
Figuring out your sexual identity can be overwhelming and there are a lot of norms guiding how we feel and a lot of restrictions on expressing ourselves. It may make you feel isolated but know that you’re not alone and there is no pressure on you to find an identity right away and stick to it for the rest of your life. Sexuality is a spectrum and every person’s relationship with their sexuality is a work in progress. If you, or someone you know is struggling feel free to reach out to me, or other queer affirmative practitioners below.