Bringing the struggles of lesbians, bisexual women and transmasculine community to the mainstream, Sonal Giani, a senior technical advisor (Diversity and Inclusion – South Asia region) at International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), New Delhi, wrapped up the first day of “Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India” – a Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course by the Gender Impacts Study Centre (GISC) on behalf of IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute of India on the instance of Pride Month.
Drawing from the personal experience and to give the attendees an insight into the struggles the queer community faces on a day-to-day basis in a still narrow-minded Indian society, Miss Sonal Giani shared her story of growing up as a queer in Goa and the challenges she faced. It was in the seventh grade when Miss Giani realized that she had feelings for girls. Being very close to her sister, when she shared these feelings with her sister, she was ridiculed as a ‘lesbian’.
It was thus at a very young age that Miss Sonal felt the need to hide and suppress her feelings from others to save herself from being discriminated against.
Miss Sonal pointed out how just like her, there are thousands of individuals out there who have the exact same feeling of being different from others. She stated that “ The root of this widespread discrimination and marginalization against LBT individuals is not because of hatred amongst the society but because of their utter ignorance towards it.”
There is thus a need to educate people about these gender issues through queer affirmative educational curriculum and policies, since it is only then that these challenges can be overcome and an understanding will develop in the society.
Goa, is well known for its varied tourist attractions and beautiful beaches and thus is perceived to be quite liberal. However, being from a small town in Goa, Miss Giani revealed that it was no different than any other part of the country. She faced the same prejudice towards her as a queer resident from any other area.
In her journey, her mother played a significant support figure in her life. She helped her daughter go through the phase of identifying her true identity and saving her from depression when everyone at her college got to know about her as a rumor and joke. The whole incident made her realize how limited sex education leads to misinformation and stigma right from schools and colleges. She thus stated that it is really important to educate children around the themes of gender and sexuality to prevent LGBTQIA+ children to face bullying, isolation, slut shaming and discrimination for who they are.
From schools to workplace, Miss Sonal stated that the queer are made to feel outcasts everywhere. According to statistics India loses up to $32 billion in GDP (1.7% of GDP) due to homophobia and transphobia. Despite legal protections (Southern Railway v. Rangachari, 1962 & KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India, 2017), transgender people still face wrongful termination and transphobic work environments.
As a employer at a hotel, Miss Giani herself faced sexual harassment when her identity was not kept confidential in the organization, which motivated her to work for developing workplace policies to ensure a safe and inclusive environment for LBT employees at all levels of management.
The intolerance against the queer community is so much so that parents and society often force unscientific “conversion” therapies to “cure” homosexuality and gender identity, including hormone therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and physical/sexual abuse. Miss Giani referred to Kerala, which saw a high number of forced treatments during the pandemic, including cases of starvation, inciting shame or guilt, and forced heterosexual marriages.
Subsequently this takes toll on the mental state of the individuals who from society pressure, bullying , family rejection become patients of acute depression, anxiety, suicide attempts etc.UNICEF report highlights higher prevalence of mental health stressors among LGBTQ+ youth, including suicide attempts, anxiety, and depression.
Building on her own fight with depression and suicidal thoughts, Miss Sonal said that it is really very important to have support from family and friends during the transition stage.
Furthermore, she added that during the transition process many people desire gender affirmative surgery. However, high cost and less accessibility to such surgeries form a major barrier for the community. In 2021, the SMILE plan of Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY was expanded to encompass transgender people but because gender-affirming operations are viewed as cosmetic, most health insurance policies do not cover them which highlights the need for better insurance coverage and availability.
Miss Sonal Giani concluded the session by giving various recommendations for making the world a better place for all genders, which includes:
- Enforce a countrywide prohibition on conversion therapy and offer survivors assistance, including legal remedies and mental health services
- Improve access to queer-affirming mental health practitioners and support groups to improve mental health care for LBT people.
- Increased availability of gender-affirming medical services, including operations, hormone therapy, and gender-affirming apparel
- Update medical education to remove prejudices towards LGBTQ+ people, ensuring that healthcare professionals are informed and attentive to the needs of the community
- Encourage and support research that focuses on the health and wellbeing of LBT people and addresses the particular obstacles and problems they encounter.
From acting in movies to making independent movies, Miss Sonal has dedicated her life to uplift the queer community and secure them the basic human rights that every person deserves. She has co-founded Umang, a support group for lesbian, bisexual women & Transmen, and Yaariyan, a youth initiative of The Humsafar Trust which facilitates youth access to health and social support. By converting her feeling from SHAME TO PRIDE, she has set on to help others to transform their shame to pride as well.
In the end, she encouraged the attendees to reach out to her in any phase of life they felt her need to understand them and help them identify who they are.
The chairperson, Professor Vibhuti Patel concluded the first day of #Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India by giving her closing remarks that the only solution to the problem at hand is ‘gender responsive budgeting, more awareness and more research’ to create a change in the minds and hearts of people.
Read more session reports from Day 1 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:
Krishti is a Research Intern at IMPRI.