Relocating Mental Health Conversations to Native Queer Subcultures in India
Ethnic queer subcultures: margins within margins
These subcultures exist at unique overlaps of class, religiosity, region, gender, sexuality, and kinship. They prompt culturally appropriate, intersectional approaches to MH, that are missing in dominant Psy-discourses. They also raise questions about centers and margins of power in the context of deliberations, outreach and allocation of resources pertaining to MH.
At present, few same-sex lovers in India find resonance with identifications like “lesbian”, “gay”, “homosexual”, which may all carry multiple meanings, connoting upper class, white, and Western(1) and therefore inaccessible to many. Social movements, queer/trans advocacy, and local NGO frameworks – the “civil society”(2) – may also adopt such terminology to satisfy urban middle- or upper-class consciences. However, in doing queer mental health in the “civil” way, a bulk of narratives and community setups may run the risk of invisibility, resulting in dialogue, access, and outreach lacunae.
Traditional subcultures: safe spaces for the non-metropolitan and less privileged
Functioning as counter-cultures within a hetero-patriarchal superstructure, ethnic queer subcultures in India embody safe spaces in a metaphorical as well as literal sense. They operate beyond the Eurocentric “homo-normative” purview of queerness (the superimposition of heterosexual ideals and constructs onto lesbian and gay identities) (3) and, significantly, resist tight binary taxonomies.
In the literal sense of “safe space”, Dutta(4) mentions the growth of formalized spaces in the geographical margins of West Bengal – shelters and drop-in-centers, where queer bodies may seek solace from discrimination and violence, and engage in community- and movement- building activities.
In the metaphorical sense, these subcultures introduce various forms of transgression into the non-metropolitan sociocultural milieu, serving eventually to normalize them in the public gaze.
Native taxonomies for queer sexualities and practices
Indian queer male-bodied individuals hailing from rural or socio-economically marginalized sections are popularly classified as kothi — the effeminate male (with feminine dressing, speech, behavior) (5) who is penetrated; dupli — the effeminate man who penetrates as well as is penetrated; and pareekh — the “masculine” man (in behaviour, speech, and dress) (6), with whom kothis pair as lovers.(7)
The most visible queer subculture that potently intersects understandings of gender and sexuality is that of the Hijras (also referred to as Aravanis in South India, and Kinnar/Khusra in North India)(8). The Hijra identity is ethnically imbued with the idea of “tritiya panthi”, or “tritiya prakriti” – the third gender, or third nature.(9) Close observation reveals the Hijra community as comprising multiple identities, such as effeminate gay men (zenanas/khada kothis, who may or may not cross-dress), transsexuals (usually male to female), transvestites, and intersex individuals.(10,11,12) The best way to understand the gender identity of a Hijra individual is through an emic approach, through the individual’s self-determination.(13)
Through embodying a symbolic protest against the “binarizing” of gender, Hijra cultures decolonize Western psychiatry’s pathologizing of gender non-conformity.(14)
Factors for wellbeing offered by native queer subcultures
Nanda(15) points out that many queer community members seek assimilation within the Hijra community (“samaj”) for shelter, livelihood, and the chance to live out their sexual selves. Against a backdrop of multiple psychosocial stressors, these subcultures have a great deal to offer: regional/vernacular vocabularies for self-identification in terms of parallel sexualities and/genders; secret, code language that helps maintain privacy, discreetness, distinctiveness, and aids in navigating familiar but often hostile environments(16); scope for connecting with like-minded individuals through identity-based resonance, as well as collective resistance and struggles – fostering “we-feeling”, for instance the lifelong bond of reciprocity in the guru (teacher/leader)-chela (follower) relationships in the Hijra samaj,(17) or the camaraderie and sisterhoods among chelas under the same guru;(18) self-expression and exploration in a relatively affirmative framework, which includes a recognition and appreciation of personhoods – such as the feminine names adopted by individuals or given to them by their guru-ma;(19) peer counseling and mentorship from community elders;(20) increased access to more cruising spaces and dwelling grounds within “heteronormative zones”(21) – informal meeting spots in parks, railway stations, or residences of other local trans/queer people;(22) emotional support of peers as well as financial assistance, and protection against violence;(23) the preservation of queer culture in art forms – such as launda naach (boy’s dance), the traditional erotic dance performances by effeminate adolescents, usually seen at marriage celebrations.(24) Dutta also speaks of how regional theatrical forms like Shiv-Parvati plays, shong and bisahari pala, provide limited social sanction for male bodies to enact female roles in mythological or folk tales.(25)
“Functioning as counter-cultures within a hetero-patriarchal India, ethnic queer subcultures embody safe spaces in a metaphorical as well as literal sense.”
Native queer subcultures and community mental health
Native queer subcultures are nested in a quagmire of psychosocial stressors, being subject to multiple structural oppressions as they lie at different interacting axes of marginalization. Especially, the exclusion of native queer subcultures (for instance, Hijra-kothi-trans identities) from formal labour and education translates into their vulnerability to violence.(26) The daily hard-hitting realities of poverty, stigmatization, violence, widespread societal neglect and discrimination, constant migration (not only away from natal homes, but also to a “clandestine” “cultural family”, or from one identity to another)(27) form such a major part of their existence that individuals may seldom have the time, energy, or indeed luxury to contemplate their mental health. This is reflected in the remarkable degree of service under-utilization, except for formal SRS consultations.(28) Survey-and-questionnaire-oriented computations of MH might fail to take on board their particular situations, and they may thus get conveniently left out of epidemiological accounts.
Kalra and Shah,(29) in studying the mental health of 50 self-identified Hijra individuals, observed that the participants had fairly good self-esteem, explainable as due to their subcultural assimilation. This finding must motivate MHPs to identify the various factors that help override marginalization and preserve self-esteem for community members. Other coping strategies that emerged included talking to other Hijras, visiting religious places, meditating, music, movies, substance use – all rich emic entry points for imagining community wellbeing.
The need for intersectoral engagement
NGOs and local community action networks could play a significant role in introducing MH care interventions which focus on dealing with structural oppressions and on resilience-building in native queer subcultures. Beyond clinics, MH could be addressed through NGOs’ advocacy with police, attempts to reduce violence, and links with health services.(30) This role might be expanded to include provision of nutrition, basic necessities such as shelter and clothing, community centers, outpatient care, acute hospital admissions (advocacy for allocation of wards), rehabilitation and vocational programs to preserve wellbeing.
The fact that the special MH needs of this population can be addressed by intersectoral collaboration across law, social work, health services, and public policies needs to be recognized, and used to inform practice. For instance, Pehchan (a program that aims to strengthen community systems and provide access to health, legal, and social services for MSM and trans-Hijra populations across India) has shown how collectivization and gender-afﬁrming approaches are useful in increasing service access and demand for MH services.(31)
1) “Queer” as a term encompasses any form of sexual and gender non-conformity and is a disruptive, diverse and plural lens for looking at phenomena, leaving scope for endless possibilities and digressions.
2) The term “subculture” as used here to refer to a subversion of “normalcy”/the dominant societal standard in any form that unites like-minded individuals and facilitates a sense of identity.
3) There is a preponderance of the male-assigned body in native queer subcultural formations. This has important ramifications for engaging with the sexualities and transgressions of female-assigned bodies in non-metropolitan India, which has not been taken up in the context of the present article. However, it is to be noted that the Hijra samaj does consist of Chhibris – who are female-assigned individuals with “fake” Hijra identities.
Editor’s note: The views expressed on the Pehchan program do not represent the views of MHI and we are cognizant of valid community critiques of the Pehchan program.