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Mahesh Natarajan

No longer criminals, but not equal citizens

5 minutes read

October 13,2020

In India, for 157 years (1861 – 2018), it was considered legal for only procreative sexual acts to take place between a man and a woman. Anything outside this was a crime. Peaceful protests have taken place across the country for several years against the infamous Article 377, calling for its reading down and the removal of its applicability to adults. Touted the ‘victory of love’, the reading down of Article 377 was an act of renouncing draconian laws rather than constructing ones that would lay a strong foundation for the community to be considered equal citizens. And while the decriminalization of homosexuality is a step in the right (or rather, obvious) direction, consistent oppression has left the community amongst the most vulnerable to mental health struggles.

Several other laws have continued this pattern of suppression. The Surrogacy Act (2019) rules out adoption and surrogacy for single parents, homosexuals and transgender individuals – taking away a large part of their right to build a family. At one point, the Trans Act (2019) considered it illegal to determine one’s own gender – a clause which was removed but has exacerbated confusion in the community about its intent. The Act also forces a trans individual to live with their natal families, regardless of whether it is a physically and emotionally violent environment or not. The punishment for sexual violence against trans people is significantly less than the same against non-trans individuals; effectively condoning this behaviour. The discrimination is systemic, to say the least.

Psychological distress can quickly become an enormous problem when the stressors are intense and acute (such as a physical assault or a sexually violent attack) or chronic and prolonged (such as poverty, discrimination, and neglect); our social systems have created a perfect recipe of both for the queer community. In many cases we have overlooked violence against the community from several individuals that claim to have a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. These are purely acts of cruelty packaged as ‘therapy’. In the recent past, a young student in Kerala died by suicide after being subject to physical, mental, and medical torture by her family and by so-called ‘conversion camps’. It is crushing to know that this is not the exception but the norm. 

Too often and for far too long, we have taken a problem that is created by society and its legal structure and unjustly converted that to a perceived flaw in a human being.

It is strange to consider how our social training can so easily prevent us from accepting something, purely because it is different. We have learnt how to equate ‘dissimilarity’ with ‘immorality’ and you can see this far beyond the queer community.

Our country’s mental health system is not only strained but unequipped to handle the onslaught of struggles that this consistent oppression has created. We cannot possibly hope or expect individuals to live a great and full life when they’re denied basic rights that most of us take for granted such as getting married, starting a family, and having the freedom to self-identify with our gender. We’re at a nascent but important stage to not only support the queer community but to build a world where, at the very least, mental health can be taken for granted and not hurt by legal systems. A culture of affirmative care for people in minority groups doesn’t exist today and we need to create it.

Over the last decade, our society has taken several steps in the right direction. Groups and bodies for the queer population are no longer scattered across the nation with little to no contact with one another. A sense of solidarity has been rapidly emerging. One can even have a sense of confidence that they have an entire community to rally behind them. Many people are coming together, connecting with each other, and working towards evaporating the feeling of isolation that has been deeply entrenched for so long.

Since the reading down of 377, several prominent people have come out about their sexuality and sexual identity without the fear of criminalization. These people have not only served as role models but have used their platforms to amplify voices of the community. Allyship has begun to germinate and grow with more people speaking out on social media and joining hands with the community for pride marches. The media has begun talking more openly about sexuality and gender as well.

Seeds have been sown, a few have even begun to take root, but we have a long way to go as a society. The community may not be criminals any longer, but we are far from being considered equal citizens in a country we call home.

 Naturally, the predominance of mental health struggles in this group is staggering. Although a large part of society has been trying to leap forward against this oppression, they often find their mobility constrained by a variety of institutions. There is little doubt that introducing the true diversity of sexuality and sexual identity in early education will have its merits. But, lack of education and ‘social class’ are poorly related to ones acceptance of the queer community. Across society, there are enough families that are near impoverished and open their arms to the community, families that are incredibly wealthy who indulge in rejection, and vice versa. Perhaps, what we need is much more fundamental and deeply rooted in human nature than literacy. I wonder, can one teach another the art of basic love and compassion?

Written By
Mahesh Natarajan

Mahesh Natarajan is a counsellor at www.innersight.in who works largely with adults and strives to provide an affirming and validating space for people of diverse genders, sexualities, races and social class/ caste, in which people can safely work on challenges they might have regarding identity, expression, personal and professional goals.

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