(This story was first published in 2021. It has been republished from the FIT archives to mark the fourth anniversary of the reading down of Section 377 of the IPC.)
Therapy can save lives, but Mental health practitioners, can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to the wellbeing of queer people.
"I hope no other person has to go through something like this," says Reyansh Naarang, a non-binary queer rights activist, while recalling his experience with mental health practitioners in the past.
What happens when the system that is in place to heal, to support and help you grow, turns into an ordeal that threatens your wellbeing?
This is what going to therapy is like for many people of the LGBTQIA+ community.
From invalidation, and humiliation, to the threat of outing, and in extreme cases, abusive conversion therapy, mental health practitioners, in many cases, do more harm to people of the queer community than good.
LGBTQIA+ activist and therapists speak to FIT about why mental health support for queer people can only begin with queer affirmative therapy.
On May 2020, Anjana Hareesh, a 21 Year old bisexual woman, died by alleged suicide.
In her last live video, Anjana recounts the physical and mental abuse her family inflicted on her with the help of doctors at mental health facilities.
"Because of the medicines and injections they gave me, the person called 'Anjana Hareesh' has disappeared."Anjana Hareesh, in her last Live video
But, unfortunately, Anjana's experience is not a unique one.
Speaking of the kind of abuse that queer people are often put through by medical practitioners, queer rights activist, Ankit Bhuptani says,
"As an activist, I know quite a few cases wherein parents, or their family members, or the friends have taken the queer child to such practitioners who are mental health professionals but are not queer-friendly, and they have claimed that they would be able to change the gender identity, or sexual orientation or gender expression of this person."Ankit Bhuptani, Queer Rights Activist
"I know cases wherein a child has been put under lock-in their own home. They live like a prisoner within their own home," he adds.
Invalidating, Humiliating: When Safe Spaces Turn Hostile
"Most clients come expecting therapy to be safe because therapy is supposed to be a safe space. The question is not what kind of harm can we do. It is, what harm have we not already done?" asks Ipsa James, a freelance queer affirmative psychotherapist based in Delhi.
"Just looking at the history of psychology is enough to tell us about the harm that has been done towards queer people and other minorities," she adds.
"I remember being 16 going to the therapist only to hear this medical professional talk about how indirectly directly my queerness was something intuitively wrong with me."Reyansh Naarang
"And this is not something that they say to your face. This is something they make sure you're aware of. Because they know that the parent has brought the child there," they add.
Reyansh goes on to say, "as a queer person, a closeted queer person, you would go to a therapist and your first instinct would be to find out if that person is queer affirmative or not, whether they will invalidate my experiences or not."
Why Do We Need Queer Affirmative Therapists?
"There is a need for queer affirmative therapists in India because no child should grow up thinking that there is something instinctively morally or religiously wrong with them."Reyansh Naarang
Pooja Nair, another queer affirmative therapist explains this further.
"Largely, a lot of people are getting out of educational institutes learning or knowing more about how to cure queer people rather than how to support queer people."
She speaks of licenced medical professionals that continue to peddle, often abusive and violent, 'corrective' treatments like conversion therapy.
"Living as a queer and trans person in a cis heterosexual world, in a world that sees LGBTQ people as invalid as abnormal, takes a toll."Pooja Nair, mental health practioner
"There are costs and consequences of being queer in a cis-heterosexual world," she adds.
"That's when you also need, we're affirmative mental health care, in order to support yourself as a queer and trans person in a sort of hostile difficult unsupportive world," says Pooja.
Rishi Talwar, another queer affirmative therapist, speaks of the Meyer's minority stress model.
"What this model basically says is that we all experience stress and mental health issues to some exttend or other, but when you come from a marginalised or nonnormative identity, there is an additive affect."Rishsi Talwar, psychotherapist
In such cases, he adds, the stress tends to compound, "because you're dealing with the same stresses that cis-heterosexual people are dealing with, but there is an additional layer of stress of dealing with your identity, yoursocial norms, friends, family and navigating these."
'I see you': Queer-Friendly vs Queer Affirmative
"Very simply, we can say that the difference between queer-friendly and queer affirmative is like you can say, queer-friendly would be like, 'okay, you exist. I think that's cool. Affirmative would be like, 'I see you. I acknowledge. I acknowledge your struggles, your pride in being yourself.'"Ipsa James, psychotherapist
"I think most of the places that I worked at had regressive views. As a queer person, even I had been on the receiving end of those," she adds.
"What stuck with me was them not standing up against 377, not empowering queer patients, that they weren't calling out other therapists for things like conversion therapy," Ipsa says, speaking what led her to affirm herself in her practice.
'It starts with acknowledging your limitations as a therapist.'
For the queer affirmative therapist, the first step is always to acknowledge that one's own training has not equipped oneself to work with the queer and trans communities.
That we may have passed out of Institutes where the curriculum was pathologizing and medicalizing queer identities and did not really give us enough to support queer and trans people in their journeys.
"Being queer affirmative means always doing that bit of extra for your client going that extra mile...to do that extra for the LGBTQ community in their mental health journeys in order to support them in this very, very hostile world."Pooja Nair, a mental health practitioner