The Lede
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The Fragility Of Gender
Tamil Nadu

The Fragility Of Gender

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

Photo courtesy: Sahodaran NGO

Editor’s note: In this 4-part series, The Lede delves into an aspect of transgender lives that is largely ignored – mental health. Studies point to the fact that a frightening majority of transgenders attempt suicide before of the age of 18-20. In this series, The Lede attempts to get to the root of the cause for such mental distress, the lack of access to counseling and therapy and the need for awareness during teenage years to shield our youngsters from suicide risk.

Part 04: Of Sensitive Boys And Tomboyish Girls

Gender non-conforming children are a small population, but with high incidence of mental health issues due to lack of awareness and acceptance

Jovin, 27, was born with the anatomy of a girl, and the mentality of a boy. “I stayed in a hostel till I was 13, and all the girls would ask me why I stayed away from them. I could never feel like a girl; I was just attracted to them. I realised I was different only when I was 15, after puberty. I started trying on my dad’s clothing in private,” he recounted. When his deviance became known at home, he was tied up and tortured, resulting in several suicide attempts. “At 20, I left home, but didn’t know what to do, where to go,” said Jovin.

For the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community, the mental stress starts early in life. By the time they are in their teenage years, they become aware that there is a mismatch between their physical and emotional self. Unable to analyse what this means, or express it adequately, they start behaving in ways which are not accepted by mainstream society. “Most often, when a boy is feminine, other boys in the school start bullying him. They become completely confused because they don’t know why they like female dresses or accessories. They don’t have the ability to control those impulses as well. So when they act on that, parents and others come down heavily on them. That’s when they realise this is not acceptable; they go into a shell and carry out their behaviour in private,” explained Lakshmi Vijaykumar, mental health expert. The secrecy and shame, she added, results in reduced self-esteem as they grow older.

But, it is not rare to see sensitive boys and tomboyish girls grow up to identify with the gender they are assigned at birth. Sometimes, a young girl could exhibit masculine characteristics because of social and environmental factors – for example: a parent might dress her up and treat her like a boy for want of a male child. In such cases, the behaviour changes as the years progress. However, when the same happens because of an emotional or psychological non-conformation to their assigned gender, the child usually grows up to be on the LGBT spectrum. “The problem is real, it is not imaginative. Medicines like anti-depressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs) can be used for emotional support, but the underlying problem can’t be changed, it needs to be accepted,” said Dr C Ramasubramanian, State Nodal Officer of the District Mental Health Program in Tamil Nadu.

He offered the example of an MSc student who came to him for counselling. “She reported sleeplessness, aggression, drug abuse and schizophrenic symptoms, making me wonder if there was a past trauma like rape. But all she said was that she didn’t like her proposed groom. It was only under the influence of pentathol (commonly known truth serum) that she revealed that even thought she had grown up as a woman, she was a man in her thoughts and feelings. Her parents just couldn’t deal with it.” Usually, problems arising from psychological stress due to gender identity receive psychiatric attention only when the person is an adult – sometimes, only after additional pressures arise, like marriage. As children, however, they suffer in lonely silences.

The Problem Of Social And Family Exclusion

“Inevitably, it’s the family that identifies what is happening with the child, and they become very distressed by this and exhibit that in a negative way,” said Dr Lakshmi. When there is turmoil in the household with one parent blaming the other, it makes the child feel responsible for the tension, causing additional pressure.

Olga Aaron, a transwoman activist working for social inclusion of transgender people, said that majority of gender non-conforming children face abuse and have no one to turn to. “These children are not supported, they are suppressed. Sometimes parents just say ‘this is how people will treat you if you don’t conform’,” said Olga.

Peer bullying in school, lack of understanding from teachers and no family support often leaves these children feeling unaccepted by the same people most individuals turn to for support. “Since they can’t be open, many kids now go online and find pornography, or become prey to predators. They get caught in difficult situations – they get into relationships for sexual release, and they could get into trouble and might start stealing from home,” said Dr Lakshmi. Sometimes, children leave home, abandoning their education and their family, and try to survive the streets while looking for those who will accept them for who they are.

“Gender non-conforming children are a small population, but they need to be given importance to prevent an individual from major psychiatric problems. Also, the family suffers,” said Dr Ramasubramanian. While identification of the problem is possible through behavioural cues, acceptance and accommodation of the same remains the biggest problem as well as the biggest cause for stress.

What Can Be Done?

“While there is realisation about the issue, the scale is not very alarming. But we are conscious that the LGBT community is aware of the problem, as are government and mental health professionals. There is need to create greater awareness to increase acceptance amongst near and dear ones,” said J Radhakrishnan, Principal Secretary to the Tamil Nadu Govenment, Health and Family Welfare Department. The first step for this, he added, is that media and films need to be more sensitive and less stereotypical in their portrayal of individuals from the LGBT spectrum.

“Family is a sense of security, a sense of identity. Intervention for the family is most important because, for them, it is a rude shock. Their ego is shattered, their reputation is at stake. It can be very stressful for them as well. They also require counselling and should form a network amongst themselves,” recommended Dr Ramasubramanian.

But beyond the family, a child also needs support in educational institutions. “Every school is supposed to have a sex education class, which no one talks about. First off, teachers are not equipped to deal with and talk about this (issues pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation), so how will they communicate with students?” asked Dr Lakshmi.

Gender non-conforming children are at a higher risk of abuse, anxiety and aggression, loneliness, worthlessness, guilt, depression and other mental health issues. “We need gender non-conforming children recognised through policy, but there is none. Sensitising people is begging them to accept you for who you are, but having a policy in place gives you certain rights you can demand. Without policy, sensitisation won’t work,” opined Olga Aaron.

She added that the UN’s child policy, which is used all over the world, has a section for children with special needs. “In 2010, children with learning disabilities were added to this list, spurring more conversations about the subject. Gender non-conforming children need to be included as well, so that there is awareness and legal protection for such children who are abused, bullied, shunned and driven away from their homes,” said Olga, reiterating that the lack of legal recognition and protection is contributing to social and family exclusion, which is why many transgender children grow up to engage in begging and prostitution due to lack of survival options.

Currently, the odds are against children who are gender non-conforming. There is little recognition of the issue, and even lesser acceptance of the same. So for these children, the stress of being themselves is compounded as they grow older, making them easy candidates for severe mental health issues.