Through the lived experiences of non-binary people, Shauna James speaks about the need for mental health professionals who are sensitised towards the LGBTQIA+ community. As these people share their experiences, it is clear that many mental health professionals come with biases and reductionist beliefs that aim at finding streamlined cures for socially sensitive issues like sexuality.

Picture this:

You have recently started questioning your gender and sexual preferences. You feel like you’re attracted to someone who identifies with your gender. You don’t know anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community and you’re too scared to bring up this topic with people close to you as they might question and invalidate your feelings. Therefore, you decide to approach a professional for guidance. The only catch: the session is not as groundbreaking as you hoped it would be.

The struggle of growing up queer in a predominantly heterosexual world is an experience the LGBTQIA+ community shares. Dealing with one’s internalised homophobia, while coming to terms with one’s sexual and gender identity, proves to be a mammoth task. One is easily affected by the opinions of others as accepting the fact that they do not abide by the “normal”   status quo, is a hard pill to swallow.

Figuring out that you live inside a closet is as scary and challenging as coming out. You find yourself processing your preferences for days on end. It’s not something you can be comfortable talking about with most people as the fear of being subjected to homophobia/transphobia looms overhead. Often one seeks guidance from a therapist or counsellor. But what happens when your therapist/psychiatrist/counsellor turns out to be homophobic/transphobic?

“I was looking for a new therapist in Mumbai last year. I came across this doctor who had great recommendations on Practo. A couple of friends who knew him recommended the same doctor. We did three sessions together. In the fourth session, I started to open up about my sexuality. I told him that I currently identify as bisexual and that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stick with that label. I continued to tell him that I felt it was putting me in a binary; I went on talking about it, and he listened patiently,” said Saishree Rah, a bisexual woman.

“Then he cut me off and asked whether I had faith. I was honestly taken aback. I told him I was agnostic and that I was still trying to understand spirituality and sexuality. He said that there was a way for everything and that maybe God could help me. I was confused, so I asked him what he meant. He told me that maybe my confusion was rooted in my lack of faith. Lack of faith in myself, lack of faith in life, lack of faith in people. He told me I should start looking for God and that it would help me find a better path in life,” said Rah.

“He was so subtle about it that I wasn’t sure how to respond. This conversation took place towards the end of the session. I walked out of his office and never went back.”

In a country where one’s religious sentiments can mean life or death, it is not surprising that social conditioning of religious norms has found its way into therapy. A common form of homophobia/transphobia that mental health practitioners need to leave outside their doorstep is their religious conditioning.

Shaheen Ghasia, a cisgender bisexual woman, recounting her experience with her therapist, says, “We were talking about my relationship with my parents and how my mum is in complete denial about my sexuality. My psychologist proceeded to ask me what was wrong with it. I told her how I liked men and women. I explained to her that  I was confused about whether I was a lesbian trying to conform or a straight person who was lying to herself about being attracted to women.”

“She started talking to me about how it’s challenging to adjust in a backward country like India, especially if you are different. By different, she meant my piercings and coloured hair and how this would create a lot of complications later as I wasn’t a ‘traditional’ woman. I asked her where she was going with this. She proceeded to tell me about the crimes against people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community and how they become pariahs. She suggested that I should stick to liking men, as it would make my life easier. ”

“She explained to me that since I had the option of choosing between both sexes, I should choose the one that would make my life easier. From her point of view, she was just trying to make my life easier, so it wasn’t like she was coming from a bad place, just a misguided one,” said Shaheen.

Misguided or not, mental health professionals require nuanced sensitivity towards the struggles faced by the LGBTQIA+ community. Often, redressal aids identity crisis and not vilify sexual preference.

“My first experience with a therapist was from when I had not come out to myself as transgender. My therapist told me that I was most likely just ‘sexually interested in women’s clothing.” What she said was a roadblock on my journey towards accepting myself. This therapy experience pushed me back into self-doubt. It took me a long while and a bad breakup to come to terms with myself. The psychiatrist I consulted after this identified as gay. He had trouble understanding that I was a lesbian trans woman. My current psychiatrist and psychologist are very queer-friendly, and I can see the difference in my self-image after being with them for a while,” said Kavya Gokul, a non-binary, trans woman.

Speaking about the regressive Transgender Act that states the need of psychiatric approval for a transgender person to be certified by the government, Gokul says, “My therapist, fortunately, listened to me but a lot of them don’t. A lot of people in therapy lie about their feelings and sexuality just so that the psychiatrist would vet them. To be honest, it is a completely unnecessary requirement.”

Given the fact that mental health care already carries a stigma in society, people suffering from severe mental health concerns may refrain from seeking professional help when faced with homophobia/transphobia at the hands of mental health professionals.

“I visited this therapist around nine years ago who misdiagnosed me and said that I needed to toughen up. He proceeded to tell me that my sexual orientation is just a phase, and I’ll soon get over it. I never saw a therapist after that until last year. My university-appointed therapist was godsent. She not only started me on medication but also took cognisance of my issues. When I opened up to her about my orientation, she was nothing but accepting and welcoming,” said Siddharth Chattar (name changed on request), a cisgender gay man.

The year is 2020. It is high time we pay heed to the severity of the need for more queer-friendly mental health practitioners. There is a need for sensitisation towards queer issues not just in mental health professionals, but also in society. Small steps, such as including LGBTQIA+ history and issues in the school curriculum, workshops and sensitisation sessions at the college level and merely talking about it, can go a long way. Even though change takes place over time, we need to start somewhere.

Edited by: Sahej Marwah