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Queerness and Mental health: narratives from spaces of learning

One comes to university with their hearts filled with hope and this hope takes on different forms. Sometimes it’s the hope for access to more open and inclusive spaces, sometimes it’s a desire to learn or even mere longing for a sense of belongingness. However, more often than not these spaces are not as kind to some identities and their desires. On top of this, the painful silence that exists around the mental health concerns of individuals in these spaces invalidates the very real ways in which these concerns affect lives. Therefore, in this article, I want to understand the intersection of these experiences: navigate through some such experiences of sexually queer individuals located in these spaces of learning, and the ways in which popular perceptions of the identities they embody have affected their mental health. 

Simran Singh, a queer woman and student of economics at St. Stephen’s college, emphasises the lack of access to and understanding of ideas such as heteronormativity and internalised misogyny, and how this influenced the way she thought about questions regarding her own sexual identity.

“Where does one belong?”

“I am from Kanpur and this is something that’s true, I think, for most tier 2 or 3 cities– sexuality is not considered an important thing or even something that one should be talking about. So, growing up, and maybe even now, I viewed sexuality as if it was something that belonged to other people, those who deserve to talk about it.”

She also spoke about how lacking a sense of belongingness with the spaces she navigates through as a sexually queer individual had and continues to affect her mental health

“I have never known where I belong, like I know I don’t belong with people back home and even in these academic spaces.”

Another student from the same college, who identifies as a bisexual woman, vocalised her concerns about the ways in which exploring one’s sexual identity as a woman, seen as an act of rebellion against heteronormativity and assertion of female agency, is shamed even in university spaces. 

“Exploring my sexual identity, particularly in non-monogamous relationships, was looked down upon in a lot of ways because of the way monogamy is so entrenched in everyone’s ideas about how relationships operate. So, when I broke up with someone to hook up with other people just to be in a fluid relationship, it didn’t go down very well. I think just exploring your sexuality and being free and putting yourself out there, especially as a woman, comes with a lot of shaming.”

She went on to talk about how her identity as a bisexual woman, particularly the attraction that she felt towards women, was to an extent invalidated by her partner and that conversations revolving around these subjects necessarily entail performing excessive amounts of emotional labour.

“I always had to tell my partner about these experiences. One thing that was a problem was that my partner was seemingly okay with the idea of my sexual intimacy with women as opposed to men. I felt that somewhere my bisexual identity was not being taken seriously. But yes, on having a conversation with my partner, emotionally expending a lot of energy, it became fine.”

The popular imagination of a family is entrenched in heteronormativity and Supriya also elaborated on her own struggles with the social institution of family and the demands it places against the sexualities of those located within these structures. 

“So, my sister is also homosexual and even though she is mostly out to our mom, mom’s in denial and has always used me to try and find out about my sister’s sexual identity. The things that come up in these conversations make it difficult for me to tell my mother that I am bisexual and the times when I have tried to hint at it, she has brushed it aside. Once my sister is in a relationship with a woman and our mom can no longer deny that her oldest daughter is really gay, then her hope for a ‘normal’ relationship, marriage and grandchildren comes from me and I know that that’s going to be a very overwhelming thing for me.”

Mental Health and space for conversations around it.

Another student, who identifies herself as a bisexual woman, with a preference for females, and a poet, anchoring herself in the written word, spoke at length about internalising hatred towards her sexual orientation, the psychosomatic nature in which its effects on her mental health materialised and the reductive exercise of naming her identities. 

“I grew up in a socio-cultural setup where heterosexuality is the norm. The religion I was born into, like every Semitic religion, had advocated that any deviation from heterosexuality was a sin that you choose to commit. The media would describe the same as ‘against the laws of nature’. So, I was conditioned by all these elements. As I grew older, I became acquainted with my gender identity and sexual orientation. The notions that were programmed into me came into conflict with them. My body was the battlefield and I had been cruel to it as well. With every passing day, I would be feeling disgusted about my feelings. I abhorred my body and got increasingly estranged from it. 

In the rural setting where I grew up, mental health was not only stigmatized but also invalidated as a concept. Once a doctor had diagnosed that my physical ailments are psychosomatic. Whatever’s troubling my mind manifests on my body. Mental health also became a matter of class privilege because people could barely afford treatments for physical illnesses. 

Coming to a metropolitan like Delhi, was perhaps the most liberating experience for me. Within the space of college, gender identities and sexual orientations were talked in the most alienating language and expressed in symbols that didn’t resonate with me at all. The obsession with romanticising homosexuality involves deliberately turning a blind eye to the more pressing issues like violence perpetrated on people who do not identify with the default labels. Despite all this, seeing people openly express their identities really helped me come to terms with mine. Gradually, I started to listen to my body. I was learning to make peace with it. 

Accepting my identities was necessary for me to love myself. Naming them is simultaneously empowering and reductive.”

As someone who is still trying to locate herself on the spectrum of sexual identities, trying to understand the non-essentializing, fluid nature of these identities themselves, there have been, and still are, times when I have sought comfort and warmth in the voices and stories of others like me. Through this anecdotal presentation of the mental health struggles of a few sexually queer individuals across St. Stephen’s College, one hopes to extend this sense of warmth and solidarity to other sexually queer folks located in spaces of learning, engaged in battles with stigmatization and invalidation of their identities and experiences. 

About the Author:

Anushka Maheshwary: She is a queer feminist and student of philosophy at St.Stephen’s College, who’s a little tired of speculative metaphysics and a lot in love with queer fanfiction and Audre Lorde.

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